The Troubling Neoliberal Overtones of “Undercover Boss” (Or, How Grad School Will Ruin Television For You, Even If It Leaves You Enough Time to Watch It)

Last winter, a serious paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives made its way around the Internet and popular American press, garnering mostly eye-rolls. The authors of “Who’s the Boss” argued that the Christmas “Elf on the Shelf” tradition, so popular among parents who want to ensure angelic behavior from their small children in the weeks leading up to Christmas, was a whimsical way to prepare little ones to live in a surveillance state. The authors warned that Elf on the Shelf teaches children to “accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures.” If that doesn’t chill you, the authors raise the stakes: Elf on the Shelf “serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon …[and] contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects” (Pinto & Nemorin, 2014). So Elf on the Shelf is a Christmas tradition that’s less George Bailey and more George Orwell.

I was reminded of that paper last week when, taking a break from homework for my doctoral program, I settled in to take in an uplifting episode of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, “Undercover Boss.” The formula of this reality show is simple: The show follows “high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies. Each week, a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their corporation” (“About Undercover Boss”). The show is great fun to watch just for the chintzy wigs they put on the CEOs. And who doesn’t like seeing a white-collar guy break a sweat filling soda bottles or pratfall his way through a loading dock? Each episode ends with the CEO revealing his—yeah, I’ll stick with that pronoun here—true identity to the workers and then, almost invariably, lavishing them with gifts like cash, new cars, scholarships, vacations, or waived franchise fees. The workers often cry (“I just never thought anyone would notice the work I do, but I do it because I love it”) and sometimes, so does the CEO. Television gold, right?

Though I enjoy watching the show—or did, anyway—it has always irked me for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Sure, there are the obvious things, criticisms one could lodge about almost any “reality” show: the backstories of the front-line workers seem cherry-picked for ultimate emotional effect, for example. And then there are discomforts particular to this show. The CEOs are almost invariably white males, while the dupes, hourly workers struggling to care for elderly parents or disabled kids, are almost invariably women, immigrants, and people of color.

But the show really started to fall apart for me when I read Henry Giroux’s (2014) Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. I have to confess that before I started studying for my doctorate, I couldn’t have told you what neoliberalism was. In fact, if I’d been approached by one of those Jay Leno “man on the street/aren’t Americans stupid” segments, I probably would have said that neoliberalism was like liberalism, only newer. But learning what neoliberalism was wasn’t so much an experience of learning a new concept as much as learning that there was a name for phenomena I’d observed. Unfailing trust in the invisible hand of the market? Systematic divesting of public programs, dismissal of the whole idea of a safety net for society’s neediest, privatization of everything from ambulances to prisons to zoos, and fidelity to the ideal of individual profit above all? There’s a word for that, and it’s neoliberalism.

Although Giroux (2014) is concerned in this book with the way neoliberalism is gutting the university and rendering it only a hollow imitation of that rich public sphere that encouraged free thought and open debate, he offers a serviceable (if scathing) definition of neoliberalism in the process. According to Giroux (2014), neoliberalism “privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, … [and] privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not unchecked selfishness” (p. 1). If I had to play the neoliberalist’s advocate, I suppose I would say that the ideology puts utmost faith in the power of individuals to succeed. People don’t need handouts—like, say Head Start or WIC—they just need the right attitude.

Furthermore, Giroux warns, neoliberalism’s “unbridled individualism” (Giroux, 201, p. 2), its obsession with private profit, fuels the military industrial complex that perpetuates wars and encourages the increasing infringement of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. This infringement necessarily causes a widespread feeling of fear, fear that is justified given the expanding role of surveillance in Americans’ lives.

Which brings us back to “Undercover Boss” and its ambush performance reviews. The episode I tuned in to watch the other day was a rerun from 2010 and featured Joseph DePinto, the CEO of 7-Eleven Corporation. The show followed its formula. DePinto donned a wig, called himself “Danny,” and got in the way of several employees including Delores, Waqas, Phil, and Igor, all of whom who were just trying to do their jobs and now had to train this supposed failed realtor while a team of cameras filmed them. These three workers had classically “Undercover Boss” backstories: Delores was slinging more cups of coffee than any other 7-Eleven location while also going for dialysis several times a week and awaiting a kidney transplant; Waqas, an immigrant from Pakistan, worked the night shift in the bakery while pursuing a bachelor’s degree during the day. Phil worked like a dog and spent his shift breaks drawing in his sketchbook and dreaming of being an artist. And Igor, an immigrant from Kazakhstan, spent nights cheerfully stocking his truck and making deliveries to 7-Eleven locations and looking forward to the only two days every week that he got to see his wife.

Lucky for these employees, they performed well under DePinto’s surveillance. And when the time came, each was rewarded. Delores got New York Yankees tickets. Phil got an opportunity to do some “freelance” work in 7-Eleven’s advertising department (paid, I hope). Waqas was offered personal mentorship from DePinto himself. And Igor got a resort vacation with his wife.

By “Undercover Boss” standards, these gifts are relatively modest. CEOs of other companies on the show have been known to dole out large chunks of change (to the tune of $10,000), new cars, rent for a year, or breast augmentation surgery (hey—it was relevant to the employee’s aspirations for success on the job at an institution called Bikinis). Furthermore, touched by Delores’s health issue, DePinto also coughed up a $150,000 donation to an organ-transplant cause and started an organ-donation-awareness campaign in his stores. Inspired by Igor’s up-by-his-bootstraps, nose-to-the-grindstone narrative, DePinto offered Igor his own 7-Eleven franchise and waived the franchise fee. As Igor himself said, “This is American Dream!”

DePinto isn’t the first CEO on the show to discover that his employees are facing hardships and challenges he’s been lucky enough to sidestep. More than one boss, after going undercover, has found that hourly workers are battling health issues, cost-prohibitive childcare, inaccessible education, or all of the above. Moved by these stories, the CEOs usually start emptying their pockets for these employees. And this seeming generosity is exactly what’s problematic: These blue-collar workers’ issues are systematic and widespread, but the bosses on the show address them individually. The show usually includes a clip of the boss returning to his board room and telling his cohorts that they’ve “really got to look into” such-and-such an issue to “better support” the employees, who are the “backbone” of the organization, but that’s about it. How many of these bosses actually revamp their health- or child-care benefits? How many throw money at policies that support continuing education? The emphasis is most certainly individual, not collective—the rewards are designed to address the problems of individuals, not organizations, as if individuals are the cause of, and therefore the solution to, the problem.

In fact, sometimes the gifts lavished on the employees at the end of the show amount to golden handcuffs that serve the ends of the executives while pretending to advance the laborers. Consider, for example, that waived franchise fee for Igor. In the last two years alone, 7-Eleven Corporation has been the object of at least a dozen lawsuits alleging that the company engages in manipulative hardball—and racially motivated—tactics to increase their profits, including illegally spying on franchisees, fabricating sales records, threatening prosecution, and coercing individuals to give up their franchises—so that the corporation can “flip” them for higher franchise fees (Hsu, 2014). Good luck, Igor. This is American Dream.

The CEOs on this show often don’t even pretend to have the employees’ best interests, or aspirations, at heart. Waqas, the immigrant from Pakistan, told DePinto-as-Danny that he didn’t see a real future for himself with 7-Eleven. After the reveal, DePinto addressed Waqas’s sense of a dead-end future with the company, praising him for working so hard to earn a bachelor’s degree while working nights. Waqas said that his real ambition was to return to Pakistan and help poor people, to fight for justice and human rights. In response, DePinto told Waqas that if he instead remained in America working for 7-Eleven, DePinto would personally mentor him. And then, as if remembering that a camera was on him, DePinto lamely added, “If you decide to go back to your country, I think we can help you too.” Call me cynical, but I kind of doubt that any meaningful, long-term help will be on offer from DePinto or 7-Eleven as Waqas fights for social justice in Pakistan.

Ultimately, what’s troublingly neoliberal about “Undercover Boss” is the same thing that makes it irresistible television, and that’s the rags-to-not-exactly-riches story. Igor, for example, came to America in the mid-90s unable to speak English, with $50 in his pocket. When viewers of “Undercover Boss” met him, he’d been working for a decade as an overnight driver for 7-Eleven and was not only fluent in English but fluent in upbeat, self-determined cheer. This guy has a master’s degree in electrical engineering, military experience, and a badass work ethic. As a franchise owner, according a Dallas Morning News piece two years after the show’s airing, he was making netting about $600 a week—and those were 60- to 80-hour weeks—which wasn’t much more than he was making as a driver, though he was working many more hours as a franchisee (Mervosh, 2010). Igor may not be impoverished, and he seems downright thrilled with his work, but that isn’t exactly upward mobility.

“Undercover Boss” is evidence that, as Giroux (2014)suggests, a neoliberalist agenda to preserve and widen a class divide has found “legitimation in a popular culture … of cruelty that promotes and expanding landscape of selfishness, insecurity and precarity that undermines any sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of others” (p. 14). The tacit neoliberal message of stories like Igor’s when framed by “Undercover Boss” seems to be this: See? See what he did? If you are an immigrant, or disabled, or poor, or uneducated, you ought not be struggling. You have a job. You ought to content yourself with the low-paying job you have and work your ass off doing it in the hopes that one day a CEO from corporate will descend in a wig and spy on you and reward you for knowing your place and not crying foul at systematic injustices. The reward you get will be one that purchases your fidelity to the organization while simultaneously ensuring that you will never break through the boardroom door yourself.


“About Undercover Boss.” (n.d.). Retrieved from

Giroux, H.A. (2014). Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Hsu, T. (2014, June 4). “Franchisees allege hardball tactics, store seizures by 7-Eleven.” [Online news article]. Retrieved from

Mervosh, S. (2012, November 19). “Former 7-Eleven truck driver now runs his own Richardson store—exuberantly.” [Online news article]. Retrieved from–exuberantly.ece

Pinto, L., and Nemorin, S. (2014). “Who’s the Boss?: The ‘Elf on the Shelf’ and the normalization of surveillance.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. December 1, 2014. Retrieved January 26, 2015 from

Out of WAC?: Rethinking the Role of English Class in Students’ Writing Lives

Jeffery, J.V., & Wilcox, K. (2014). ‘How do I do it if I don’t like writing?’: Adolescents’ stances toward writing across disciplines. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1095-1117.

Stories matter. Stories are how make sense of the world and my place in it. I don’t much care if the story is fiction or nonfiction; I believe one can learn as much about human capacity, and about oneself, from a made-up story as from a story “ripped from the headlines.” I was in the 10th grade when I decided for certain that stories, even fictional stories, were sources of understanding about the very real world. Mrs. Rubin assigned The Great Gatsby. Dutifully, I read it. Somewhere in the middle I shifted from doing homework to admiring the naive hopefulness of a person’s insisting he could ignore the objective origins of his life and concoct a preferable one, and mourning the hopelessness of doing so, and ruing the sucking undertow of improvident provenance.

In addition to learning this lesson–which, I would guess, some unfortunate people learn the hard way–I also learned that there was some sad mystery I didn’t yet get underlying Daisy’s heartbreak at bearing a girl and hoping that she’d be a beautiful fool. I learned that assigned reading had the power not just to amuse but to astound me, and that the people who wrote the fictions had the most power of all. F. Scott Fitzgerald is buried in the graveyard directly across from my high school–probably a third of a mile from Mrs. Rubin’s classroom, as a crow flies. Even dead, supposedly having rolled under the major road because of soil erosion, he was making a 15-year-old girl feel wise and weepy. Like I said, power.

Oh, Scott. Could you know how many people would read you and name their cats after you?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave  in Rockville, MD.

A source of mock-tension between me and my father, a scientist by both occupation and temperament, is this disagreement: I say stories matter; they may be all that matters. For him, “reading is done with the objective of acquiring needed information or to find the answer to a question or solve a problem” (C. Avery, personal communication, June 15, 2014). Despite this disagreement, we both love to read, and we both love to write. He does value stories (how else would I know that he dreams in black and white, except for a red barn?) and, as the author of E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond (available here), histories.

It is so sweetly fitting that I am now a 10th-grade teacher, and I have the opportunity to introduce my students to the books that will awaken them the way The Great Gatsby did me. When I entered this doctoral program (five long-seeming weeks ago), I thought (knew?) that I wanted to study writing instruction. My fuzzy idea, way back then, was that I wanted to better understand students’ attitudes toward writing, why they seemed to behave (and write!) so differently when they perceived a writing assignment as “creative” versus “academic” (air-quotes because I refuse to accept that any writing is any thing but creative).

What I didn’t know until two nights ago was that stories (the telling, writing, and studying of them) could be not only the subject matter of my research but also the (or a) method of my research as well. I’m talking about discourse analysis, or “the study of language in use” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203). A cross-disciplinary study braiding together linguistics, sociology, and anthropology (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203), discourse analysis in its current state focuses on language as a means of exploring “socially created ideas and things in the world as well as their maintenance over time” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203). Discourse analysis isn’t a fancy word for sentence-diagramming (though it does entail some elegant ways of presenting conversational elements in graph form, and I love sentence-diagramming, as well). Discourse analysis is based on the idea that language, this ordinary thing we use every day, a tool so clumsy even babies use it, is all bound up in power. According to James Paul Gee (2011), “when we use language, social goods and their distributions are always at stake” (p. 7) Consider, for example, my insistence that my students address me as “Ms.,” not “Mrs.,” Decker. The absence of that little lowercase “r” indicates that I do not believe that a woman should have to announce her marital status to colleagues or associates, especially when her male coworkers are not expected to do so; I signal that my marital status is immaterial to my function as a professional. I reject previous decades’ traditions. I announce myself as a feminist. It is personal and it is political. But, according to Gee (2011), “language is always political in a deep sense” (p.7). Discourse analysis can be concerned with the content of people’s communications, the grammatical construct of their communications, or both (Gee, 2011, p. 8).

So yes. Stories matter. Language matters. The language we choose doesn’t just reflect our reality; it helps to construct our reality. For the last few days, I’ve been working to acquaint myself with empirical studies that use discourse analysis. The one I’m going to look at more closely here is very much like the kind of thing I entered this doctoral program thinking I’d like to do. I will walk through the design, data-collection, and discussion of the study and then discuss what it suggests for educators in general as well as what it suggests for me as a neophyte researcher.

Research Questions
The authors of this study wanted to know if and how students’ attitudes and feelings toward writing varied depending on what course or school subject they were writing for. Secondly, they wanted to know whether these feelings or attitudes varied according to the students’ proficiency and performance as writers (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).

Context and Background
Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) make several observations that suggest that their research is both relevant and timely. First of all, the authors point out that the widely adopted but highly controversial Common Core standards emphasize student engagement in “a variety of advanced disciplinary writing tasks” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1095) while simultaneously acknowledging that “a majority of US students are not adequately developing their [writing] abilities prior to high school graduation” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096).

They don’t need to say much to make a compelling case: we hear over and over how crucial writing skills will continue to be for our students’ futures, and yet we all see daily evidence of their profound struggle with writing. I’m sold.

Prior Research
First, the authors acknowledge that while much research has been performed to examine “college-level writing, less is known about variation in writing expectations in secondary school subjects, particularly in subjects other than English language arts (ELA)” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1098).

Secondly, and crucially, the authors point out that existing research into student writing has been largely limited to standards-based outcomes as opposed to students’ own stances toward the writing and their self-concept as writers (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097). Jeffery & Wilcox (2014) argue that “how [students] feel about writing and how they perceive their knowledge of writing have been found to be related to performance on writing tasks” (p. 1096). Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) state emphatically that there is a “dearth of research regarding adolescents’ perceptions of writing across disciplinary contexts” (p. 1098). The authors of this study are very concerned with student agency as defined by Ahearn (as cited in Jeffery & Wilcox):  “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (p. 1096). That is, the authors wanted to know how students felt about themselves, their abilities, and their capacities as writers. Given the overwhelming reliance on “standards-based outcomes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097), student agency has been overlooked in the research. These authors are less concerned with writing success as measured by standardized tests than with “the extent to which students perceive disciplinary writing tasks as opportunities to transform knowledge . . . and become invested participant[s] in the work of the discipline, as opposed to being constructed as the subject of such work” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097). There it is again: power. In this case, who do students perceive to have the power to make them good writers? Themselves? What power do they have as writers–is their power limited to the power to report others’ ideas, or are they empowered, as writers, to make original ideas?

