Author Archives: plthomasedd

About plthomasedd

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), in which he authored the first volume—Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010). He has served on major committees with NCTE, and has been named Council Historian (2013-2015), and formerly served as co-editor for The South Carolina English Teacher for SCCTE. Recent books include Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 2012) and Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010).He has also published books on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Ralph Ellison. His scholarly work includes dozens of works in major journals—English Journal, English Education, Souls, Notes on American Literature, Journal of Educational Controversy, Journal of Teaching Writing, and others. His commentaries have been included in Room for Debate (The New York Times), The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), The Guardian (UK), truthout, Education Week, The Daily Censored, OpEdNews, The State (Columbia, SC), The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and The Greenville News (Greenville, SC). His work can be followed at the becoming radical (http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/) and @plthomasEdD on twitter.

Public School 65, Down on the Lower East Side (1988)

LaBrant, L. (1988). Public School 65, down on the lower east side. Teaching Education, 2(1), 6-9.

PS 65 p. 6

PS 65 p. 7

PS 65 p. 8

PS 65 p. 9


Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions (1949)

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant examines the use of cliches and abstractions in student writing, noting that their use is often misunderstood by teachers and created by prompted writing. This is a nuanced and direct examination of the power of language as well as the need for student engagement and choice in writing.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807545

Quoting LaBrant:

Only after inch-by-inch progress was she able to see that from “orphan,” for which the novelist was undoubtedly responsible, my student had jumped to the whole cliche “poor, defenseless orphan” and consequent accusations against at least three other characters in the story.

…But of serious account is her tendency or that of any reader to accept a cliche and so permit it to stand between himself and a fact or understanding.

A word of warning may well be spoken here. Cliches are not alike in value, and users differ in age and speak under many circumstances….We must therefore be careful in criticizing the writing of the young, or in talking over poetry they enjoy, not to superimpose our own experience on them. The metaphor which seems stale or worn to us may be apt and new to them, and it is a happy circumstance that this is so. It is therefore not important that the figure which the student uses be new or unique to the adult; but it is of great necessity that the phrase express what the student really sees or believes and that he be made aware of the pitfalls of the too easily accepted phrase. On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 275-276)

…The cliche is, in such cases, an example of our tendency to overgeneralize or to use abstractions carelessly.

Certainly no student of language would deplore the ability of the human mind to develop abstract terms and to use them in thought. As with all inventions, however, the value of an instrument lies not only in its power but in the care and understanding with which it is used. (p. 276)

It should be noted that such analysis is made much more easily when the writer is dealing with a problem in which he has some stake and for which he has assumed the initiative in writing. If the statement comes from a workbook or from the teacher’s assignment, it is impossible to hold the writer to an understanding of meaning. Sometimes we ourselves deliver definitions (generalizations) meaningless to children.

“A verb is a word which expresses action, being, or state of being,” we tell youngsters who cannot possibly understand that “being”and “state of being” cover the various steps by which assertions of identity, classification, and evaluation move through various stages of sensory and logical verification. We assign topics for writing, well knowing that they are beyond the real understanding of our pupils and that consequently these young writers must fall back on vague and meaningless generalizations. (p. 277)

Assignments in literature frequently encourage undue generalizing….We teachers cannot escape responsibility for much unsound use of abstractions.Frequently we require it; the cliche is not confined to pupil writing.

Generalizations, abstractions? Yes—when we know what they are and that back of them must be knowledge. Honesty is itself a factor in thinking. Responsibility—a sense of needing to know, of limiting words to what one understands—all these are involved in analyzing the cliche and the abstraction. There are many ways of teaching how to think. This is offered as one. (p. 278)


The Content of a Free Reading Program (1937)

LaBrant, L. (1937, February 17). The content of a free reading program. Educational Research Bulletin, 16(2), 29–34.

Based on her implementation of a free reading program at the Ohio State University School, LaBrant documents the success of the program against common complaints about free reading.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1471836

Quoting LaBrant:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. Perhaps the basic misunderstanding comes from careless use of the term “interest.” An interest is not an entity, unchangeable, fixed. It is merely a way of behaving at a given time, and may be modi-fied, directed, developed, or discouraged. The important matter for the educator is to realize that interest means a strong tendency to behave in a certain way, and to understand that that tendency has driving power which is better used than thwarted. (p. 29)

At the Ohio State University School reading, or the study A of literature, develops as an inherent factor in the entire school program….Classes consider the whole field of reading, and work out group study and discussion around common problems of development. There is no assignment of books or pieces for uniform study except in rare cases where an entire class feels the need for introduction to an unfamiliar form or type. There is constant demand that the individual pupil contribute from his experience, and in consequence em-phasis is placed on understanding and careful interpretation. In addition to this emphasis on careful reading, from time to time classes make inventory of group development, setting up common criteria for judging. (pp. 30-31)

