Dear National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):
The 2016 NCTE Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, just concluded. This year the theme was “Faces of Advocacy”.
I would like to take this opportunity to do a little advocacy of my own.
The #NCTE Atlanta 2016 conference gave the nation’s English teachers an opportunity to exchange “words”….
have a word with…
get a word in edgewise…
hang on some one’s words…
or have the last word.
Every year, the NCTE conference brings together the nations’s (pre-school, primary, secondary, college) English teachers who traffic in words (vocabulary, root words, parts of speech, synonyms, figurative language, suffixes, etc.),
This conference began eleven days after the 2016 presidential election.
In several state, local and national campaigns, there were many words used by candidates on both sides of the aisle that were hurtful, that were fallacious, that were offensive. These words were highly visible on social media platforms and in the media; these words were highly visible to our students.
The multiple challenges to the use of hurtful, fallacious, or offensive words during the election was often met with derision by candidates, by candidate surrogates, or by media pundits on both sides of the aisle. Challengers were often told that candidates were “only joking” or just being “sarcastic.” There were publicized non-apologies :”I’m sorry if…” or “I’m sorry, but…”.
On occasion, words were retracted. “That meaning is not what I meant.”
Such retractions are linguistically precarious; a challenge to word’s “meaning” does not negate what was expressed.
The “not what I meant” response conflicts with the definition of what a word means as “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.”
In the 2016 election, many words were separated from their meanings.
Unfortunately, at this conference, NCTE, you did not offer any specific post-election guidance on this separation of word from meaning. At this conference you did not advocate for words and word meaning.
In all fairness, your conference theme (The Many Faces of Advocacy) was set years ago; its was months ago when the presenters were selected for sessions and the rooms assigned. In making these decisions, your organizing committee could not possibly have anticipated the current climate where the real political loser in this election would be words.
How then could NCTE support teachers as they proceed to teach words and their meanings to their students after this election?
How might NCTE prepare teachers in secondary schools to discuss understanding words that are spoken without meaning?
For example, how should NCTE guide teachers to help primary students understand the word meaning of a mean word?
Like the standard in Domain 3 of the Danielson Teacher Evaluation Rubric, NCTE, you could have exercised “Flexibility and Responsiveness” and “made an adjustment to respond to changing conditions.”
There could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to discuss their concerns about hurtful words that were tossed about so publicly.
There could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to share strategies to deal with offensive words at multiple grade levels.
Finally, there could have been formal or informal opportunities for teachers to help their students in the future determine when, why, or how words are used to support fallacies.
NCTE, your oversight in not providing these opportunities is particularly ironic given the nation’s push for standards based curricula, where teachers of English are required to place emphasis at every grade level for evidence-based reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students are expected to produce evidence-based responses that demonstrate precision in word choice (“Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.”) Word choice is explicit; students must comprehend and apply word meaning.
Instead, the campaigns of the 2016 election would have failed on any rubric that used evidence requirements for most state standards-based performance assessments.
In November 2017, when the conference moves to the City of St. Louis, NCTE, you could reaffirm your commitment to the mission statement which states:
“The Council promotes the development of literacy, the use of language to construct personal and public worlds and to achieve full participation in society, through the learning and teaching of English and the related arts and sciences of language.“
The phrase “use of language” in this mission statement refers to the use of words in a structured and conventional way. You should be prepared to defend the use of words in structured and conventional ways.
In summary,dear NCTE, when words are divorced from their meaning, they lose their power to communicate.
In 2017, we need to advocate for words.
Without word meaning, there is no reason to teach English.