The authors convincingly establish that there is a hole in the research. It’s hard not to agree with their claim that while the nation wrings its hands over Common Core and high-stakes tests, no one’s asking kids themselves how they approach writing, how they feel about it, and what we could do to help them write better. I am always inclined to get on board with a pro-student stance like the one these authors take.

Theoretical Frameworks
Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) operate on trio of theoretical givens: first, they subscribe to “constructivist learning theories, which reject notions of literacy as a static collection of predetermined skills that can be acquired through rote and isolated practice or fully captured in a decontextualized writing event such as a large-scale standardized assessment” (Jonassen & Land, 2000, as cited in Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096). Secondly, they predicate their study on prior writing research that “suggests students’ stances [toward writing] are not fixed but rather are highly susceptible to change over time and across settings (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096). Thirdly, Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) rely on prior research that suggests that “writing competence is not a monolithic construct individuals  automatically transfer from one disciplinary setting to another, but rather is socially co-constructed by individual and disciplinary discourse communities within which they write” (p. 1098). In sum, then, the authors presume that students can be and are literate in ways that schools don’t always honor or value; students feel differently about writing depending on where, why, and for whom they’re doing it; and all people redefine their identity and capability as writers each time they engage in a new writing opportunity.

Given these premises, it makes sense to use discourse analysis for this study. What’s being sought is qualitative data about students’ attitudes toward writing, not empirical data reflecting their skill Analyzing the way they talk about writing is really the only way to get at this information.

The Larger Study
This particular study is embedded within the National Study of Writing Instruction, “which investigated the teaching and learning of writing in middle and high school settings across California, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, and Texas” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).  The larger study relies on interviews, surveys, field observations, and samples of student work (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). That larger study recruited both 43 English learners and 95 native speakers from 10 schools in the aforementioned states (one middle school and one high school from each state) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). Schools were targeted for inclusion that “served larger-than-average populations of low-income students and had above-average literacy achievement outcomes compared with schools serving comparable demographics” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). Furthermore, the researchers sought schools with “a demonstrated commitment to implementing school-wide literacy initiatives” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).

Some aspects of that recruitment criteria give me pause: For one, the authors themselves reject standardized tests as the measure of student proficiency in literacy, yet they use that very data to locate the schools with above-average literacy outcomes. Secondly, they performed their research at sites that, it could be argued, were already doing writing instruction (comparatively) well. My hunch is that student stances toward writing would be at least as telling at sites where writing instruction isn’t going so well. However, the authors are careful to acknowledge and explain their reasoning, stating that they were looking for “exemplary practice as opposed to status quo or weak practice” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p.1100). I maintain that a parallel discourse analysis of schools with weak practice would be hugely beneficial.

This Study
From that larger sample of students, Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) focused on the native speakers of English. Attempting to engage with approximately equal splits between higher-achieving and lower-achieving students, boys and girls, and grade levels, they culled a sample of 40 students–“19 lower-achieving and 21 higher-achieving” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1101). You may be wondering how they identified achievement level among the sample. The answer, again, is standardized tests (in part). They also relied on teacher identification. (I have to raise some reservations here again. The authors themselves dismissed standardized tests as the sole measure of writing skill; teacher identification can also be faulty, although for the inverse reason: standardized tests are cold and fail to reflect the whole student; teachers can bring irrelevant, emotional things to their assessment of students.)

The data collection method for this smaller, embedded study was interview. Interviews were conducted by National Writing Project staff near the end of the school year and were based on a 7-question interview protocol that invited participants to reference, wherever possible, a portfolio of the student’s work from that school year. Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p.1101).

The interview protocol, provided as an appendix to the article, was hugely helpful. The questions were open-ended but substantive, and the number and type of questions seemed appropriate for both high school and middle school students (that is, they left room for  students to be as abstract and self-reflective as their maturity would permit) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1113). Interviews were then reviewed, parsed, and graphed on a stance matrix to organize them. Organizing the students’ communications in the stance matrix meant rearranging their syntax and, at times, inverting word order so that student responses could be compared side by side (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1102). Data was triangulated among researchers to ensure validity.

I would have preferred more tables, as I am very visual. If there were phrases or words that came up time and again, I would have liked a list of those coded by their frequency of utterance.

Since the research questions revealed a concern with student stances toward writing against two other variables (a) subject or discipline and b) level of achievement), I will present the most crucial findings in bullet-list form here, arranged according to those two factors:

A. Stances Toward Writing Across Disciplines

  • Of all the positive stances toward writing, 74% were about writing in English language arts (ELA) settings (with 14% for social studies, 9% for science, and 3% for math) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1103).
  • Of all the negative stances toward writing, 44% were about writing in ELA settings (with 18% for social studies, 19% science, and 9% math) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1103).
  • The authors argue that the fact that students generated more responses of both types, positive and negative, toward writing in ELA settings is attributable to their simply doing most of their writing there.
  • Students tended to characterize ELA writing as “allowing latitude for ‘voice’ and ‘opinion’; whereas they tended to characterize writing in other subjects as limited to ‘facts’ and ‘accuracy'” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1104). As for a revelation that wouldn’t come from a purely quantitative study, discourse analysis revealed that students frequently “used language suggestive of capacity (e.g., ‘room,’ ‘space’), signaling their sense of agency” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1104). Correspondingly, students associated negative writing experiences with rigidity, constraint, and rules (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1105).

B. Stances Toward Writing Across Student Achievement Level

  • Students of both achievement levels, at all grade levels, “were united in their preference for writing involving subjective engagement, which they were more likely to associate with their ELA classes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1106).
  • However, students of lower achievement levels “expressed stances only toward extended writing in ELA, implying that they were asked to produce little if any such writing in other classes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). I must point out that this sentence makes me crazy. The “only” appears to be misplaced, obscuring meaning. To be consistent with what I believe their intended meaning to be, the sentence should read as follows: “[Students] expressed stances toward extended writing only in ELA”–that is, they did not express these stances toward extended writing in science class. As written, a possible meaning is that the students in question expressed stances toward extended writing exclusively and not toward other kinds of writing (in ELA classes).
  • Higher-achieving students were more likely to point out that classes other than ELA offered opportunities for subjective, knowledge-making writing as opposed to rote repetition of facts and figures. Students at lower levels of achievement did not really broach the idea that ELA offered room for opinions, and other classes did not (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1109). The authors attribute this finding to the fact that at lower levels of achievement, students are not required or invited to do much writing in classes other than English. Therefore, for these students, writing in ELA means essays and personal narratives, whereas writing in math and social studies means worksheets (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). This is an alarming finding (more on that later).

Discussion and Potential Application and Extension
These data are somewhat heartening (and affirming of my default belief), as they suggest that students sincerely want to write. Students prefer writing tasks that give them a chance to have and refine ideas to tasks that ask them to ploddingly report others’ ideas. Who can blame them? So do I. Furthermore, most of the teachers I know want authentic, original, personal writing from their students. Some people may infer from the data that students prefer tasks they perceive to be subjective and open because those tasks are easier. The most cynical among us might scoff and say, “Well sure! Writing your own opinion or ‘what I did this summer’ is easier than researching facts! These students are afraid of rigor.” I don’t think these data suggest that students want the easy way out. Here again discourse analysis gives us more to work with than a raw score or metric would. Here are some of the things the student writers said they wanted out of writing opportunities:

  • Leon, a sophomore, said his favorite writing assignment was a “uniform position paper” written for ELA because he got to take a stand and argue for it. Leon also declared, “I love school” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1107). Incidentally, Leon was coded as one of the lower-achieving students.
  • Joe, one of the higher-achieving sophomores, named an essay on A Doll’s House as his favorite assignment because he “got to analyze” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1106).
  • Katy, an eighth-grader, was most proud of a story she wrote after reading The Diary of Anne Frank,saying that she was “proud because of that piece because I felt it was the closest I could get to the character. I did a lot of research and understood a lot more” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). Katy’s comment suggests that the kinds of writing students prefer can also lead to the kinds of writing generally thought to be rigorous and demanding.  Interestingly, Katy named her least favorite assignment as a creative-sounding math assignment in which she had to design a comic book to explain a math concept to a second-grader. At first, this seems surprising, and I feel empathy for that poor math teacher who probably thought she was giving the kids just what they wanted (comic books! In math! Creative!). My interpretation is that Katy didn’t enjoy it because it had the trappings of creativity without affording her the chance to discover something new, by way of either self-reflection or research.

This study also suggests that students and (some) teachers are aligned on another belief, even if they don’t declare it outright: Writing is supposed to happen in English class. Anywhere else is a stretch at best, an outrage at worst. One of the lower-achieving student participants was quoted as saying, “I’m pretty sure good writing is the same for all classes. They don’t talk about writing in history or science” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). This quarantine is most pronounced at lower levels of achievement. A higher-achieving student said that “In science, good writing deals with relating things, relating and describing processes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1109). This gets back to agency: By giving higher-achieving students more opportunities to do substantial, academic writing outside of the English classroom, teachers give these students more opportunities to see themselves as crucial and original constructors of knowledge. When we give lower-achieving kids no opportunities to do real writing in subjects other than English, we contribute to a diminishing of their agency (when they’re probably feeling less agentive to begin with!): We tell them they ought to be mostly passive vessels through which facts should pass without getting messed up.

Furthermore, when we don’t include real and meaningful writing across the curriculum (WAC) for students at all achievement levels, we fail to prepare students for college. Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) point out that “studies conducted in college settings have shown how students struggle to navigate variation in disciplinary expectations regarding source-based writing tasks” (p. 1111). As it stands, the onus of teaching students general rhetorical techniques tends to rest on the ELA teachers’ shoulders, and yet “research on college writers suggests it is students’ limited knowledge of how to argue and to support claims with evidence in a particular discipline–rather than their facility with general argumentative writing technique–that accounts for much of their struggle transitioning to college writing” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1111). Recall that one of the premises of this research was that writing proficiency isn’t a fixed thing that is transferable across all occasions, disciplines, and tasks. We can’t simply teach kids how to write (in English class) and then expect them to write well in their demanding college science courses. Well, we can, and do, but it’s not working.

But let’s also think past college. We need to acknowledge, and impart to our students, that “subject-area learning is not just about the reproduction of knowledge and information within the boundaries of the subject. . . . It is also about the production of knowledge and the making of personal meanings”  (Green, 1988, p. 163). Our job is not to teach them literacy (as a body of skills) but to teach them to be literate (as a mechanism of interacting with a culture). They may not leave high school literate in all disciplines, but they should have some idea of how to go about becoming literate in whatever fields or communities they join. We need to emphasize that literacy is context-dependent, and that “it is never simply a case of being literate in and of itself but of being literate with regard to something, some aspect of knowledge or experience” (Green, 1988, p. 160).

It is through writing that we accomplish the above, as “writing is not simply the transcription of meaning but very often works actively, in various ways and in varying degrees, as the discovery and production of meaning” (Green, 1988, p. 159). It’s especially important that we ask lower-achieving students to write substantially and meaningfully in all subjects. They more than anyone need practice and support in critical and abstract thinking, and “what is significant in the use of written language is that it enables the user to take up a more abstract, reflexive stance towards texts and so one’s own thinking and processing of meaning” (Green, 1988, p. 164)

This is all very pie-in-the-sky, I know. We oughta, we oughta, we oughta. It’s also the same-old writing across the curriculum (WAC) debate. I believe that students should be writing across the curriculum, and I acknowledge that the “optics” of an English teacher demanding of the algebra teacher why she’s not teaching writing are not great. As Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) point out, “teachers will need far more support around writing instruction than they are currently receiving” (p. 1112). We can, and should, start slow. We can’t expect our first attempts to have students write in geometry, for example, to yield great results. We’ve spent years training students that to engage with math and science, for example, is to stay outside of it, keep their opinions to themselves, and not get their hands dirty. But the more we invite them to write in and about all courses, the better their writing, and thinking, will get. Teachers are likely to experience some discomfort as well. Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) recommend that “content-area teachers who have not received substantive training in literacy instruction may begin with the gradual introduction of ‘writing to learn’ approaches that are less formal and perhaps less daunting than extended, multiple draft assignments” (p. 1112).

But I’d like to go one step further, and maybe this will assuage some of those math and science teachers who balk at an English teacher pushing writing in “their” courses. I’d like to expand the role of the teachers who are comfortable and masterful in teaching writing. Even as we push for writing across the curriculum (WAC) as described above, I’d like to see (and teach!) a required class that I envision as CAW: Content Area Writing. Other names are possible, but let’s play with CAW for a moment. In this dream class, a master teacher of writing would support students as they worked on individual writing assignments conceived or assigned in other classes. It would work almost like a thesis committee, in that students would come to CAW class working on an extensive piece of writing for some other class (biology for example). The biology teacher would serve as the content committee member while the CAW teacher, meeting frequently with the student writer as well as the subject area teacher in conference, guides the student through research, drafting, mechanics, revision, and presentation. Students in the class could have choice in terms of what course they want to use to develop their CAW project or, over the course of a year, students could work on a writing for each of their courses (English would remain a class separate from CAW). Although my initial design for this class entailed its being a senior course, the study I read encouraged me to rethink it as a freshman course, to start giving students subject-specific literacy in their most developmental years.

What students from this study enjoyed most about writing was feeling like they mattered in it–they were implicated, involved. People who don’t teach teenagers every day love to tell me how apathetic kids are these days, how lazy and unoriginal they are. My own experience contradicts that opinion, as does this study. In short, if we don’t ask students to write–really write–about the subjects we’re teaching them, we’re not allowing them to truly engage in the material. in fact, we’re keeping them from learning.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Gee, J.P. (2011). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (3rd edition). New York, NY: Routledge.

Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.

Jeffery, J.V., & Wilcox, K. (2014). ‘How do I do it if I don’t like writing?’: Adolescents’ stances toward writing across disciplines. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1095-1117.

Souto-Manning, M. (2014). Critical for whom? Theoretical and methodological dilemmas in critical approaches to language research. In D. Paris and M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 201-220). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.



The Physical is Political: An (Uneasy) Case for Disability Studies in the High School Curriculum

At the risk of taxing, annoying, or boring you, dear reader, I’m going to go to that well again. I’m going to talk about my arthritis (again). I’m going to write about arthritis (again) because, as Blackburn (2014) argues, “a writer is obliged, both personally and politically, to write about, and thus to name, that which others use to oppress us” (p. 54). In this discussion, I’d like to explore my identity as a person with arthritis and my identity as a teacher, as well as the efforts I’ve made to keep those identities somewhat separate. I also hope to explore the feasibility, implications, and emotional risk of bringing those identities together–that is, to be a teacher with arthritis teaching students about disability studies.

Now, I want to be careful and explicit here: I do not, generally, go around feeling oppressed. As an educated, white, middle-class woman, I benefit from my race and class privilege regularly. As I’ve declared elsewhere, I have an ambivalent relationship to the label “disabled” because of the erratic-but-progressive nature of my illness (rheumatoid arthritis). Nevertheless, I have paid my entry fee, whether I wear the badge or not. The abbreviated inventory, shared here only for the purposes of establishing my “crip cred”:

The little boy in Target who harangued his mother, at top volume, about me: “What is wrong with that lady’s legs what is wrong with that lady’s legs mommy mommy mommy what is wrong with that lady’s legs?”; the man at the bar who asked, “Why are you walking like a cripple? Are you a cripple?”; the car full of boys tearing through a stoplight as I limped across who hollered, “Gimp!”; the 7th-grade P.E. teacher who said, in front of the class, “It’s a shame your body is falling apart at such a young age” and later in the year accused me of making the whole thing up; any number of strangers whose choice of conversation-starter is “What is wrong with you?” There. That’s out of the way. Further references available upon request.

The above list should give you some sense of the ways in which people with disabilities are “dehumanized, that is, made less human by having their individuality, creativity, and humanity taken away, as when one is treated like a number or an object” (Blackburn, 2014, p. 43). And my list is relatively mild. I want to revisit that moment in Target for a moment because I was struck by how similar it was to Fritz Fanon’s attempt (as cited in Rosaldo, 1994) of the “social experiment of trying to ignore his skin color. When he envisions himself as a neutral figure in a public place, his reverie is interrupted by a white child who notices him” (p. 188). The “frightened” child calls for his mother and, as he cowers from Fanon, repeatedly yells “Look, a Negro!” (as cited in Rosaldo, 1994, p. 188).