Recently an attempt was made to evaluate the free reading of one class (graduated June, 1935) in the light of a three-year record. Fifty-nine pupils, 26 boys and 33 girls, with an aver-age yearly enrollment of 57, made up the group. The study concerns the content, the organization, and the resulting drives in the free reading of this one class in the Ohio State University School….With neither teacher was there ever a uniform reading assignment for an entire class, however; and diversified reading was always a part of the pupil’s program regardless of the particular class unit of a given period. (p. 31)

The joint processes of analysis and synthesis are seen in the work of the twelfth year, when pupils insisted on seeing their intensive, individual units within a chronological setting which all assisted in formulating. That such a succession of meaningful experiences could be thought of as lacking in “content” is absurd. There was, it is true, no teaching of techniques as an end, no unit on the sonnet, no history of English or American literature. Voluntarily, the class spent three weeks in the twelfth year on reproducing Elizabethan dramatic scenes, singing Elizabethan music, and reading excerpts from a variety of Elizabethan lyric and dramatic writers for class enjoyment as an element in making the chronological approach more vivid. In brief, while there was organization, it was not the organization of the conventional program, and was not set up in advance of pupil understanding and need. (p. 32)

Sex differences are evident, although reasons are not suggested. The girls read twice as much as the boys, with especial interest in drama and poetry. Neither boys nor girls, however, showed the strong interest in romantic fiction, hero stories, and adventure so commonly attributed to adolescents.

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)


What Shall We Do About Reading Today? (1942)

LaBrant, L. (1942, November). What shall we do about reading today?: A symposium [Lou LaBrant]. The Elementary English Review, 19(7), 240-241.

As one of ten contributors (including Dora V. Smith and Paul Witty), LaBrant notes that inductees into the military exposed literacy problems with young men in the U.S. She challenges the military-based crisis in literacy with “A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient under- standing to be constructive peace-time citizens” (p. 240). The focus of LaBrant’s contribution, however, is to reject the blame placed on progressive pedagogy for the literacy problems and caution about calls for a “return to drill and formal reciting from a text book” (p. 240).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41382636

Quoting LaBrant:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem. Moreover, as is again to be expected, the diagnosis is frequently in terms of prejudice or pet complaint, and could be used in other situations as logically. Many are hunting scapegoats; there are scores of “I-told-you-so’s.” It is best to look at the situation critically….

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)


Inducing Students to Write (1955)

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant examines “how to induce students to write,” opening with five assumptions (p. 70). She then discusses the need to begin with the teacher and the writing situation that supports student writing.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Quoting LaBrant:

My first assumption is that, since we have come voluntarily to this session, we all agree that writing is an important part of the program of English in our secondary schools.

I assume next that, since “induce” involves motivation, we are not talking about writing which is secured by threats of failure, nor which merely states what the teacher wants to have stated. …

I am assuming further that we look upon writing as having a dual value: to society and to the writer. …

A fourth assumption I think we make today is that writing is best taught through writing of one’s own ideas, and not through talking about writing or dealing solely with the writing of others. …

My final assumption is that we desire responsible writing.  (p. 70)

Where, then, do we begin to see that our student decides to write? I believe that first we begin with the teacher. I believe that just as a man must know something about equations if he is to teach algebra successfully, and must have some knowledge of current science if he is to teach physics and chemistry, so if one teaches writing he must himself be able to write. I believe also that he must be able to write better, more maturely, and more accurately than his students write….

I believe, then, that the teacher should know the agony of putting words on paper. We have some pretty careless talking about writing for fun, and the joy of just doing a simple composition. Writing anything that is worth writing is not pure joy unless you happen to be a most unusual person. Writing is hard work. It means formulating statements which must be read without the intonation, the context, the personality of the writer. (p. 71)

Writing is not easy, but the difficulty is forgotten if one is not writing frequently.

I think further that the teacher who writes is aware of the embarrassment about writing. I must confess that never have I been able to reread an article or book I have written except in galley form, and then I dread the task and try to do it mechanically. What has been said seems so futile, so awkward, so incomplete. …

First, therefore, I would say that in some modest way the teacher should be a person who uses writing, knows the satisfactions and difficulties of it, and lets his students know of those experiences. (p. 72)

First, I would ask for each student evidence that what he thinks important or worth writing will be accepted as such, and that, although he may be challenged, what he writes will meet with respect because it is his own statement. (p. 72)

A fourth condition is ample time. Good writing is not dashed off in fifteen or twenty minutes, and yet I have seen teacher after teacher take fifteen minutes of a period to make a hasty assignment, pass out papers, and give students twenty minutes to “write something.” Ernest Hemingway couldn’t do it; nor would he try. (pp. 73-74)

