The MLA Post I Have Been Dreading to Write

This post and I go back. Wayyyy back. I have been dreading to officially write this post because of how strongly I feel about this topic. I'm going to get to the point. Here is the main question: should students be taught MLA or Modern Language Association standards in the secondary classroom? If so, when? How old? Now, before I go making some folks angry about MLA, I want to go on record. I do not care if you teach MLA or APA, but one of them needs to be taught, and I would argue that the sooner the better is the most beneficial when it comes to education and developing young writers. 

I was sitting in a professional development last August when a group of teachers brought up the "controversial argument" of teaching MLA in the classroom. When this topic was broached, all of the sudden you saw the lights go on in people's eyes. Teachers that had been tucked safely away into their notebooks began to perk up in the seat. Pens went down. Others that had been paying attention to the presenter cast their gaze down, almost saying to themselves,  "here we go..." And we were off to the races. Let me sum up this debate in case you are not a secondary english teacher and are currently sitting behind your desk, or under your covers, or at your local coffee shop, and you are like, "I don't get it..."

Let me help you get it. 

The issue and debate here comes down to three main issues:

  1. High expectations of all students
  2. Willingness to teach something super difficult. 
  3. Growing knowledge in your area of expertise. 

I will sum this up as HIGH WILL TO GROW (Sounds a lot like mindset to me...)

There may be other concerns; however, these are the main ones. When the conversation started, I was immediately infuriated. One thing I LOVE about middle school is the complexity of youth mixed with eagerness to be challenged. My students love to be challenged and are ready for that challenge. This can be when I teach them to look through a lens of critical race theory or when we study the use of gender in a novel. As the kids say...they got this.

I was angry when I learned that the inconsistencies in the vertical alignment of curriculum was so staggered and haphazard. Currently, the sixth grade in my building teaches a full MLA Research Paper, but that may not be the case for all students or all classes in the district or at other grade levels. The dreaded term "teacher discretion" crept in to the conversation. People don't like being told what to teach. I get that. However, I also know that I used a type of formatting (whether it be APA or MLA) and that stuff is hard. No joke. I started using it in the tenth grade and needed it until the last period was placed on my master's thesis in my Master in the Art of English Teaching program. As much exposure is needed to make it easier for our college-going cultured students to adjust to standard and maintain rigor. Again, this may be APA or MLA. Teaching formatting is needed. 

"However, I also know that i used a type of formatting (whether it be APA or MLA) and that stuff is hard."

Many do not agree with me. Let me break down each category in terms of mindset and also strategy while teaching. 

Issue #1: High Expectations

My number ONE cause for alarm regarding this debate is high expectations. This reminds me of when I was a younger teacher and I didn't want to tell a student that they had a really low reading score because it would hurt their feelings. I was wrong then and the naysayers of teaching MLA to middle school students and above are wrong now. They can handle tough. I have seen it. My sixth graders start the year not knowing how to create a five-paragraph argumentative essay and leave completing a full MLA research paper.

Case study in point: I have had only one year where I looped sixth graders to seventh grade (I was the split team English teacher) and working with that group was amazing. Why? High expectations had already been established with this group, and I knew they could be challenged beyond that of a completed MLA style research paper. I really enjoy having students for a set period of time, but this was one case in my teaching career where I wondered at my desk, what if I had them for another year? What would the be limit to what they would learn as writers? How much of the system keeps them from growing as writers?

Issue #2: Willingness to Teach the Tough Stuff

I run into this issue quite often because teachers are pulled in 20 different directions all the time. Here is what happened to me during the timespan of 2:10-2:25 today. This is just today for a single 15 minute time block:

  • Hand out packet on in-text citations so students are prepared for tomorrow
  • Clarify due dates for class
  • Collect pens and pencils from students because they are almost gone for the year
  • Check in with two students who were upset regarding grades
  • Check in with another student who can't stay after school
  • Check 3 students grades in the grade book to update them on missing assignments due before break
  • Make two packets of work for students that will be gone for spring break
  • Check email
  • Take attendance because I forgot in the first 10 minutes of class
  • Designate a student to put away chromebooks and plug into slots
  • Ask students to stack chairs
  • Reset my agenda board for tomorrow

If I had a fixed mindset regarding this list, I might plead with you that teachers are so busy and you should feel sorry for us. Please don't. I asked for this job when I knew that I would be handed 150 some odd students for a year. I feel accomplished looking at that list and at least now understand why after 7 hours of doing that I want to crawl under the covers. I feel proud and sleepy. 

The point of this list is that it takes willingness to do hard when you are already doing hard. I think that phrase has become a mantra in my life and in blogging, let alone in the world of education. Teachers are already doing a million other things, and now we also have to do one more...figure out a way to teach MLA and make it accessible to new learners. 

Luckily, other teachers are making our job easier. Robert John Meehan said it best, "The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives." This is the part when I tell teachers to use their resources. For example, in my Launching the Research Unit post I state:

I like to start with an MLA flipbook. Tracee Orman at TpT makes an amazing updated flipbook that I catch former students using years outside of my class. It is an accessible format for middle school that just works. The process for teaching this usually involves giving students a resource, practice, and application. Repeat this process. As we work through the many drafts of research, we also practice each of these skills. You may not use MLA, but teach a format to students to help with formal tone and unified presentation. P.S. I also really love the MLA Purdue OWL website. I have students do a scavenger hunt of this each year. 

Additional Resources:

Something about a flip book makes me happy on the inside, but I also get happy when I realize the amount of resources available that make this easy for students to access tough information. 

"The point of this list is that it takes willingness to do hard when you are already doing hard."

Issue #3: Growing Knowledge in Your Expertise

This last issue always gets me. When I say gets me, I mean I am the most befuddled. We became teachers to never stop learning. Why are we so against learning! Ok. Rant done. Here is my case in point: I showed up to a team meeting with my brand new MLA 8th edition guide, brand new highlighter in tow, and mechanical pencil, all the while feeling ready to take on the world. I was met with hesitancy from my peers-almost belittled. In that moment, my MLA guide felt useless, but I felt reassured that I was doing the right thing by staying current on trends and updates.

We all should be on a continuous path to learn more information from each other, the world around us, and from information that is out there but perhaps we haven't encountered yet. I know this to be true of my mindset, belief system, and main mantra. Repeat after me: I can always know more. I hope all teachers have this mindset. There is a delicate balance between mastery and growth that always needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to mindset and writing. 

However, the mindset in the field of education currently reflects what my colleagues are feeling like they "know enough" or do not need to grow in different ways. This is staggering. I would have quit years ago if I had stopped learning. The bad ones should have quit years ago when they stopped. Staying up to date on research and current strategy is the single-most way I can stay on top of my game. It just takes more effort. 

All of these reasons lead to why I feel so strongly about MLA in the classroom. What are your thoughts? 

Writing Mindset Reflection: Do you teach MLA? How in-depth are you teaching the formatting and lessons? What side of the debate are you on?