Certainly some profound differences exist between Fanon’s anecdote, taking place as it did in the 1960s and transpiring between a black man and a white child, and my Target episode, which took place in 2004 between two (three, if you count the mother, who did nothing) white people. There was not the same power differential between me and the child who called me out as between Fanon and his tormentor. However, I would argue that the child so bothered by my legs, like other people (not just children) I’ve encountered, was motivated in good part by fear: fear of a nonstandard body with its scars, lurching gait, curled digits.  Like Fanon, my reverie was also interrupted. I thought I was buying a greeting card on my way home from work. In this moment and others, by daring to go about in a troubled body, I was jarringly yanked from the personal to the public, asked to answer for my body’s wrongness, to sate strangers’ curiosity, and to assuage others’ anxieties. Just as the child came to his experience with Fanon “not as a blank slate but already filled with stories that caused a fear of black people” (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 188), people enter interactions with disabled people preloaded with assumptions, stereotypes, and fears.

As Nancy Mairs (1996) writes, “most non-disabled people I know are so driven by their own fears of damage and death that they dread contact, let alone interaction, with anyone touched by affliction of any kind” (p. 100). Fear, then, creates a chasm of perceived difference, a firm Othering of the disabled person. Mairs (1996) writes that “the people who seem most hostile to my presence are those most fearful of my fate. And since their fear keeps them emotionally distant from me, they are the ones least likely to learn that my life isn’t half so dismal as they assume” (p. 102). Interestingly, fear of disabled people doesn’t always present itself as cowering or apprehension. In some cases, nondisabled people attribute serenity, perseverance, or heroism to a disabled person, but the end result is the same: the disabled person is made of something else, cut from a different cloth, than the nondisabled person. Mairs (1996) writes that “admiration, masking a queasy pity and fear, serves as a distancing mechanism” (p. 32).

This distance allows nondisabled people to relegate disabled people (and their feelings, opinions, characteristics, quirks, flaws, and failings) “to an other, safely remote reality, [rather] than to risk identification of their own lives with a life that dismays and perhaps even disgusts them” (Mairs, 1996, p. 32). It’s tricky, because, like “flattering stereotypes,” this distancing sometimes appears respectful, complimentary. The saintly cripple with the power to teach you how to appreciate all you have is not so different from the trope of the “Magical Negro,” a “black character–usually depicted as wiser and spiritually deeper than the white protagonist–whose purpose in the plot [is] to help the protagonist get out of trouble, to help the protagonist realize his own faults and overcome them” (Okorafor-Mbachu, 2004, para. 1).

At the independent school where I teach 10th-grade English, our students explore and seek to understand the experiences of marginalized people: Across the curriculum, students and educators engage in candid and fruitful discussions of race and racism, class and classism, sex and sexism. In courses like Cultural Anthropology and Holocaust Studies, students learn about the ways people have used bad science to create and uphold divisions among people. Outside of the classroom proper, students participate in a well-attended GSA (gay-straight alliance), we always send a strong delegation of students to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), and we regularly hold UniTown, a 48-hour leadership and diversity retreat focused on diversity, tolerance, and social justice.

And yet, I would argue, disability studies has not found a real toehold in this context. I am arguing here that it should–it must–if for no other reason than that “what seems to be rudeness on the part of nondisabled people often arises from ignorance and fear  … and that the best way to relieve these is through education” (Mairs, 1996, p. 138). But the reasons to teach disability studies go well beyond cleaning up people’s manners. After all, we don’t teach people about racism just to make sure they don’t use the “n-word.”

I sometimes think that when we (and I don’t mean just my school) talk about diversity, we’re approaching it from this Crayola-box, United Colors of Benetton standpoint that emphasizes racial and religious diversity–and, to an increasing extent, gender, class and sexual diversity–but not diversity of ability. Consider, as a representative example, the mission of Anytown, a retreat experience for teenagers (on which Unitown is based): “to celebrate diversity and reduce bias, bigotry, and prejudice” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2014). The organizers promise that “delegates will confront issues regarding stereotypes, disabilities, gender, occupations, faith and religion, body types, sexual orientation, class and privilege” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2014). The website also includes an invitation to bring items such as “quinceanera dresses, native clothing and artifacts, menorahs, kepahs, pictures, music, quotations and readings” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2014). These items will be spotlighted on “‘Culture Night,’ when we share and appreciate our heritages with cultural singing, dancing, clothing, objects and customs” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2014). This description seems to entail view of diversity that doesn’t really, sincerely, include disability. I guess as artifacts I would bring the knee replacement components that were removed from my joints after failing and being re-replaced. As for songs, maybe “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Knees and Toes).” In my culture, there is no dancing to speak of.

So yes, I think we should introduce disability to the curriculum much in the same way we have interwoven or featured race, gender, sexuality, and class as lenses through which we examine power. And, given the amount of creative freedom and autonomy I enjoy as the sole teacher/designer of the 10th grade English curriculum, it might seem like I am ideally positioned to do so. To some extent, I have tried. I have my students read Nancy Mairs’ essay “On Being a Cripple.” Rosaldo (1994) says that Karl Marx’s prose is “designed to grip and persuade a reader  . . . often flamboyant, at times dripping in sarcasm, and often drawn as caricature in order to bring home a political or analytical point” ( p. 191); I like Mairs’ writing for similar reasons.

Although I present this first-person essay to them alongside other readings intended to broaden their view of human experience and to diversify the set of narratives that are valued in the classroom  (a few examples are “Blue-Collar Brilliance,” “Saudis in Bikinis,” “Black Men and Public Space”), I feel sheepish about the Mairs essay. I feel exposed and vulnerable, worried they will sniff out how profoundly I identify with Mairs and think I’m foisting some personal agenda on them. Clearly, I agree that “neither the prophet nor the demagogue has any place in the classroom. . . . One should neither preach one’s religion nor impose one’s politics on a captive audience” (Rosaldo, 2004, p. 170). And in order to uphold that mandate, I must labor at least in part under the delusion that my teaching self is, or can be, separate from my real self. (How telling that as a teacher I am “Ms. Decker” but on the front page of my arthritis memoir manuscript that’s floating around, as well as on the fiction and nonfiction I’ve published, I’m “Andrea Avery.”) The faultiness of this bifurcated identity is revealed to me when I feel so acutely injured in reading my students’ responses to Mairs’ essay. I don’t have their work here in front of me, so I’m generalizing, but these are the kinds of things I’ve read:

  • She seems really angry. She should try to move on.
  • She shouldn’t use the word “cripple.” It’s offensive.
  • It’s great that she found someone to love her even though she can’t really be a good wife or mother. Her family seems really patient.
  • It’s great she hasn’t let her disability keep her from living a nearly normal life.

I read these things, and I feel my supposed teacher objectivity crumbling, and I think, “I am too close to this.” And so perhaps I don’t push back on some of their assumptions or stereotypes, or even their misreadings (for example, the principal point of Mairs’ essay is why she uses the word “cripple” in place of other words. Certainly the objective teacher in me could ding a kid for not getting that, right? That’s reading comprehension!) the way I do when I’m coaching them through essays of race, sexuality, or class. Well, what of gender identity and sexism, you might be asking. Do I feel sheepish when I coach my students through feminist texts? For some reason, no. I identify as, and am perceived as, a woman. My style of dress suggests (correctly) my political leftness. These things pave the way for me to wear my feminism outwardly. Perhaps because of the weight of years and the work of feminists who came before, I do not think of feminism as a personal hobby that I can indulge in my free time but that I mustn’t impose on my students. Rather, I believe I am failing my students (male and female) if I do not teach them to see how imbalanced our world still is, how much work is yet to be done. Patriarchy and rape culture are bad for everyone.

Disability studies, though, remains this passion that I pursue outside of my professional capacity, using my other, “real” name. I write about arthritis and issues of disability, trying to get this finished memoir into the hands of the right agent or editor, truly believing that “sharing significant and intimate parts of our histories with each other . . . is a personal act with with humanizing consequences” (Blackburn, 2014, p. 55). But I’m more comfortable sharing my history beyond and away from my local community. In my daydreams about getting that book published, one of the only clouds floats in when I worry about whether my students (and their parents, and my co-workers) will read my work and know the real me.

That sounds strange, even to me. No one would accuse me of being a circumspect, closely guarded, private person, even among my students. They know quite a lot about me, and it’s not like my arthritis itself is a secret. But disability–not my own, but disability writ large, disability as social study, this thing that is so central to my life and my identity, this thing to which I have committed hours of evening study and early-morning writing, this thing that I fervently believe has as much place in a curriculum as race, gender, or queer studies–I keep held apart. I give it even less airtime in my classroom than I do other issues of social justice and equality to which I have much less personal connection. It is on my own time that I delve into “reading, writing, thinking, talking, some might say perseverating, to untangle the knots. If possible, or, if not, to come to know them intimately so I understand where and why I stand among the intricate tangles” (Blackburn, 2014, p. 47) even as I push my students to examine and reveal their whole selves in their own writing.

The plot thickens further when I consider that the research project that glows with the most heat for me involves working with students with disabilities or learning differences to examine in what ways our school is meeting their particular needs and how we can do more. For this research project, I will need to reconcile (and, likely, share) my own identity in relation to the word “disabled.” To earn their trust as people on the margins, I will likely need to acknowledge and divulge the ways in which I’ve been on the margins.

Personal narratives and individual experiences and testimonies are crucial to disability studies, in both scholarly and nonscholarly writing. As Garland-Thomson (2013) explains, “the field emerged in the 1980s, part of a cluster of politicized identity-based interdisciplinary fields of study . . . that theorized as well as actualized greater inclusion and equality in the academy” (p.916). As such, first-person narratives of illness were brought to the forefront of medical writing after spending years “relegated literally to the margins: prefaces, introductions, afterwords, footnotes, and italicized or small-print case histories” (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 60). Like scholars in other fields of study, the early pioneers of disability studies argued that personal narratives “often facilitate the social processes that have proven difficult even to perceive through distanced normalizing discourse” (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 60). I’ve spent years reading memoirs and testimonies of illness and disability and crafting my own. The narratives of others, including Mairs, have done much to empower me and make me feel less alone.

But personal narratives have their limitations. As Rosaldo (1994) says, “standing current fashion on its head by substituting tales of specific cases for distanced normalizing discourse will not yield a solution to the vexed problem of representing other lives” (p. 62). The primacy of personal narratives should not “discard classic norms but  . . .  displace them so that they become only one among a number of viable forms of social description rather than the one and only mode of writing about” (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 54) disability. And there is danger in over-individualizing experiences like racism, sexism, and ableism. To do so is to under-emphasize the systematic and institutional discrimination that serve to preserve the status quo.

And so, surprising even myself, I think some resolution of this tension for me will come when I move out of personal narratives of disability and spend more time examining the larger social context into which those narratives, including my own, fit. Garland-Thomson (2013) calls for us to think of disability studies as “a civil and human rights issue, a minority identity, a sociological formation, a historical community, a diversity group, and a category of critical analysis in culture and the arts” (p. 917). When I think of it that way, I feel more empowered to approach it the way I do feminism, as a power imbalance I am duty-bound to expose and explore with young people.

That is a call to action. What should my action be? As Blackburn (2014) reminds us, “action might look like a highly visible and audible march through city streets, but it may not. Action often happens at the personal and communal levels but has consequences at institutional and societal levels” (p. 55). Perhaps as a first step, I should make my (Andrea Avery) writing on disability more available in my classroom; maybe I should invite students to read my work while I’m reading theirs. I should make sure that I teach the Mairs essay as well as I teach any other essay. And, in addition refusing to shirk my own duty to teach disability, I should begin to seek out ways to lead my co-faculty to do the same. Jones (2011) provides me with a great starting point, and a potential model for a faculty activity I could lead, in her intervention work with teachers-in-training wherein she guided structured reflective writing assignments to increase their awareness of disability and “challenged [them] to rethink the politics of ability” (p. 219). After all, “teaching is as much a political endeavor as it is a profession. . . .  What we do and say in schools models for children how we expect them to interact in society” (Jones, 2011).


Blackburn, M.V. (2014). Humanizing research with LGBTQ youth through dialogic communication, consciousness raising, and action. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 43-56). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.

Frequently asked questions. (2014). In Anytown leadership camp. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from

Garland-Thomson, R. (2013). Disability studies: A field emerged. American Quarterly, 65(4), 915-926.

Jones, M. (2011). Awakening teachers strategies for deconstructing disability and constructing ability. Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research, 5, 218-229.

Mairs, N. (1996). Waist-high in the world: A life among the nondisabled. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Okorafor-Mbachu, N. (2004) Steven King’s super-duper magical negroes. Strange Horizons. Retrieved from

Rosaldo, R. (1994). Culture & truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


Screen Test: E-Reading Comprehension

Margolin, S.J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M.J., and Kegler, J.L. (2013). E-readers, computer screens, or paper: Does reading comprehension change across media platforms? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 512-519.

I never thought it would happen to me. I am, and always have been, a bibliophile. I love books for the stories within their covers, sure, but I also love books as books. I love spines and endpapers and embossing and cover art and epigraphs and acknowledgements and author photos and notes on the type and and those ruffly cut edges on fine hardcover editions. I still have the copies of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice that my older sister, the best reader I know, bought for me for my 10th birthday. Touching their faded covers, I can still summon how those books felt like the kid sister’s longed-for invitation to hang out with the big kids. One of my fondest sensory experiences is the  squeak of the plastic library cover on a book giving way to yield the sweet, pulpy smell of paper.

I resisted the e-reader, I did. When people argued its merits, telling me I could bring 500 books on vacation with me, I turned up my nose. No, I scoffed, I love the ritual of selecting which book gets the privilege of hopping from bookshelf to suitcase; I love when I finish a book on vacation and so, stranded in Glenwood, Minnesota, with nothing to read, I go into that used bookstore and buy whatever they have that looks pretty good. This is how I ended up reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. If I’d brought 500 preselected books with me, that book would never have found me and thank God it did. And then it happened:

Reader, I bought an e-reader.

Truth be told, I’m on my second e-reader. My first was a Kindle, and a few years after I bought it, I upgraded to a Kindle Paperwhite. I don’t really know why I succumbed in the first place. When Amazon announced the Kindle in 2007, I got a good head of steam up about it and swore I’d never give in. I have thousands of books. And I have a hard time parting with them. Before and after I’ve read them, they remain, stacked and spilling from shelves and boxes, in every room of my house. But my affection for gadgetry must have won out, because in 2009 I told my husband that, gee, well, maybe, for my birthday, I guess, perhaps, I’d like to have a … Kindle? He was all too happy to oblige, because he was the one who’d moved all those thousands of books, box by heavy box, when we bought our first home together.

I was surprised to find that I loved the Kindle. I didn’t even need to warm up to it. It helps that the designers have paid attention to the tactile and sensual aspects of reading, so the thing feels like a book in my hands and I can “turn” the page either with a tap on the screen or with a swipe something like the swipe of a licked fingertip. I will say this: My Kindle is only for reading. Deep reading. Immersive reading. Longform reading. Book reading. I do not read magazines or periodicals on it (I read those on my iPad!). It does not have browser capability (again, iPad). Although it does have some interactive functions–for instance, I can hold my finger down on a word and be taken to a built-in dictionary for a definition–I don’t make frequent use of them. It also has functions to allow me to annotate, “highlight” or “clip” portions of text, but I use those infrequently, as well. Truth be told, I am not a heavy annotator in my pleasure reading, and I never have been. Much in the same way that the dog breeds I like best are the ones that are most like cats, I chose the e-reader that was as much like an analog reader–ahem, book–as possible. I deliberately selected the Kindle for the fact that it’s not backlit (like the iPad) and therefore doesn’t result in eye strain, headaches, or fatigue (for me). I also made a conscious choice not to get an e-reader with browser capability or the ability to watch movies (the Kindle Fire, for example).