A fifth condition is response. Any writer deserves a response to what he has written. This is a far cry from the comment “good,” “bad,” or “indifferent.” It is a long way from red markings indicating punctuation and sentence structure errors. Of course there will be correction, but beyond that must come a response to what has been said -or to what the writer tried to say. Is the paper confused? The comment “I do not get your point” or “This is not clear to me. Why did you do this?” means much more than “fair” or “C.” …

Finally I believe there should be revision and rewriting. I know there are many who believe that a constant stream of writing will of itself produce quality. I doubt this; and doubt its stimulation of the writer. Instead it is my experience that the student values most the paper he has revised and the one he has struggled to make clear. (p. 74)

And here at the close may I offer one further criterion for inducing students to write, a criterion implicit in all that I have said: You have to like to teach writing. (p. 116)


An English Program Based on Present Needs (1939)

LaBrant, L. (1939, November). An English program based on present needs. The High School Journal, 22(7), 269-271.

LaBrant details the English program at the experimental and progressive The Ohio State University School.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40367158

Quoting LaBrant:

The English program for grades seven to twelve, inclusive, of the Ohio State University High School has been based on several premises generally accepted by the school faculty. Briefly, these are:

That the English curriculum should be an effort on the part of faculty and students to enable the latter to meet their language needs in listening, reading, speaking, and writing as adequately as possible.

That these needs should, in so far as possible, be met when and where they arise.

That both students and faculty should discuss and attempt to analyze these needs.

That consequently language growth and study are to be expected in all phases of school experience.

That some language experiences are developed most satisfactorily in classes in science, mathematics, or social studies.

That not all teachers are, however, equally skilled in assisting with all phases of language experiences, as, for example with personal or creative writing or with leisure reading; and consequently that students need a so-called “English” teacher who will assume certain specialized responsibilities and who will, in addition, study the general language growth of individual students and classes, and see that, as far as possible, adequate and balanced growth takes place.

That all language development should be considered in guiding a child’s work, and that consequently foreign-language experience is not to be separated from experience with the native tongue. (p. 269)


English in the American Scene (1941)

LaBrant, L. (1941). English in the American scene. The English Journal, 30(3), 203–209.

LaBrant argues for the need to focus on language in ways that address larger social and historical aspects of the human condition. She stresses context, choice in reading, and an “honest use of language” (p. 206).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/805755 

Quoting LaBrant:

Many persons accept the generalization that what we do in the way of making machines for killing, of building houses, and of producing food and clothing are the important matters of life, most significant of all in an emergency like today’s, and that language is a convenient tool, something like an assembly-line belt, already made and convenient for communication….High-school courses emphasize techniques and analysis of a few literary pieces. And so when we face a great crisis in human relations and social philosophy we turn to ammunition and guns and food supplies, meanwhile letting language take care of itself. We introduce, perhaps, a few books on the world-situation and feel that as teachers of language we have done all we need to do. Let me first of all point to the fact that language is our basic means of being human; that words are a part of our very tissues; and that our life as a democratic society is dependent upon understandings which must be wrought through language. (pp. 203-204)

It is a truism to say that every man’s every day calls for choices. We often infer from this that choice is between high and low, good and evil. One of the errors in our use of language is that we infer from it this contrast in phenomena. English teachers, who have accepted responsibility for teaching the people’s language, frequently make the mistake themselves. They say, for example: This is a good book (good for whom and why they do not always say); this is a good experience (I learned something important from it); this is a good sentence (it does not violate certain conventions). They do not examine, judge, and choose in terms of all that is happening in the situations with which they deal. Playing the violin may be a “good” experience. Nero’s notorious action shows the absurdity of overlook-ing the time and the place-the context. (p. 204)

For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that he teach in his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life.

These teachings it seems to me are imperative and must come first. Compared to these understandings the use of me for I, of who for whom, done for did, or walks for walk are trivia. Making neat diagrams of sentences which pervert truth is as wrong as participating in sabotage or obstructing the common defense-more wrong be-cause language deals with the most precious concepts we have. (p. 206)

Fearing controversial issues we have offered but meager emotional satisfactions through the reading of books dealing freely with such questions. I am not advocating a re-turn to the sentimentality of The Idylls or Sir Launfal but an honest dealing with ideals, human fears, and hopes.

Finally, and perhaps as never before, our students need to learn from literature to understand their own world, the world of this America. (p. 208)

Probably the foregoing means also a free-reading program, in the main, for whenever we begin to consider personal needs we meet individual variation. Frequently I have been told that a free-reading program is one in which there is no guidance and in which no prog-ress is made. I use the term here as always to mean a program in which pupil and teacher are free to select whatever meets the need of that student. (pp. 208-209)