There are, of course, pluses and minuses to the Kindle. I’m one of those people who can remember that a passage or image was on, say, the bottom half of a left-hand page about a third of the way through the book. With the Kindle, all the “pages” are oriented identically. It’s harder for me to find that passage or image that I remember. On the other hand, I can use the search function to locate a remembered word or phrase from the passage. (Another bonus: When I want to analyze recurring imagery on my own or with my students, I can, for example, search for all instances of relevant words: boat imagery, colors, whatever.) I believe I read more with my Kindle, because if I finish a book at the doctor’s office, I can immediately start another. In fact, I can immediately buy another. Downside: On the Kindle, I can’t tell how long a book is. I can’t tell when the portion in my right hand starts to weigh less than the portion in my left hand so I know to start rationing it more slowly to make it last. On the Kindle, books just up and end on me. And then I’m confronted with a rude-seeming invitation to rate the book I read (how crass!) or buy another book. Can we just cuddle for a few minutes? Geeze. Of course, sometimes it’s a good thing that I can’t tell how long a book is. With the Kindle, I don’t reject titles because they’re 700 pages long and I’m not sure I’ll have the time. I just dig in and keep plugging away. When I secretly wanted to read a trashy Jodi Picoult book but I didn’t want anyone to know, my Kindle kept my secret. On the other hand, thanks to the popularity of Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers, I can no longer survey a waiting room or airplane to find out what book is the Cold Mountain of this year. I once met and fell in love with a man on a plane because he was carrying a copy of Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. Somehow, I doubt that “So. How about the battery life on that Kindle, eh?” would have, well, kindled the brief but beautiful romance that followed.

As a reader and a teacher, I have often wondered if the type and quality of reading I’m doing on my Kindle is comparable to the the type and quality of reading I always did (and sometimes still do) on paper. This question has increased relevance to me now, as my school has recently decided to “move away from printed copies of textbooks and towards a greater adoption of digital resources and eBooks” (J. Boehle, personal communication, February 28, 2014). To that end, “all students in grades 7-12 will be required to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to school starting in the fall of 2015” (J. Boehle, personal communication, May 29, 2014). We teachers received our school-issued iPads last week (bringing my household total of Apple devices (iPads, laptops, and iPods) to a slightly embarrassing 9. This doesn’t include the treasured Kindle or my husband’s PC computer. Incidentally, we are a household of two people and three cats. We have more computers than we do sentient beings).

Reading “is a process that, once learned, allows an individual to mentally represent written text” (Margolin, Driscoll, Toland, & Kegler, 2013, p. 512). As simple as that sounds, reading is a cognitively complex act, and there are many theories about what exactly is going on when I curl up with an afghan, chew on the end of my ponytail, and get lost in Anna Karenina for the sixth time. Hoover and Gough (2000), operating on the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory’s (SEDL) framework of the cognitive foundations of reading, explain that “reading comprehension (or, simply, reading) … is based upon two equally important competencies. One is language comprehension–the ability to construct meaning from spoken representations of language; the second is decoding—the ability to recognize written representations of words” (p. 13). Furthermore, each of these two abilities depends on “a collection of interrelated cognitive elements that must be well developed to be successful at either comprehending language or decoding” (Wren, 2000, p. 20). Wren (2000) explains that, according to the SEDL framework, the elements that support language comprehension and decoding toward reading comprehension are as follows (p. 18):

  • Background knowledge
  • Linguistic knowledge
  • Phonology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
  • Cipher knowledge
  • Lexical knowledge
  • Phoneme awareness
  • Knowledge of the alphabetic principle
  • Letter knowledge
  • Concepts about print

Each of those elements could form the basis of a nuanced and lengthy exploration; for the purposes of this discussion, they serve only to underscore the cognitive complexity of reading. That is, we will take as a given that reading comprehension relies on an intricate set of brain tasks. The question before us is whether reading on a screen–specifically on an e-reader like a Kindle–as opposed to reading on good, old-fashioned paper, allows us to achieve that end goal: reading comprehension. That’s what Margolin, Driscoll, Toland, and Kegler (2013) examined.

So let’s take a look at their research protocol before we explore their findings (yes, I’m going to make you wait to find out whether you’re reading this as well on screen as you would if you were reading it on paper! It’s like another old favorite, There’s a Monster at the End of This Book) and what this means for my school, and my students, and me. The clearly written, error-free article is organized effectively, prefacing the study itself with a thorough review of the existing literature (see below) as well as the real-world applicability of the findings. The authors also firmly locate their study within a theoretical framework of reading, specifically the Construction Integration (CI) model (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 512).

Literature Review: The Holes in the Research
Memory, not Comprehension
Margolin et al. (2013) first established the research landscape on the subject of e-reading and observed a few trends that seemed to create a niche for their query. They observed that the previous research into electronic reading “has examined memory for text … [but] the reading literature has not yet examined comprehension” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 512). That is, researchers have examined readers’ ability to recall what they read electronically, but not how well they understood it.

Process, not Product
Secondly, Margolin et al. (2013) established that the earliest research into electronic reading “focused primarily on the process and efficacy of reading from computers, rather than outcomes like comprehension and learning” (p. 513). For example, researchers studied the speed with which individuals could read and proofread on paper versus a computer (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 513) and analyzed discrepancies in terms of the experiential and physical differences between reading on screen and reading on paper (backlighting, typographic spacing and fonts, scrolling vs. page-turning, etc.) (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 513).

E-Readers, not Computers
Thirdly, Margolin et al. (2013) explain that previous research has focused on computer-screen reading with hyperlinks (blogs, online news websites, etc.) as opposed to e-reader reading, which more closely mimics book reading and doesn’t present opportunities for readers to click out of the text (p. 513).

Therefore, to fill the hole in the research presented by these established trends, Margolin et al. (2013) “looked to explore a new technology known as an e-reader, whose intended function is the singular process of reading, rather than searching for an evaluating information online” (p. 514). The authors argue that e-reader reading is fundamentally different from computer-screen reading because “there is no need to search or problem-solve to navigate through the hyperlinks, because these are not present on an e-reader device” like my Kindle (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 514). The authors make a very strong case for their study, demonstrating that the research to date has not really explored comprehension with e-readers. Their study is timely, given that e-readers are gaining in popularity among many age groups and contexts. In this manner, the authors make a compelling case for the relevance of this study to the field of cognition, educational psychology, and general reading.

Many schools, including my own, are implementing tablet or e-textbook programs.  However, the authors fail to address that schools are, on the whole, implementing tablet programs, not e–reader programs. The value of this study is somewhat limited by the fact that e-readers are not the electronic device that is leading the way in the sea change that’s happening at schools. It’s the tablet–full of hyperlinks, browsers, and doodads–that is invading the classroom. So, even though the researchers used academic texts like the ones students study in school, this study may not ultimately be as germane to the burgeoning conversation surrounding how students read required texts in classrooms.

Data Collection Method and Research Design
Margolin et al. (2013) recruited 90 research participants ages 18 to 25 from an introduction to psychology course at a Western New York college (p. 514). Slightly less than a third of the participants were male, but the ratio of male to female participants was retained in the three different groups to which the participants were randomly assigned: Paper readers, computer readers, and e-readers (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 514). It is perhaps worth noting that none of the participants had any diagnosed learning disabilities or dyslexia (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 514). (I point that out simply because I’m particularly interested in how our switch to e-textbooks might affect–negatively or positively–our students with those issues. More on that a bit later.) Each of the groups was presented with 1o passages to read: five were expository, intended to “convey facts and information” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 514), and five were narrative, intended to “tell a story or chronicle an event” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 514). The researchers ensured that there was uniformity among the texts in terms of length and reading level, as measured by the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level scale (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 515). The participants were randomly assigned to one of three delivery methods: The paper readers read on standard 8.5″ x 11″ white paper, the computer readers read PDFs on screen, and the e-readers read on a Kindle with e-ink technology just like the one I have (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 515). Immediately following their reading of the texts, participants completed a questionnaire in which they answered analytical questions to probe their level of understanding and interpretation as well as questions about their process and experience (did they skip around, did they re-read, did they follow along with a finger, etc.) (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 515).

The organization of this study seems very thorough. While the researchers could have limited their exploration to correlation between media presentation (paper, computer, e-reader) and comprehension, they went a step further to examine the behaviors that readers employ to assist in their comprehension. This gives us a fuller picture of what reading looks like across all of these platforms and makes the conclusion more compelling.

Results and Analysis
The results portion of this article was less clear than some of the other components. More tables or graphs would have been helpful, especially in terms of depicting the relationships among media type, reading behavior, and comprehension. Nevertheless, a few takeaways were immediately apparent. For one, comprehension was found to be slightly lower for narrative passages than for expository passages overall, regardless of how the text was presented (Margolin et al., 2013,p. 516). The comprehension scores for all three presentation styles were comparable and reflected a similar (small) disparity between comprehension of narrative texts and expository texts (Margolin et al., 2013,p. 516). Comprehension was found to be higher for computer readers when they followed along with a finger or silently mouthed what they were reading; however, these behaviors did not improve comprehension for paper readers or e-readers (Margolin et al., 2013,p. 516). Examining each presentation of text on its own, reading behaviors for the most part did not make a difference in the reader’s comprehension of narrative versus expository text (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 516). The only two behaviors that seemed to correlate to significantly higher comprehension were finger-tracking and mouthing (Margolin et al., 2013,p. 516). There did not seem to be any difference in the frequency with which readers relied on most behaviors (highlighting, finger tracking, mouthing, taking notes, saying words aloud) across the three presentation styles, with one exception: When it came to skipping around while reading, the Kindle readers were found to do much less of this behavior than either paper or computer readers (Margolin et al., 2013,p. 516).

The authors acknowledge that the relevance and applicability of their study may be limited somewhat by the relative youth of the study participants. Older readers, who may have issues with working memory, may find that they encounter more reading comprehension problems overall or that the platform of delivery of text does make a difference in their comprehension. The study would have to be replicated with an older demographic before we could whole-heartedly say that reading comprehension isn’t negatively affected by delivery medium. The college students who participated in this study are probably very comfortable with technology by virtue of their age; it could be that we are seeing that reading comprehension is not negatively affected by e-reading as long as the e-reader has met a threshold level of comfort with the technology. It would also be interesting to study young, budding readers across these delivery methods to find out if the way we learn to read is affected by the medium in which we read. This study included people who were proficient readers and proficient users of technology; it might be telling to examine groups on either side of that center swath: young students with less reading proficiency and older readers with less technological comfort and less ideal working memories.

The results of this study appear to be encouraging in a world where “the amount of digital text being created grows exponentially every day” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 512) and where “reading, and more importantly, comprehension, is a fundamental skill necessary for the successful completion of almost any type of class as well as in the job marketplace” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 512). Overall, the authors found no significant difference in reading comprehension among the paper readers, the computer readers, and the e-readers. Furthermore, while readers from all groups comprehended narrative texts slightly less well than they did expository texts, this difference was no greater for the computer-readers or e-readers than for the paper readers, suggesting that, narrative reading might simply be more difficult (for people of this age group and experience level) than expository reading. The data also suggest that people engage largely similar behaviors when reading on various platforms, that only finger-tracking and mouthing had any effect on comprehension (across all presentation styles), and that even that effect was minimal. In conclusion, Margolin et al. (2013) argue that “electronic forms of text presentation (both computer and e-reader) may be just as viable a format as paper presentation for both narrative and expository texts” (p. 517).

This is encouraging news for me personally and professionally, and it seems to support what my own “anecdata” has suggested: For me, reading on my Kindle really doesn’t feel any different from reading a book. I still cry in public with alarming regularity. In my role as a teacher, I have always had a policy of allowing my students to read in whatever platform or media they prefer (except smartphones), as I philosophically don’t believe in impeding reading. Reading is so personal, so… sensual … that I cannot bring myself to say to my students, who have 10 or more years of experience as readers, “No, don’t do it that way, do it this way.”

This study makes me feel somewhat better about the decision my school has made to move all of students’ instructional materials and textbooks to a single device–that is, if we can control the potentially distracting functions of their tablets and, in essence, turn them into e-readers. The benefits of such a policy are many. For one, having every text on an e-reader would mean that the days of schlepping a backpack so laden with books that it causes serious pain and even injury are behind us. I believe we have a responsibility as educators to look out for the physical well-being of our students, and sending a 100-pound kid home with 60-pound backpack doesn’t seem right to me. I’m also particularly attuned to the needs of our kids with physical disabilities, however rare they might be. I was a teenager with arthritis, and my school accommodated me by issuing me two sets of textbooks: One for my locker, and one for home use. But that didn’t help on the days when even lugging my U.S. history text to class was painful. And imagine the flexibility for me and my students when it’s discovered that we have an extra 20 minutes in class that we didn’t plan for and we can shift gears to a new essay or poem without everyone running to lockers and back!

What Next?
E-readers vs. tablets? What about phones?
However, the study raises several questions worth further investigation: are there any differences in reading comprehension or supportive reading behaviors when one compares Kindle reading to, say, iPad reading? I absolutely do not–could not–read a book on my iPad. I do read magazines and newspapers on my iPad, and while I think my taste in magazines isn’t exactly vapid (Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.), this is grazing reading–I do it for shorter amounts of time and I allow myself to pursue tangents and offshoots at will). But for immersive, hours-long reading sessions, the backlighting on the iPad would wear out my eyes in an hour. Secondly, the iPad is loaded with bells and whistles that threaten to distract even the most devoted reader. The whole point of an iPad–and the reason my school is shifting to them–is that everything is right there in one place: Everything for good (books for every course all at one’s fingertips, no running to lockers or bemoaning books forgotten at home!) and everything for bad (E-mail! Text messaging! Facebook! Canvas! Photos! A camera! Shazam! The Internet!).

I’d like to see a study that explores e-readers as compared with these all-in-one tablets. Furthermore, I’ve had more than one student ask about reading our required texts on a smartphone. The constrained size of the screen, in addition to the aforementioned concerns about the iPad, compel me to reject that proposition out of hand. But what if research shows that reading on a 6.7-square-inch phone is just as good?

Students with learning disabilities or ADD?
Secondly, I’d really like to see an examination of how reading comprehension and reading behaviors are affected when the readers are using electronic devices and when the readers have attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. As I’ve mentioned previously, we have a significant population of students at our school with these issues, and I’d hate to think we’re introducing a technology that makes school all the harder for them. As Margolin et al. (2013) point out, when a reader is distracted, his or her “capacity for processing text may be reduced, making difficulties with fully understanding the text more likely” (p. 512). How cruel to mandate that a kid with ADD arm himself with a weapon to sabotage his own performance.

What if kids want to go old-school?
I think it’s important to remember that this study suggests that there is no difference in reading comprehension among the three platforms. The obvious interpretation of that is that e-reading isn’t worse than traditional paper reading. But the inverse is suggested, too: when it comes to comprehension, e-reading also isn’t better than paper reading. Whatever the benefits of a tablet policy, they are likely associated with convenience and synchrony among students, as opposed to cognitive or pedagogical benefit (at least as far as reading is concerned). So what will I do in two years when a student says, “Is it OK if I read The Metamorphosis in this first-edition, hardcover edition that belonged to my grandmother instead of on my iPad?” My inclination will be to say the equivalent of what I say now to students who want to bring an e-reader instead of a hard copy of The Metamorphosis: “Sure, yes, whatever you like. Just make sure you have it every day when we need it in class.” But if my school is making this institutional change across the board, will I have the freedom and backing to say that? Or will I have to say, “No, please, I’d prefer you download it on the iPad.” That feels wrong to me. It feels wrong to interfere with a young adult’s established preference for reading medium given that there doesn’t appear to be a comprehension benefit.

That other “R”: Writing?
Of course, any exploration of how the cognitive experience of reading on screen differs (or doesn’t) from the experience of reading on paper invites me to think about reading’s dance partner, writing. How does student writing differ when it’s typed versus when it’s handwritten? I do know that research is ongoing in this area, and I’d like to explore it. Nowadays, a student can draft, revise, submit, and receive feedback on a “paper” without touching any actual paper.

Ultimately, though, this study seems to be a bracing splash of cold water for those educators, parents, and students who assume that reading on a device must be worse than reading in a book. This is a status quo bias and it’s not, in itself, a good reason to eschew new technologies that indubitably have benefits (convenience and allure, to name two). Some research into e-reading suggests that “reading online may be at the very least more complex than reading traditional printed text” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 513) and that it involves “more than simply understanding what is encountered” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 513), requiring “that the reader engage in other higher level processing of the material beyond creating a mental representation of the text” (Margolin et al., 2013, p. 513).

It’s so easy to make the mistake of thinking that the practices, habits, values, and institutions we have now are older and more established than they are. When it comes to reading, it’s perhaps useful to remember that “we were never born to read. Human beings invented reading  only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species” (Wolf, 2007, p. 3). We live in a time when innovation and invention take place at a mind-dizzying pace. It might behoove us to recall how we humans have adapted to our own inventions in the past. As Wolf (2007) argues, “reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history … Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience” (p. 3).

As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us.”


Hoover, W.A., and Gough, P.B. (2000). The reading acquisition framework: an overview. In The cognitive foundations of learning to read: A framework. Retrieved from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site:

Margolin, S. J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M. J., & Kegler, J. L. (2013). E-readers, computer screens, or paper: Does reading comprehension change across media platforms? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27(4), 512–519. doi:10.1002/acp.2930

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York, NY: Harper.

Wren, S. (2000). The cognitive foundations of learning to read: A framework. Retrieved from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site:


Capital Campaign: Valuing the Linguistic Wealth of My Students

This week, I did some more reading about an idea that has my full attention: community cultural wealth, or “the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69). (This is the same set of assets I discussed in an earlier post, “Motivational Marginalization: Diversity in Private Schools.”) I spent some more time considering the six types of cultural capital proposed by Tara Yosso “that are historically undervalued and unacknowledged in White, middle-class institutions like schools” (Liou, Antrop-Gonzalez, & Cooper, 2009, p. 538). Here are Yosso’s categories, with her brief explanations of each:

  • aspirational capital: “the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers” (2005, p. 77);
  • navigational capital: “skills of maneuvering through social institutions” (2005, p. 80);
  • social capital: “networks of people and community resources” (2005, p.79);
  • familial capital: “cultural knowledges nurtured among familia that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition” (2005, p. 79);
  • resistant capital: “knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality” (2005, p. 80); and
  • linguistic capital: “the intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language and/or style” (2005, p.78).

It’s the last of these, linguistic capital, that I’d really like to focus on today, for a couple of reasons: First of all, I think it would be beneficial to my own practice as a teacher to take some real, dedicated time to consider the ways in which I am–and, more importantly, perhaps, the ways I’m not–valuing and fostering each of these kinds of capital in my students of color. Secondly, I’m an English teacher, a writer, and a lover of language. I already believe, deeply, that the best vocabulary is one rich in the inflections, hues, loanwords, code-switching, hybrids, and mash-ups pulled from all of one’s languages and experiences.

One of the reasons I love teaching 10th-graders is that, on the whole, I think they strike an ideal balance between a child’s wonder and a young adult’s eagerness to engage in complex, intellectually sophisticated ideas. Because of that, I’m able to throw things at them that I didn’t really encounter until college: the idea of cultural marginalization, the literary and social concept of the Other, and the theory of multiple intelligences are all thematic touchstones to which we return, over and over, throughout the year as we study literature. Early on in the year, I try to establish that intelligence is not synonymous with years of formal education, and that education is not synonymous with schooling (this will serve us well when we get to our discussion of Colonialism with Things Fall Apart and I ask them if, for example, the people of Umuofia are “educated” before the white missionaries show up).

My students are already discovering and critiquing the ways in which language is all bound up in power. For example, all year long we talk about what makes something a “real word” (and I struggle to disabuse them of that question, encouraging them instead to ask if a word is “standard usage”–which allows us to parse whose standard is the standard and whether it will, or should, remain the standard). In tandem with the Richard Rodriguez essay “Aria,” which I discussed in that earlier post, we also read a first-person essay titled “Blue Collar Brilliance,” in which Mike Rose’s reflections on his mother’s experience as a waitress serve as a jumping-off point for him to consider and discuss “how much [blue-collar, service-industry, low-wage occupations] demand of both body and brain” (Rose, 2009).

As I’ve mentioned before, most of my students come from pretty financially comfortable homes. Several, however, do not. And so I offer this article to the class with the hope that it will, for the kids from wealthy homes, broaden their definition of what it means to be competent, skilled, and valuable as a worker and therefore broaden their respect for the people who perform these jobs. For the students who come from homes where their parents hold jobs like the ones Rose describes, or for students who themselves have experience working as waitstaff, house cleaners, landscapers or other jobs that their wealthy peers benefit from but sometimes fail to even see, I hope that this essay–and our careful, respectful consideration of it–communicates to them that I respect that work and that I want to create a space in my classroom where that work is valued, honored, respected, seen. I talk about this article in terms of multiple intelligences, but I realize now that I’m really talking about different kinds of cultural capital.

In fact, now that I reread Rose’s essay through the lens of cultural wealth, I realize that he’s celebrating the kinds of capital in which his mother and other blue-collar workers are wealthy–among them linguistic capital (“Lingo conferred authority and signaled know-how”) (Rose, 2009), navigational capital (“Joe learned more and more about the auto industry, the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor [and] the machinery and production processes”) (Rose, 2009), social capital (“She became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own … The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular customers and refining her ability to deal with people in a difficult world”) (Rose, 2009). If I were in a position to nominate another kind of capital to add to Yosso’s six, I might add something like sequencing or task flow capital: Certainly there’s a particular valuable knowledge and skill at work when a one does what Rose’s mother did when “she’d sequence and group tasks: What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? What tasks could be clustered?” (Rose, 2009).

Yosso asks: “Are there forms of cultural capital that marginalized groups bring to the tale that traditional cultural capital theory does not recognize or value?” (2009, p. 77). Her answer is an unequivocal “yes.” To try to address that systematic undervaluing, she works from a framework of Critical Race Theory (CRT) , which “shifts the center of focus from notions of White, middle class culture to the cultures of Communities of Color” (Yosso, 2009, p. 77). According to Yosso, “community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (2009, p. 77).

For that reason, I think it’s risky–if not downright inappropriate–to simply borrow the idea of cultural wealth from its home within CRT and simply apply it to poor or working-class people of all colors. (Although I know this is not a universally accepted opinion, I believe that a poor or working class white person retains white privilege. I’m not saying a poor white person has an easy life, only that his or her road is smoothed in ways that a similarly impoverished non-white person’s is not. Let’s park that idea to the side for the time being!) I want to be explicit in saying that I don’t think I can appropriate the concept of community cultural wealth and divorce it from its roots in CRT without doing so carefully and with limitation.

That said, poor and working-class people, like people of color, suffer a reductive and dismissive fate in the hands of our popular culture and our educational institutions. As Rose (2009) says,  “Although writers and scholars have often looked at the working class, they have generally focused on the values such workers exhibit rather than on the thought their work requires — a subtle but pervasive omission. Our cultural iconography promotes the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no brightness behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.” Students who come from poor or working-class families, I would argue, might also be victims of deficit thinking, which “takes the position that minority students and families are at fault for poor academic performance because: (a) students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills; and (b) parents neither value nor support their child’s education” (Yosso, 2009, p. 75). The suspected deficits are all the more magnified if a student is a poor or working class student of color.

Just as the educational system fails to value the forms of cultural capital that students of color bring, the educational system largely “defin[es] intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests. And we employ social biases pertaining to a person’s place on the occupational ladder. The distinctions among blue, pink, and white collars carry with them attributions of character, motivation, and intelligence. Although we rightly acknowledge and amply compensate the play of mind in white-collar and professional work, we diminish or erase it in considerations about other endeavors — physical and service work particularly” (Rose, 2009).

All of this is to say that in analyzing these two essays–“Aria” and “Blue-Collar Brilliance”–with my sophomores, we are already in a space where we are discussing cultural capital, though we have never used that term before. When I head back to school in August, I will bring this term, and this concept, to my students as a framework for discussing these two articles. So that answers how I can talk about cultural capital with my students, but it doesn’t really resolve how I can better value and honor the cultural capital–and today I’m focusing on linguistic capital–that they bring with them to school.

I want my classroom to be a place where these students get practice as both analyzers of literature and creators of literature. This dual goal was really crystallized for me when a friend, a middle-school teacher at an independent school, commented that “[He and his middle school co-faculty] had taken for granted that students should study literature in order to write about it. Yet [his elementary level faculty counterparts] emphasized that their students study literature in order to actually write it” (M. Fishback, personal communication, April 9, 2014). Similarly, I don’t want to just talk about educational equity with my students, I want to work toward educational equity with them. I don’t want to pay lip service to linguistic capital, I want to create a space where they can cash in on their linguistic capital.

One activity that I created last semester comes to mind as an example of a way that I could do just that. Although I conceived of this activity and implemented it before I’d learned about cultural capital, I’ll share it here as an activity that operates on the premise of valuing the language my students come to me knowing, as opposed to the language I teach them.

Last spring, we were reading Things Fall Apart, a novel by the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Our discussions tended to revolve around plot (what happened?), reader response (how do I feel about what happened?), and historical context (Colonization and the importance of the book as a reclamation of a narrative of Africa). What was lacking–perhaps because the language in the book is deceptively simple–was discussion of the book qua book and what my students as budding writers could learn from it.

I selected a passage from the novel that had a lot of italicized Ibo words and ask my students to walk me through Achebe’s way of using the word to cumulatively depict its meaning as opposed to defining it with an appositive. Sentence by sentence, we read the clues provided by the text: Ah, yes, the egwugwu are feared; we can tell because the women of the village run from them when they emerge. Oh, but the egwugwu are also objects of fascination and admiration; we can tell because the women run only far enough away to remain safe but near enough that they can still see. Oh, look, here we see there are nine egwugwu. In this manner, we packed on understanding of the term that the author did not ever explicitly define for us, and we came to a full understanding of the function, appearance, and reception of these nine awe-inspiring ancestral spirits depicted by male village elders in costume at important community gatherings. We also realized that as readers we were quite tolerant and patient about having an unknown term take shape for us. In fact, we found it rewarding as readers not to be simply told what the word meant. So if we were patient as readers, we could probably, as writers, count on that patience from our readers.

Next, I asked students to choose a word they knew but that they guessed their peers would not know. It could be a word from a non-English language they knew, a technical term or piece of jargon from an activity or industry they knew well, or a nonsense word. I gave them 20 minutes to write a passage in which the word gets used at least five times but was never explicitly defined. Just like Achebe did, I wanted them to depict meaning as opposed to dictating meaning. I framed it like a challenge to them: By the end we should know what the word means and as much as possible about it.

Most students did not choose nonsense words. Students chose words from Mexican slang, Hindi words, and family inside-joke words. As it turned out, my students knew all kinds of words their peers didn’t know, and they were eager to share their writing (more eager than usual, I’d say). In terms of the writing itself, the results were clever, imagery-rich, and syntactically freewheeling and unbounded. After sharing, we talked about how else a writer could use this technique–with technical language, fantasy writing, or in boundary-blurring fiction and nonfiction like Amy Tan’s, where she tries to capture the experience of being the American daughter of a Chinese mother. They also independently connected the technique to what they saw in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Furthermore, and importantly, the exercise served to heighten the attention they paid to the literary elements of Achebe’s book, which I think is crucial given the fact that “some works are called literature whereas other works are termed folklore. … the literature of people of color is more likely to fall into the folklore category” (Dunbar, 2008, p.85). Keith Booker argues that “anthropological readings … have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of cultural practices” (as cited in Snyder, 2008, p. 156). Snyder (2008) adds that “the naive ethnographic or anthropological reading treats a novel like [Things Fall Apart] as though it transparently represents the world of another culture, ignoring the aesthetic dimensions of the representation” (p. 156). Although I do think the book opens students’ eyes to practices, rites, and traditions of a culture most of them know nothing about, I do not want to contribute to that very Eurocentric and Colonialist approach to studying Achebe’s work as a cute little artifact as opposed to a powerfully important anti-Colonial event and an aesthetically and structurally intricate piece of literature.

In addition to those benefits, I see now, this activity also invited students to leverage their linguistic capital. In this activity, bilingual students had the edge. By asking them to choose a word they knew that their peers did not, I communicated to them that I was explicitly looking for words outside of our shared classroom experience. Furthermore, in the sharing portion of the activity, students asked one another about the words they’d share–what did it mean, exactly, how was it used, what were the shades of connotation, was it “standard usage” or slang? To stand in front of the room and be the teacher, even for a few minutes, transferred the power to these students and their outside-of-school language. (Notably, the students who used a family-created “inside joke” word were also leveraging their familial capital to fulfill their teacher’s expectations of a piece of school writing.)

This is only one small opportunity that I have found in my current pedagogical practice and curriculum to increasingly emphasize, foster, and value linguistic capital. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I believe that each facet of Yosso’s discussion of cultural wealth is worthy of reflection and examination in terms of my classroom. How am I welcoming, rewarding, and fostering the development of navigational capital? Resistance capital? There’s lots to think about here.

Finally, to talk about these “knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69) in terms of capital or wealth invites me to consider how that metaphor can be extended: can a person become bankrupt of cultural capital? I doubt it. Can a person invest her cultural capital and enjoy compounding interest? Probably. Does a person pay any kind of cultural tax when he acquires cultural wealth? Perhaps. Can cultural wealth can be shared, spread around, redistributed? Yes. All of my students left linguistically richer after that activity, as did I.


Dunbar, C. (2008). Critical race theory and indigenous methodologies. In Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y., & Smith, L.T. (Eds.) Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. 85-99.

Liou, D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining latino/a students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555

Rose, M. (2009). Blue collar brilliance. The American Scholar. Retrieved from

Snyder, C. (2008). The possibilities and pitfalls of ethnographic readings: Narrative complexity in Things Fall Apart. College Literature, 35(2),154-174

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital?: A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, (8)1, 69-91.

PAR by Proxy: Participatory Action Research, Emphasis on the “Research” (Not So Much on the “Participatory” or the “Action”)

(Ostmeyer, K., & Scarpa, A. (2012). Examining school-based social skills program needs and barriers  for students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders using participatory action research. Psychology in the Schools, 49(10),p.932-941.doi: 10.1002/pits.21646

Ever since learning about participatory action research (PAR), and particularly the work of the Council of Youth Research at UCLA (check out their work here), I’ve been obsessed with the idea. The term itself–participatory action research–doesn’t sound quite as exciting, as novel, as potentially revolutionary, as it is. For the uninitiated, the goal of PAR is to “develop interventions with the direct input of stakeholders” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 932). Although PAR-based studies often are designed according to traditional Western evidence-based, if-it-can’t-be-measured-it-doesn’t-exist values, the goals of PAR can intersect with the goals of indigenous research methodologies, in that the PAR studies “take into account the ideas and perceptions of the population directly affected by the problem” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 932), just as advocates for indigenous research methods embrace a form of research where “what is acceptable and not acceptable research is determined and defined from within the community” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 6) and “they [indigenous people], not Western scholars, have first access to research findings and control over distribution of knowledge” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 6). The Council of Youth Research, for example, empowers “youth of color attending city high schools [to] become lead agents in the process of research” (Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza, & Matthews, 2013, p. 2). In this model, the people with the most at stake in these critical questions are actively involved in the process of research–and they are the immediate beneficiaries of its findings.

Man. This is exciting stuff. The thrill of it can’t be stated more succinctly than it was by Dr. Melanie Bertrand, who worked with the Council of Youth Research at UCLA and has written and published about its work, upon her visit to our class last night: “The most amazing thing about [it] is that the students who are most marginalized … have the most wisdom to share” (M. Bertrand, personal communication, June 5, 2014).

If I could include sound effects in this blog, right about now I’d embed that old record-scratch sound effect. Wait. Stop. This is exciting stuff, but think about the world I live and work in. The students I teach at my exclusive, prestigious, expensive suburban private school are not the underserved, marginalized urban youth involved with the Council of Youth Research. What place could PAR or, thinking more broadly, indigenous research methodologies have in my world? But then I come back to Dr. Bertrand’s comment: “the students who are most marginalized have the most wisdom to share.” “Most” is relative. No community is without its center and its fringe, its powerful and its less-so.

Although not an indigenous people by the textbook geographic, ethnic, or historical definition, disabled people have been turned “into an essentialized ‘other’ who is spoken for” (Bautista et al., 2012, p. 5). Therefore, indigenous research methodologies may be a viable way to locate disabled people themselves “at the location where research is conducted and discussions are held [to] serve as a major link between fully understanding the historical vestiges of discrimination and the present day manifestation of that discrimination” (Parker cited in Dunbar, 2008, p. 98). It was not so long ago, after all, that Josef Mengele performed his sadistic “experiments” on people with dwarfism (just one example of a heartbreaking many) or, right here in the United States, “researchers injected cancer cells into 19 old and debilitated patients” (Stobbe, 2011) at a New York Hospital, without the informed consent of the patients themselves, to see if their bodies would reject them . And if anyone wants to argue that that, in addition to being a post-racial America, we’ve moved past discriminating against people with chronic illness or disability, I’ll point out that “less than one-half of individuals aged 21 to 64 with a disability” (Brault, 2012, p. 10) are employed, and those who are working earn less than those without disabilities (Brault, 2012, p. 12). As many people have pointed out before, the depictions of disabled and chronically ill people in the media continue to come from a narrow menu of reductive options: the scary, disfigured villain; the noble, sexless saint; the angry, vengeful victim. But that’s a blog post for another day. What about participatory action research, this private school of mine, and students with disabilities?

Cue the record scratch again: There isn’t a huge population of (physically) disabled students at my school. That’s always struck me as weird. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.4 percent of Americans under the age of 15 have a disability, and 10.2 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 do (Brault, 2012, p. 5). And yet, a casual conversation with a couple of colleagues who have worked at my school for about 75 years between the two of them yielded only a handful of names of kids with disabilities. As far as I know, in the six years I’ve worked at my school of 700-ish students, there has never been a student who used a wheelchair or other assistive mobility device. There have been, and are, a few students with hearing impairments, vision impairments, and chronic illness (asthma, juvenile arthritis, seizure disorders) but not at all in proportion with the census data. That, too, is a blog post for another day: Is this disparity particular to our school or is it perhaps seen in other independent schools? And why?

What we do have is a big–and, I would say, growing–population of students with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders, dyslexia, learning disabilities, or other disabilities associated with executive functioning. I’m going on observation, not school data, here but I would guess that In this regard, our school is at least representative of the census data, which, as of 2010 reported that “2.3 million children had difficulty doing regular schoolwork (6.2 percent)” and that “about 692,000 had a learning disability, 1.9 million had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and 1.7 million had an intellectual or developmental disability or condition” (Brault, 2012, p.13). These students struggle in school. I might even argue that their struggle is made all the more difficult by the competitive, high-pressure, college-focused, and achievement-driven culture of a school like ours.

There’s Dr. Bertrand again: “The students who are most marginalized have the most wisdom to share.”

Our school is in the midst of a great deal of change. Three years ago, we moved to a block schedule. This year, we’re rolling out the use of Canvas, a learning management system that will digitalize teacher-student communication, assignment submission, collaboration, and assessment and grading. Next year, we will shift all instructional materials and texts to electronic tablets. We are in the midst of a comprehensive curriculum review and redesign, including exploring a new capstone project/experience for our graduating seniors. I have served or currently serve on the committees at the center of these activities, and I can say without reservation that we have been thorough, sincere, and utterly student-focused in these efforts. My colleagues have asked, at every turn, “How will this benefit the students? What do they need?” even when the proposed changes threatened discomfiting change for the teachers themselves. I am proud of my school, my colleagues and myself. And yet: Perhaps are we missing an opportunity to involve the students themselves? Sure, student representatives have visited those committee meetings; the administration is dutiful and sincere in connecting students and soliciting their input. A student served alongside me, the headmaster, parent representatives, and members of the board of trustees on the recently completed strategic plan committee. We ask the students questions, and we listen to their responses. But we haven’t (yet) created a space where the students themselves design the questions, protocols, and experiences of research for themselves, targeting what’s most meaningful to them. And we certainly haven’t specifically sought the students with intellectual and learning disabilities–arguably among the most marginalized students in our school–to share their wisdom. Maybe we should.

So that’s my 1,300-word preamble to the article I cited at the top of this entry. I am so electrified by PAR that I decided to explore the ways that PAR projects have been used with students with disabilities. This article reflects only one such project. In this study, the authors used PAR to examine the degree to which an elementary school was succeeding in imparting social skills to its students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). The study is predicated on the idea that “one of the central roles of schools is to prepare students for life in the work force or postsecondary education and help produce competent adults” but that “many skills beyond academics are needed to succeed in college and/or the work force, including adaptive social skills” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 933). These social skills include “listening to others, following steps, following rules, ignoring distractions, taking turns, asking for help, getting along with others, staying calm, taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, and doing nice things for others” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 932). These are crucial skills for making one’s way in the world, and they are central to my own pedagogy. However, children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder struggle with these very skills, and with disastrous results:  “Although children with HFASD score in the average or above-average range on intelligence measures, 70% to 90% of these children underperform academically in at least one domain, including math, reading, and spelling” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 933), suggesting that “social skills play an important role in … academic performance and that social enhancement may positively impact academic skills” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 933). The stakes are higher than that for these students: deficits in social skills can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 933). Children who haven’t developed these skills “are also more likely to be rejected, teased, and bullied by peers” (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 933). Which, as anyone can tell you, leads to anxiety and depression, which don’t incline a kid to get out there and get cracking on buffing up those social skills. It’s a particularly vicious cycle.

The authors engaged a process of PAR to “gather information on the need for social skills interventions in schools, potential benefits, and barriers to school-based implementation.” True to the values of PAR, the researchers involved stakeholders–in this case, not students themselves but 14 school staff members (“the school principal, a school psychologist, general and special education teachers, special education aides, and teachers of ‘specials’ (i.e., art, library)”) (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 935) and two mothers of children with HFASD at an elementary school. I’ll be brief in summarizing the research design, results, and discussion here, because I want to get to the real takeaway, which is the potential for this study as a template for a PAR study at my school.

Research Design:

  • Participants attended either a focus group or an individual meeting, each lasting 60-90 minutes.
  • At the meetings, researchers defined social skills, emphasized their importance, and shared current research about social skills.
  • Participants completed a questionnaire and then participated in guided discussion about how social skills programming could be implemented in their community.
  • Classroom observations were conducted of two male students.
  • Qualitative and quantitative results were compiled and presented to the school stakeholders.
  • A tentative plan for the implementation of a social-skills program was designed.

Results from the Interviews:

  • Participants agreed that social skills were important.
  • School staff participants were wary of programs or interventions that removed students from the classroom.
  • Staff participants were worried about taking time away from core academic subjects.
  • Staff participants were worried about the time needed to train staff.
  • Staff participants urged a model that was inclusive; that is, it didn’t target the students with HFASD but included the whole class.
  • Parent participants indicated that their students might need individualized social-skills instruction.
  • Parent participants worried that teachers would be uncooperative with a new program because of the time crunch for training or other classroom responsibilities.

 Results from the Observations

  • The observed students demonstrated deficiencies in most of the skills listed as important social skills in an earlier part of this discussion (following directions, etc.).
  • Peers of students with HFASD were observed to be patient, understanding, friendly and inclusive but may have inadvertently reinforced some of the disruptive behaviors of the students being observed.


  • Stakeholders agreed that social-skills training was both wanted and needed in the community.
  • Stakeholders agreed that lack of social skills negatively affected academic performance.
  • Stakeholders believed that educating peers about how to treat their peers with HFASD and educating them about the HFASD characteristics would help the social interaction.
  • Stakeholders worried about time away from core academic instruction.

Although this article gave me some very practical insight about how to design a mixed-methods PAR study (How many participants, how many meetings, of what kind? What methods, what instruments?), I’m left with so many questions at the end: the article does not discuss the specifics of the program tentatively designed by the research participants and presented to school decision-makers, nor does it discuss to what extent the program was implemented. As for the observational element of the study, the article uses a mysterious passive voice (“observations of two male students with HFASD were conducted” [emphasis mine]) (Ostmeyer and Scarpa, 2012, p. 936), suggesting that that component of the research wasn’t so participatory after all, but rather conducted by the “official” researchers. Finally, and most importantly, I’m wondering if a study like this, which includes as participants not the marginalized people themselves but people one step removed from the marginalized people, is really true to the purpose of PAR as I understand it.

To me (a newbie to the subject, I grant), this seems like PAR-lite. This study doesn’t locate the power of research with the people on the low(est) end of the power differential; it didn’t yield any actionable, concrete, findings that could be or were implemented to immediately and in real ways benefit the children with HFASD; and because it doesn’t fulfill the goal/promise of PAR, which is to empower the very people who have been disempowered. Students with HFASD, like students in urban schools, can be “dehumanized, denied agency, and not allowed to speak on schooling conditions from their perspective,” students with HFASD. To address this marginalization with  underserved urban youth, the Council of Youth Research “works to empower students to become agents of change” (Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza, & Matthews, 2013, p. 4). The people who stand most to benefit from the research into social-skills programming for children with HFASD are children with HFASD, and here they are being spoken for here by the adults in their lives. This, of course, brings me right back to Aurora Levins-Morales’s Medicine Stories (1998), in which she argues that “the disempowerment we all experienced as children has little outlet. We are taught to obey until our own turn comes, with few opportunities to politicize the experience and critique it” (p. 51). Of course, the parents and staff who participated in this research love the children and want to support and serve them, but they are not, ultimately, the true stakeholders at the center of this line of inquiry. Aurora Levins-Morales’s (1998) again: “The fact that many parents are deeply loving, fair and committed to their children’s well-being does not change the fact that this is largely a matter of luck for the child, that she or he has almost no control over the conditions of daily life” (p. 52). I would imagine that control is further diminished when you’re a kid with HFASD who struggles with social skills.

But PAR is–or has the potential to be–precisely that opportunity for children to politicize and critique their experiences as students! To me, this study is PAR by proxy. I think true PAR depends on that essential tension between the power a person or group has historically held and the power presented by the very act of PAR. It has to challenge, if not invert, the power differential. If you’re doing PAR with people close to the people who stand to benefit most, people related to the people who have been the most silenced, I’m not sure it works. Yes, teachers and parents are to some extent powerless; they can’t make sweeping curricular change on their own without OK from the top–and there are many layers of top on top: the school administration, the school district, the board of education, the state government, the federal government. But I assume that teachers and parents have some voice and some kind of venue–PTAs or staff/faculty interactions–that the children at the heart of this issue do not. I don’t know how old children have to be before they can be involved in meaningful PAR (in fact, a classmate of mine asked this very question last night! Thanks, Jeff!), but I suspect the answer has to do with what you want out of the PAR, as well as who has to “buy in” to the findings to effect change and how those people feel about children. I also suspect that the answer might be “not that old.” I suspect that elementary-aged children can be meaningful participants in PAR.

So back to my school and the idea that’s hatching in my head: What if the students who have those intellectual challenges I listed were recruited to perform PAR at PCDS? What if they worked to design research protocols and to collect data, and then they synthesized and presented their findings to the headmaster, the board of trustees, the faculty body, the parent body, the student senate, the student body? What if their findings had real and immediate impact on the questions we’re asking ourselves now, which include pressing questions about learning management systems, class size and teacher load, technology implementation in the classroom, elective offerings and student choice in curriculum, graduation requirements, capstone projects, college counseling, and community-building, to name only a few? I imagine these students might have some real, heretofore under appreciated wisdom to share that could have immediate impact on the decisions we as a school are making. And I think the very process could serve to empower these students, who I think may be among the most marginalized students in our generally-not-so-marginalized school.

There are some steep-seeming logistical concerns. Here’s a non-comprehensive list:

  • What would be the criteria for inclusion as one of the participants? Would students have to have an official diagnosis, or would self-identification suffice?
  • How could I recruit students in an ethical, sensitive, appropriate way?
  • Would students be reluctant to participate, for fear of “outing” themselves? Would their parents worry about stigma?
  • Would students be inclined to take on additional work of PAR, on top of schoolwork that might already be challenging because of their intellectual or cognitive challenges?
  • Would students be incentivized to participate without a grade? Could they get class credit for participating? Is that ethical?
  • Would my school administration support or embrace such a project?

I don’t now the answers to those questions, but I think they’re worth exploring. After all, The timing seems perfect (as a school, we are in a period of self-reflection, reevaluation, and change) and the student-centered goals of PAR are absolutely consistent with the values and mission of PCDS. But if I did this, it would have to be the students’ voices front and center–not their parents’, not their teachers’, not their doctors’/therapists’/tutors’/coaches’.

No PAR by proxy at PCDS.


Bautista, M.A., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth: Methodological insights from the council of youth research UCLA, 115(100303), 1–23.

Brault, M.W. (2012). Americans with disabilities: 2010: Household economic studies. Current Population Reports. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau. 1-23

Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (2008). Introduction: Critical methods and indigenous inquiry. In Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y., & Smith, L.T. (Eds.) Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. 1-20.

Dunbar, C. (2008). Critical race theory and indigenous methodologies. In Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y., & Smith, L.T. (Eds.) Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. 85-99.

Levins-Morales, A. (1998). Medicine stories: History, culture and the politics of integrity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Ostmeyer, K., & Scarpa, A. (2012). Examining school-based social skills program needs and barriers  for students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders using participatory action research. Psychology in the Schools, 49(10),p.932-941.doi: 10.1002/pits.21646

Stobbe, M. (2011, February 27). AP impact: past medical testing on humans revealed. The Washington Post. Retrieved from


Motivational Marginalization: Diversity in Private Schools

“I was a listening child, careful to hear the very different sounds of Spanish and English. Wide-eyed with hearing, I’d listen to sounds more than words. First, there were English (gringo) sounds. So many words were still unknown that when the butcher or the lady at the drugstore said something to me, exotic polysyllabic sounds would bloom in the midst of their sentences. Often, the speech of people in public seemed to me very loud, booming with confidence. The man behind the counter would  literally ask, ‘What can I do for you?” But by being so firm and so clear, the sound of his voice said that he was a gringo; he belonged in public society” (Rodriguez, 1982, p. 2)

One of the first reading assignments I give my sophomores each year is the essay “Aria” by Richard Rodriguez. I like this essay for lots of reasons–for one, my course emphasizes literary nonfiction and the personal essay, as I feel that these are understudied modes of composition for most high-schoolers. I also like this essay because it initiates my students and orients them to some of the meaty subject matter we’re going to tackle over the course of the year: marginalization; the phenomenon of the Other;  the way language can be a signifier of power and privilege, a way to let people in or a way to make sure people stay out; multiple intelligences and definitions of success; and the multilayered nature of identity–the way we constantly renegotiate and navigate identity as we learn more about ourselves and the communities to which we belong (or don’t).

We read, among other things, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry. These two books, one longform literary fiction and the other longform literary nonfiction, both feature “characters” who struggle to navigate split identities. In The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli is an Indian-American growing up in the Northeast of the US, plagued by the confusing feelings of embarrassment and pride, belonging and not-belonging, presented by his immigrant parents and his American surroundings. Best Intentions tells the story of Edmund Perry, a smart, hardworking, promising black student from Harlem who attends the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy. There, he racks up good grades and accolades but he intermittently charms and confuses his peers and faculty: is he the great hope of the slums, a city boy done good? Or is he a threatening and aggressive black man? It does not escape my students’ notice that these polarized and reductive identities seem to be the only ones on offer to Eddie. Tragically, the summer after he finishes at Exeter, before heading off to Stanford on a scholarship, he is shot and killed while attempting to assault an undercover cop back in Harlem. As the title suggests, the book examines not just the circumstances of Eddie’s death but also his attempts to straddle, negotiate, and reconcile two worlds, two identities.

Many of my students are navigating that very space, and as sophomores they are (newly) able to examine that experience and discuss it intellectually, critically, honestly, articulately. So I kick them off with the Rodriguez essay because I know it will resonate deeply and personally with many of my students. Some of my students learned English as a second language, and even among those who learned English first, many learned another language concurrently: Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, and Mandarin, mostly. And so language becomes a great way for us to talk about the many communities a person can belong to, and the way that membership in one community–school, for example–can sometimes mean feeling like you have to sideline, ignore, or deny your membership in another. All year long we talk about what it is like to live in the margins.

My school is a secular independent school. It costs, well, a lot of money to go there. A year’s tuition costs more than I made at my first job out of graduate school. Most of my students are white, upper middle-class, and affluent. Another good proportion are not white (many of Indian descent, many Asian, several Hispanic, and very few Black), upper middle class, and affluent. And about a quarter are working class, decidedly not affluent. Most of those students are Hispanic, a few are white, and very few are Black.

Several of my students come to my school by way of an outreach program, the mission of which is to “to enrich, engage, and empower first-generation college-bound students from local public schools and partnering organizations, their educators, and their parents by providing resources, academic enrichment, and opportunities that encourage intellectual, cultural, and personal growth” (“Project Excellence”).  The mission of the program is two-pronged. It offers a student program, which “provides necessary resources and opportunities that most first-generation college-bound students do not have access to during the regular school day.  The Program consists of weekend workshops, a robust summer program, and a variety of mentor opportunities” (Project Excellence). There is also an adult program, which “provides adults in the greater Phoenix community with educational enrichment opportunities through weekend and summer workshops in English Language Learning (ELL) and General Education Coursework (GEC), with the expectation that enriching the lives of adults has a direct, positive impact on the lives of children of the community” (Project Excellence). I believe in the mission of this program and participating in its summer and weekend workshops, which are extended to students who don’t attend our school as well as the ones who gain admission as “scholars,” matters to me. I feel sheepish that as I’ve gotten busier and responsible for more things at school in the six years I’ve worked there, my own participation in this worthwhile outreach program has dissolved.

Nevertheless, regardless of our level of participation in outreach workshops, we faculty say–and, I think, genuinely believe–that these students are in no way provisional, less capable, or less college-bound than their classmates. Certainly our college counselors would never say, “Look, I need my car mechanic and if everyone goes to college, then where am I going to get my mechanic” like the (admittedly) strained and over-tasked career counselor at University High School, a sprawling comprehensive public private school studied in “Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College-Going Information Networks” (Liou et al., 2009). I think if you asked any of my co-faculty if they treat these students any differently than their peers, they’d say no.

We have high expectations for all of our students. There’s not a second-tier track. But to treat these students the same as their peers seems unfair, when many of them have jobs outside of school; extensive religious commitments; responsibilities to provide child care for siblings; less practice with reading and writing (especially in the formal language of school); less familiarity with academic navigation (seeing this counselor, turning in that form, etc.); less access to Internet resources at homes and fewer computers, phones and devices; atrophied or underdeveloped study skills; less access to expensive tutoring or test-prep opportunities; or parents who, because of language limitations or job commitments or both, can’t advocate them the way their peers’ parents can.

And so, because we teachers want to make ourselves aware of the backgrounds these students come from and help them succeed, we may unintentionally operate on a cultural deficit model, which posits that “the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, it is alleged, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (Valencia, 2009, xi). I would not be the first to point out that for many people who operate on the deficit model, race or economic class alone presents the deficits. People take a nugget of research they’ve overheard–that, say,”in poor and working-class households, children were urged to stay quiet and show deference to adult authority figures such as teachers” (Goldstein, 2014) whereas middle-class students learn to self-advocate or “white parents are at least twice as likely as black and Latino parents to request a specific teacher” (Goldstein, 2014)–and run with it. Next thing you know, even the most warm-hearted, well-intentioned, politically liberal and dedicated teachers are standing around in the faculty lounge saying, “Well, you know, these students just don’t know how to do what you’re asking them to do. Coming in for extra help, staying for office hours, completing extra credit assignments, this is not part of their world. It’s not what they do.” But it’s a dangerous pendulum–swing too far toward “treating everyone the same” out of some well-intentioned idea of educational equity and colorblindness, and you don’t help these students succeed.

Either way, from the deficit perspective or the everyone’s-treated-the-same model, you leave these student to figure it out on their own; you push responsibility for their success back on them and their families; you make academic success a thing to be attained by individual, entrepreneurial pluck, just as in  “Keeping Up the Good Fight: the Said and Unsaid in Flores v. Arizona” the authors argue that neo-liberal values render language “left to the competitive market, where individuals and groups have to battle with each other for access” (Thomas et al., 2014, p. 250). You hope that they can leverage their other kinds of capital (aspirational, linguistic, social, navigational, familial, resistance) (Liou et al., 2009, p. 538) to succeed–not because of you, but despite you.

The school where I teach is not facing the problems that large, comprehensive public high schools in economically depressed cities are facing. Still, the independent school realm has its own issues to confront regarding race, equity, and diversity. One of the movies my students and I watch together during their sophomore year is “American Promise,” a documentary that follows two black New York City students as they embark on schooling at the prestigious–and nearly all-white–Dalton School. In the film, a Dalton administrator theorizes that independent school culture presents “a greater cultural disconnect for African-American boys” (Ohikuare, 2013) than for black girls. In fact, both of the boys profiled in the film struggle with their Otherness, and one of them ultimately leaves to attend the nearly all-Black Benjamin Banneker Academy, finding more happiness and success there. We watch this movie in tandem with reading Best Intentions, and while my students are pondering what it is or might be like to feel so alien in such a pressure-cooker environment, I’m wondering if my fellow teachers and I are doing right by the students of color that are sitting in my classroom that very minute.

I have seen my students leverage the kinds of capital that Liou et al. describe as the saving grace of students whose schools and counselors are failing them, keeping college-going know-how a closely guarded secret, etiher out of the deficit-model belief that they’re not going anywhere anyway or out of the more sinister desire to preserve a (brown) servant class to fix their cars.

Certainly my students have aspirational capital, “the ability to have high hopes for the future in spite of social, economic, and institutional barriers” (Liou et al., 2009, 538), as do their parents, or they wouldn’t have applied to our school, taken the battery of admissions tests, or ridden three buses every morning to get there. They have impressive linguistic capital, which allows many of them to succeed by traditional measures–acing AP Spanish, for example–and to write compelling and vivid poetry or prose that is colored by diverse linguistic influences and words and which is well-received and celebrated by their classmates and teachers in student publications. They have social capital, loving “networks of people and community resources,” and they “draw instrumental and social support through sources such as community based organizations, churches, and community-based cultural and athletic events” (Liou et al., 2009, 538). Many of them have active church or athletic lives that bring them in contact with students from other schools and communities. Through these experiences, many of them hear reinforcement of what they’re hearing at school–register for that PSAT!–but they’re hearing it from people like them, people who can empathize with them even if most of their classmates cannot. They have impressive familial capital. Many of them report studying with older siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins when parents can’t help because of linguistic barriers. These opportunities and connections allow them to leverage their navigational capital. And, to some extent, I’ve seen “resistance capital,” or “those skills that are garnered through oppositional identities/behavior that challenge instances of inequality” (Liou et al., 2009, 538).

I’m thinking particularly of a former student, D.G., who, though reticent at the beginning of the year, gradually found powerful material to write and speak about in my class from comparing her own experiences with those of her more comfortable, coddled classmates. D.G. derived great strength, worldliness, and an identity as a no-nonsense survivor from her glimpses into the values and experiences of her rich classmates who couldn’t code-switch the way she could, who didn’t know what it felt like to get a paycheck, and didn’t ever have to fight to get what she needed from a school or teacher, never had to demand that they be treated the way they deserved to be. D.G. absolutely found a way to leverage “marginalization as a motivation concept” (Liou et al., 2009, 546). One time, her classmates were all fawning over a student, a girl, who had come to class with an impressive black eye from that morning’s pre-school karate practice. D.G. sat back, arms crossed, and surveyed the room with a sour expression. She sat apart. As the girls oohed and aahed over the shiner, one of them said, “Oh, I want a black eye!” Quietly, smirking, D.G. uttered, “I could help you with that.” Laughs all around. As a teacher, or course, responsible for the safety of all my students, I cringed. But part of me cheered for D.G.’s finding strength and humor in the stark contrast between her lived experiences and those of her classmates. Over time, D.G. found a balance between the tough aspects of her identity and the more vulnerable. She’s now a college freshman studying public health. Recently, she came back to visit and explained this choice of major, a departure from the pre-med major she’d planned on. She said she wanted to work with people, and this way she could help people who are underserved by the system the way it is. “You want to fight the good fight?” I asked her. “Yup,” she said.

All of this is to say: I don’t know. I don’t know if my independent school, or independent schools in general, are doing a good job of serving our students of color. When these students succeed–and they do–I don’t know how much of that is attributable to our serving them well and effectively and how much of it is the product of their use of those various kinds of capital as workarounds and compensatory measures. I don’t know how to find out if my colleagues sincerely believe that “those students” can aspire to and attain to the same things our other students do, or if there is a glass ceiling, an unacknowledged track, that designates them second-class school citizens.

I want to know. “Someone should study this!” I think to myself. Me? Or could an independent school like mine attempt a Participatory Action Research Project along the lines of the Council of Youth Research, in which “urban youth of color research educational conditions,” by “appropriat[ing] traditional research methods for critical uses and employ[ing] creative approaches to conveying research findings” in an effort to “transform inequitable learning conditions and structures” (Bautista et al., 2013, p. 2).

What if the students in our outreach program were invited to perform participatory action research in our school community? A summer session could initiate them in the methods and language of research and allow them to design research protocols. Over a school year, they could work (for credit) on their research protocols and perform site visits like the students in the Council of Youth Research. Perhaps a second summer session could bookend the experience and allow them to design and create their novel ways of sharing their research.

Is it wrong–ignorant, tone-deaf?–to appropriate this urban research project and apply it to a rich school environment that doesn’t face the same problems? I think not. There are certain unique researchable questions (problems?) presented by the starkly stratified environment of an expensive prep school committed to an outreach program like ours. These students need empowerment and understanding, and we are kidding ourselves if we think they are not made aware–daily–of institutional and cultural barriers and inequity. Perhaps the best people to investigate this question at my school are the people it affects most acutely.


Bautista, M.A., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth : Methodological insights from the council of youth research UCLA, Teachers College Record, 115 (100303), 1–23.

Goldstein, D. (2014). Don’t help your kids with their homework. The Atlantic, April 2014. Retrieved from

Liou, D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining latino/a students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555.

Ohikuare, J. When minority students attend elite private schools. The Atlantic, Dec. 2013. Retrieved from

Project Excellence. (n.d.). In Phoenix Country Day School: Student Life. Retrieved June 2, 20014 from

Rodriguez, R. (1982). Aria. Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez. New York, New York: Bantam.

Thomas, M., Aletheiani, D., Carlson, D., & Ewbank, A. (2014). ‘Keeping up the good fight’: the said and unsaid in Flores V. Arizona. Policy Futures in Education, 12 (2), 242-261.

Valencia, R. (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Oxfordshire: Routledge.


Freaks and BWRKs: Divulging Disability on College Entrance Essays

Vidali, A. (2007). Texts of our institutional lives: Performing the rhetorical freak show : Disability, student writing, and college admissions. College English, 69(6), 615–641.

This is how I picked a college: My junior year of high school, a big alphabetical book of Colleges in the USA mysteriously appeared in my bedroom, the bedroom in the house I’d lived in since I was three months old. I thumbed through the big book of colleges and, I like to joke now, I got through the A’s. I attended Arizona State University.

Of course, I applied to a few other schools (six, which was in line with national averages but nowhere near the 10, 12, or 15 that some of my students submit nowadays), and I got in to all of them. It’s fun to ponder who or what I would be now, 20 years later, if I’d attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. Would I own Birkenstocks? What if I’d gone to the University of Central Florida, where I was offered a scholarship? Would I be tan? The University of Arizona, the University of South Florida ,the University of Utah, University of Maryland (though I had no intention of staying so close to home or going to the school one of my brothers had attended)? Would I be any different now, or would I just have a different collection of T-shirts and beer coozies?

Unlike so many of my students at the expensive, prestigious private school where I now teach, I didn’t really care where I went to college. I knew I wanted to go to a big school far away from home. I wanted to meet a thousand new people and have teachers none of my three older siblings had had before me. I wanted to major in music. I wanted to flee. I used the compass that had gotten me through geometry to draw a circle on a map of the USA, with Washington, D.C. at its center and a radius of 1,500 miles. Anything within the circle was a no; anything outside the circle was fine with me, especially if they had low admissions standards (I was suffering from burnout, low self-esteem, and simmering anxiety at the time).

I sent in my applications, I recorded my auditions for the music schools, and I awaited the fabled big envelope. I did not write any essays, personal statements, or statements of purpose. If I had been asked to write these things, I would have been confronted with a big decision: do I reveal to the people reading the essay, the people with my fate in their hands, that I have a physical disability–namely, severe rheumatoid arthritis? There would be advantages, of course: a narrative angle that distinguished me from the masses of similar-seeming applicants, for one. But there would be a big risk, too. Would my disability, which wasn’t reflected or revealed in any other element of my application, work against me? Would the admissions people doubt my suitability for sustained academic work? Would they peg me as a dropout risk?

In “Texts of our institutional lives: Performing the rhetorical freak show : Disability, student writing, and college admissions,” Amy Vidali (2007) argues that “institutional writing”–of which these college entrance essays are a type–pose risk for all students, but particular risk for students with disabilities. According to Vidali, students who choose to write about their experiences with disability for their college entrance essays are, in effect, participating in the same push-pull of power that participants in freak shows did. Students are are acting out of necessity, Vidali argues, as they “would  not write these admissions essays if they didn’t have to, and freak-show performers would likely have worked other jobs had gainful employment been available to them” (2007, p. 625). Furthermore, students find themselves in an “unequal rhetorical negotiation … where one person performs while others judge … similar to the relationship between freak-show performers and the objectifying gaze of spectators” (2007, p. 625). In short, students who write about their disabilities on these kinds of essays must be willing to “risk discrimination and create a ‘rhetorical spectacle’ of disability if it increases the chances of ‘getting in'” (Vidali, 2007, p. 623).

For her study, Vidali examined undergraduate students’ application files (after they’d been admitted to and begun attending college). She examined the rhetorical devices, structures, and tropes these students used in writing their experience of disability, and then she interviewed them to better understand their intentions, strategy, and reservations about doing so (if any).  In the case study presented here, Vidali examines the essays and interviews with three subjects, all of them white, English-speaking women of “typical college age” (2007, p. 617). Though the larger pool of subjects included students with “vision impairments, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and repetitive stress injuries, as well as students who are hard of hearing” (Vidali, 2007, p. 617), the three women who constitute this case study all have learning disabilities.

It is crucial to point out that Vidali comes at her study operating on the sociological model of disability, as opposed to the medical model, and therefore “conceive[s] of disability as a social and political identity rather than as a pathological condition, individual burden, or personal tragedy” (Linton qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p.  617).

Some really interesting commonalities emerge from Vidali’s examination of these women’s essays, commonalities that the author argues derive from the limited ways disability is framed and talked about in the larger culture. For example, two of the three employed a “three-part structure, moving from humiliation to a moment of change to overcoming disability-related obstacles” (Vidali, 2007, p. 672). Anyone who’s seen any movie featuring a disabled character will recognize this arc: disabled people are often depicted as being shamed, humiliated, or depressed until the magical moment when, after persevering nobly, they have their wishes granted (often by an able-bodied physician acting as fairy godmother) and overcome the obstacle presented by their disability. Likewise, these two students emphasized having overcome their disabilities. Their essays have “happy endings” (Vidali, 2007, p. 627). Furthermore, they write in terms of old selves and new selves, echoing another classic aspect of the rhetoric of disability, as expressed by Kristin Lindgren: “illness represents not only a crisis in the body but also a crisis in identity” (qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 626).

The third woman in the case study did not rely on the three-part structure, nor did she provide a happy ending. She did not write about old selves and new selves or transcending or overcoming her disability. In fact, this third writer eschewed personal details of her disability narrative altogether, opting instead for a discussion of “equal opportunity for people with learning disabilities” and “the politics of disability disclosure” (Vidali, 2007, p. 627). This student-author writes in an assertive voice, even slipping into second person to challenge the reader (a college admissions professional, the holder of power, the person who paid admission to this freak show) in a series of questions. Vidali calls this decision daring and even suggests that it’s somewhat subversive: she is bucking “the traditional representation of disability as personal and the strict confines of the admissions essay–which compel that all successes be solely the result of individual effort” (Vidali, 2007, p. 626).

One thing that all three student-authors had in common was the desire to stand out. This isn’t surprising; the students I teach have been hearing since fifth grade how important it is that their college applications make them seem unusual, unique, well-rounded, multi-faceted, different from the others. Nowadays, it seems, “standing out” isn’t even enough! Vidali quotes from Rachel Toor’s Admissions Confidential: “Many schools are looking for what they call ‘angular’ kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent,” (qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 630), kids she calls “BWRKs,” which is “admissionese for bright well-rounded kids” (Toor qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 631). The necessity of “standing out” is particularly interesting in the context of young adolescents with disabilities who, if my own experience is a reliable indication, spend a great deal of time expressly trying not to stand out. Particularly for students with intellectual or learning disabilities, for whom their difference has most likely been treated as a deficit in the context of school, it must be something of a relief, if not a trip to bizarro-world, to encounter this writing assignment where, suddenly, they have an “angle” other students lack. They stand to gain from the exhibition of their disability just as a bearded lady or a pair of conjoined twins did by joining one of P.T. Barnum’s traveling troupes of freaks and oddities. When you’ve been marginalized, and an opportunity comes to get paid for your marginalization, it’s hard not to jump–or limp–at it.

But benefiting from one’s marginalized status is not an uncomplicated decision, especially given a culture that is suspicious of disabled people and all too eager to accuse disabled people of inflating, exaggerating, or even making up their disabilities. In fact, one of the student-authors here begged Vidali not to include a comment she’d made in the interview about manipulating her application. Vidali writes that the author “sensed that she was not supposed to admit that her discussion of her disability in her admissions essay was anything other than a pure distillation of her disability experience … admitting her disclosure is a managed performance pulls the curtain back too far” (2007, p. 632).

Another potential pitfall of attempting to write about disability on an application essay is the mismatch between the conventions of the genre and the nature of disability. These are short, pithy writings, and chronic disability is by definition not short and is rarely pithy. “This isn’t the winning touchdown, the cultural awareness gained on a trip to Mexico, or even the insight from experiencing a moment of racial discrimination”–all popular topics for student essays–and the writer “cannot place her disability in the past or check off a box labeled ‘lesson learned,’ because the extraordinary scholastic needs that result from her disability are past, present, and future” (Vidali, 2007, p. 616).

Vidali argues that “reconsidering the ambiguous agency of the freak in a circus setting provides an important opportunity to rethink the idea of students (with and without disabilities) as mere rhetorical dupes of an impressive admissions system” (2007, p. 616). This is no small thing, given that, according to Vidali, “9 percent of all students in postsecondary education have disabilities and because the consideration of disability urges attention to the diversity of all students” (2007, p. 617).

The purpose of Vidali’s study wasn’t to examine the effect of divulging disability on an applicants’ acceptance, though that would be a fascinating onion to peel: As schools develop public statements of diversity, is the climate changing such that it becomes increasingly advantageous to reveal a disability? While according to the rules admissions committees may not be able to factor in a student’s disability, admissions committees are made up of people with intricate identities, biases, and values just waiting to be plucked by the right story from the right student at the right moment.  I’d also like to know more about the rhetorical styles and features student-writers with non-intellectual disabilities employ: is a student who suffered a paralyzing accident also likely to use the three-part structure? How do students write about depression and anxiety, which rarely are conquered but rather accommodated? What about eating disorders? How far does the category of disability extend: Could/should a student write about recovery from drugs or alcohol and expect to “stand out” in the right ways?  When does the risk outweigh the reward? Which kinds of freaks are going to be most successful?

Vidali argues first that the field of disability studies–and its associated lexicons, rhetorics, and models–needs to be brought to the forefront of discussions of composition and language. She argues that teachers tend to discuss disability with their students, if they do so at all, from medical and psychoanalytic models as opposed to the postmodern identity-making models they use to discuss race or class (Vidali, 2007, p. 618). The secondary English classroom, which in my world is a training ground for the rhetoric and composition classroom these students will graduate to, already examines “‘how language both reflects and supports notions of the Other'” (Brueggemann qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 618), “challenges false binaries, and connects issues of practice and theory” (Vidali, 2007, p. 618) and so a significant and purposeful discussion of disability in these contexts would be natural and appropriate. Vidali is not in the business of critiquing these student essays; rather, she is preoccupied with “analyzing and locating the power dynamics and inequities that admissions essays both produce and reproduce” (2007, p. 622).

I am interested in these things, too. I’m also interested in helping students more successfully navigate the demands of these personal statements as part of their college application processes. To me, these essays are problematic partly because they ask students to write personally, revealingly, and profoundly about themselves when many of them have spent 12 years being trained to believe that first-person writing is unacademic, unimportant, unprofessional, and unwelcome. I think we need to do a better job in general teaching students how to write about themselves without navel-gazing or resorting to derivative, trite cliches.

After reading this article, I think the mandate to do so is especially necessary for our students with disabilities. We need to teach them how to write about their disabilities in ways that aren’t limited to these Hollywood-sanctioned story arcs. If we want them to be empowered by and unapologetic about their manipulation of rhetorical tropes, if we want to give them narrative control of their stories, we need to help them discover what those tropes are. We need to clue them in to the power dynamic that is the context of ability/disability in the world they live in. To do so, we need to include disability studies in our curriculum the way we do studies of race, gender, and class. Though the benefit of this inclusive curriculum would be strong for students with disabilities, it would also be good for students who don’t identify as disabled, just in the way that exposing and analyzing racism benefits both minority and majority students.

As a working professional, I know the treacherous legal complications of divulging disability at a job interview. The freak show push-pull dynamic is present in that context, too–but, I would argue, the potential gains are smaller than in the college admissions process. Hirers are considering the drain you’ll pose on their health plan, how many days of work you’ll miss, and whether you’re a liability for a discrimination lawsuit. Of course, all of that could change if we increase the visibility of disability as an axis of social identity.

If I’d been asked to write an essay to get into college 20 years ago, I don’t know if I would have written about my arthritis. But perhaps it’s very telling that when, less than a year ago, I was asked to write a personal statement for admission to this very doctoral program, I consciously redacted my writing for any direct mention or allusion to my disability. I split the difference, though–the writing sample I submitted along with my personal statement scrubbed clean of arthritis was a published essay in which I made explicit reference to my chronic illness. I’m 37 and confused and ambivalent about how much to say, how much to protect. I can only imagine what my 18-year-old students feel.

Teenagers know well what it is to feel like freaks, especially students with any kind of difference. Perhaps we need to educate them better about the complexities–the risks and the rewards, the empowerment and the objectification–of the freak show and then let them decide what kind of performance they want to put on.


Brueggemann, B. J., White, L. F., Dunn, P.A., Heifferon, B.A., & Johnson, C. (2001). Becoming visible: Lessons in disability. College Composition and Communication52(3), 368–398. doi:10.2307/358624

Lindgren, K. “Bodies in trouble: Identity, embodiment, and disability.” Gendering Disability. Ed. Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchinson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 145-65.

Linton, S. Claiming disability: knowledge and identity. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Toor, R. Admissions confidential: An insider’s account of the elite college selection process. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.



Body, Language: A Case for Disabled Language?

In Medicine Stories (1998), Aurora Levins Morales argues for a healing kind of history: a study of history that emphasizes personal testimony; a concerted effort to give voice and name to the heretofore unvoiced and unnamed; and a practice of study that scrutinizes interdependence, illuminates interconnectivity, and demands of its practitioners that they own their injuries as well as their complicity in the intricate web of power and privilege.

From the very beginning of this collection of essays, Levins Morales (1998) acknowledges which stories are hers to tell–among the identities she claims are Jew, Puerto Rican, woman of color, survivor of abuse, feminist, and “historian with an agenda”– and acknowledges that all historians “use some process of selection through which [they] choose which stories [they] consider important and interesting” (p. 25). So it would be unreasonable to ask her to speak for everyone, especially given her clear declaration of intent in offering her personal “interrogation” of history (p.25). Nevertheless, she casts a wide net, acknowledging and validating, even in glancing mentions, the experiences of groups of which she is not a member: slaves, witches, transgendered people, even animal rights activists.

And so it seems glaring to me that, throughout the 130-page collection of essays, she sidesteps, apart from a single passing mention in the context of Nazi atrocities, the experiences of disabled people. I do not think this is a sinister omission, but I do think it is an omission, and I’m inclined to think it’s a conscious omission given that Levins Morales is a feminist writing these essays at a time when the scholarly area of disability studies–often housed adjacent to, if not housed within, women’s studies in academia–was emerging as a significant discipline. So many of the habits of mind and scholarship that she advocates, such as the valuing of first-person narrative and testimony; the insistence on telling “untold and undertold histories” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 26); the prodding to “show agency” (p. 30); and the encouragement to question existing value systems, align themselves explicitly with the aims of disability studies. If “childhood is the one political condition, the one disenfranchised group through which all people pass” (51), then disability is the one political condition to which we could all return, at any time, with no warning. Furthermore, certain historical events she discusses have real relevance for disabled people, especially disabled women. For example, in the essay titled “Nightflying,” in which Levins Morales (1998) invites us to reconsider the way violence toward women in the form of witch hunts has been minimized, almost to the point of cartoon (p. 45-49), it seems especially glaring that she does not acknowledge that features we now know to be physiological and decidedly un-evil–epilepsy, for example–were also used to persecute women as witches. It’s not just “women elders” (p. 48) who remain villainized by the witch-hunt narrative; it’s elder women with dowager’s humps or, as I can personally attest, young women with gnarled fingers and limping gaits who are thought scary and wicked. The scary old lady in the house on the corner? She usually has a cane.

I confess that I’m stymied by this omission but, especially given her final essay’s call for a unification of efforts as opposed to an endless splintering of interests, I accept it as a given of this author and her stance.  I’m not quite as ready as she to dispense with intersectionality as a crucial lens through which to view certain histories and experiences. Specifically, disability is a profoundly powerful axis that, in combination with gender, can be amplified or assuaged in the classroom. As Garcia and Ortiz (2013) argue, “while a disability label may assign students to a subordinate status in a general education classroom on the basis of their perceived disabilities, their gender, social class and/or racial identities may mitigate this status in different ways, creating privilege for some (e.g., male, middle class, or Caucasian students) but disadvantage for others (e.g., African American males from low income families)” (p.34). Nevertheless, it is not Levins Morales’s responsibility to speak for the disabled; in fact, it may very well be inappropriate for her to do so. But it may not be inappropriate for me to do so.

What I’d like to do, then, is acknowledge my own relationship to that label, that identity, that history, and then discuss my own professional practice–that is, as a teacher–through the lens of Levins Morales’s “medicinal history” (1998). Specifically, I’d like to focus on the second section of the collection of essays, “Speaking in Tongues” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 55-71), in which she insightfully and powerfully examines the relationship between language and power. Having thoughtfully considered–and truly enjoyed–Levins Morales’s work, I’d like to borrow her framework and extend it to include a group, as represented by a dear student of mine, “Jessica,” that I feel could most benefit from this kind of “medicinal history.”

I have an ambivalent relationship to the title “disabled,” mostly because I have an ambivalent body. Having had rheumatoid arthritis for 25 years, I’ve experienced stretches of profound disability and, thanks to modern medical and surgical interventions, I’ve experienced periods of relative respite during which my pain, although never fully abating, has been ameliorated and able-bodied strangers’ reaction to my body have been less vicious and othering. That’s all I need to say about that for this discussion, I think, except that I’ll add that my shape-shifting identity as maybe-disabled does lend me a particular awareness of and empathy for my students who live with disabilities. I like to think that I am an ally for them, and I’ll point to my experience with Jessica as evidence of that.

Jessica is a brilliant 16-year-old, effervescent and energetic, quick-witted, curious, profoundly artistic, and dyslexic. Last year, I was both Jessica’s English teacher and her advisor, which means that I was to serve as the point-person for Jessica and her parents whenever an issue–social, academic, medical–came up that affected Jessica in more than one course. As you can imagine, Jessica’s dyslexia affected her performance in nearly every course (English, pre-calculus, Latin II, advanced chemistry, Europe since 1945). In English and Latin and history, she struggled with spellings and conjugations as well as taking in and processing large amounts of written and verbal data. She pored over her written assignments only to discover, upon turning them in, that she’d replaced the word “genocide” with “geometry” in every instance. In history and chemistry and precalculus, numbers transposed themselves. Perhaps as a function of her dyslexia or maybe as a concurrent issue, Jessica also struggled with giving sustained attention to any task and found herself hopelessly distracted by even the smallest sounds and activities from classmates.

Jessica struggled particularly in Latin and early on in the school year she came to me for help. Thinking she could use some empowering validation of her experiences, I directed her to some scholarly research on JSTOR about teaching classical languages to students with dyslexia. One article, aimed at teachers, offered practical solutions and ideas (enlarging typewritten documents, using serif fonts, etc.). When I showed the plainly written, down-and-dirty “use it today” article to Jessica, she beamed–here, then, is an example of Levins Morales’s idea of scholarly writing being accessible to the people who need it most (1998, p. 37)–and immediately she set out highlighting all the tips that she thought would be useful but that weren’t yet in practice in her Latin classroom. Next, we met with her Latin teacher and Jessica was able to advocate for herself in a solution-oriented way. This was one of my earliest experiences with Jessica and it made me pay particular attention to her in the classroom. After all, I had a dual role as her English teacher and her advisor. I was struck by Jessica’s maturity in seeking out allies and advocates and in her wise use of the network of support systems made available to her. I was also blown away by the amount of sheer intellectual bandwidth and problem-solving skill Jessica was putting into compensating for her dyslexia.

Interestingly, the only courses where Jessica was finding that her dyslexia was not a deficit but an asset were her art classes–experimental materials and game design–where she was exploring with wit and cleverness ways to represent for “normal” people what the world of symbols and letters looked like and felt like to her.

As her decidedly descriptivist English teacher, it wasn’t a challenge for me to overlook her misspellings or transpositions. I was happy to work with her on a draft to point out to her where she’d swapped a word or where her ideas were all jumbled up and in need of categorizing and streamlining. Jessica and I worked well together.

But as I read Levins Morales’s chapters “On Not Writing English” and “Forked Tongues,” I was struck by the realization that I did not do enough on Jessica’s behalf, neither as her English teacher nor as her advisor. I didn’t do what her art teacher did, which was allow her–encourage her–to depict the world as she saw it in the language of her experience. Her perception of the world is jumbled, overstimulated, anxious, cryptic, blooming. Why shouldn’t her writing be?

Now, this perspective tests the limits of even my descriptivism. Can an English teacher advocate for a student’s right to write in jumbled, overwhelmed and overwhelming ways? I think she can. This is where I return to Levins Morales. The “legislators of language,” she  points out, “are almost exclusively male, white, and wealthy”–and, I’ll add, able-bodied if not body-normative. “They are people with social power, and as is the wont of such folk, they set things up according to their own very specific needs and then declare those needs universal: if it isn’t the language we speak, it isn’t English” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 57).

Levins Morales (1998) points out the idea that is at the heart of all efforts to increase diversity in representation, the belief that is behind the movement away from “Dick and Jane” names in primers and standardized tests and behind the mannequin  in a wheelchair at your local Kohl’s: “To live surrounded by a popular culture in which we do not appear is a form of spiritual erasure that leaves us vulnerable to all the assaults a society can commit against those it does not recognize. Not to be recognized, not to find oneself in history, or in film, or on television, or in books, or in popular songs, or in what is studied at school leads to the psychic disaster of ceasing to recognize oneself” (p. 61). I believe that schools–no, I believe that I–need to do a better job not only of showing students like Jessica characters and real-life figures who think like they do (e.g., Mark Haddon’s 2003 “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which features a protagonist/narrator with autism) but also of validating and celebrating their language. Why shouldn’t Jessica’s writing reflect the world as she perceives it, just as Levins Morales’s writing is colored with her varied influences? If I bludgeon Jessica’s writing into conformity, am I like those well-meaning feminist editors who silenced Levins Morales’s differentness and shoehorned her into genericness? I do not want to hold Jessica to any less a rigorous standard than the other students; after all, she can hold her own intellectually and creatively. But–and this is a question of “excellence”–can I uphold rigor while honoring her perception of the world, and helping her to put it on the page? “That is why we write,” Levins Morales says. “To see ourselves on the page. To confirm our presence” (1998, p. 62).

And Garcia and Ortiz’s (2013) warning about the unfair perceptions of disabled students raises even more questions for me: Jessica is a well-behaved, hard-working, upper-middle-class white girl. Have I been more inclined to honor her disability in writing than, say, the scattered writings of a hyperactive boy like Will, who I may perceive to be simply sloppy and disorganized? I need to confront these questions. I need to do right by the Jessicas and the Wills.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I know, though, that my own experience of shape-shifting disability has granted me access to two languages, two lexicons. I can write in the upright, whole, healthy English of able-bodiedness, studied during my healthy first 12 years of life, and I suspect that my writing–lurching, improvisatory, full of fragments–reflects the body I live in now. I have the right to write in the language of my body, so does Levins Morales, and so does Jessica.


Garcia, S. and Ortiz, A. (2013). Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research in special education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32–47. Retrieved from

Levins Morales, A. (1998). Medicine stories: History, culture and the politics of integrity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.