Archives For stories

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Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.

Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.

Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.

The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity.  In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?

Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.

In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.

And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.

The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.

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Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”

An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:

“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”

So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.

So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?

The writers.
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.

The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.

If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.

“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”

-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)

If they wrote books for teachers,  the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.

 “When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND  “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)

“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)

“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)


And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)

“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)

The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their  process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:

Read. Write. Think.*

The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:

In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.

Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.

So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17) when the real reason for the story is revealed.  Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.

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For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice”  and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!

Continue Reading…

sols_6Why do I stay? This question is circulating on blogs and in videos by teachers from across the country. My friend Catherine, a teacher and literacy specialist, brought this question to my attention in her post this week. She was participating in a challenge organized by Two Writing Teachers called  The Slice of Life. The instructions for participating are on a link that goes first to a definition (“Slice of life is a phrase describing the use of mundane realism depicting everyday experiences in art and entertainment“) while other links provide procedures:

WRITE your slice. SHARE your link. GIVE some comments to (at least three) other slicers.

On one post she linked her Slice of Life post to blogger Beth Shaum’s video “Why I Stay”.  Catherine listed her reasons for staying and noted that other teachers have written about their reasons for remaining in the classroom, “despite changes in curriculum because of Common Core State Standards, new testing, and new evaluations that are being imposed on educators.” The video on Shaum’s blog addresses startling statistics about the teaching and the education profession:

More than 30% of new educators quit teaching after three years, and nearly 50% leave before hitting the five-year mark. (

Shaum’s video showed dozens of teachers from around the country sharing their reasons for staying in education.

I have not written to The Slice of Life challenge, but I did think the idea of recording my personal reasons as to why I have stayed and taught for 22 years in grades 6-12 would be an exercise that could both help me frame my own thinking and possibly encourage younger teachers who are often overwhelmed.

My reason for “why I stay” is purely selfish.…I want to share the stories.

I want to share with children, teens, and adults the stories they have read, seen, or heard.

I want to share the stories in picture books.
I want to share the stories in chapter books.
I want to share the stories in the canon.

So, I teach students to read stories so that we can talk and share the stories that make us human..

I want to share books.

I want to share books at every grade level.

hungry Whales Go_Dog_Go

I want to share books:

  • Go, Dog, Go
  • Hungry Hungry Sharks
  • The Whales Go By

I want to share more books:

  • Nancy Drew’s The Password to Larkspur Lane
  • The Twenty-One Balloons
  • A Wrinkle in Time

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I want to share novels:

  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Road
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I want to share stories written as dramas. I want to talk about:

  • Hamlet
  • Medea
  • The Importance of Being Ernest

I want to share stories made into film. I want to talk about:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • The Shawshank Redemption

I want to share stories in poems. I want to talk about:

  • The Odyssey
  • Paradise Lost
  • The Cremation of Sam McGee

Guernica Fall of Icarus

GW Delaware

I want to share the stories in paintings. I want to talk about:

  • Guernica
  • The Fall of Icarus
  • George Washington Crossing the Delaware

I want to share the stories that were responsible for essays and speeches. I want to talk about:

  • The Gettysburg Address
  • A Modest Proposal
  • Self-Reliance

I want to share the stories of people’s lives, stories about nature, and stories that mark cultural trends. I want to share:

  • Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?
  • Silent Spring
  • The Tipping Point

From the ancient lights of the campfires to the soft glow from a Kindle, our stories record our humanity.I stayed 22 years in teaching because I want students to understand that record of humanity. I stayed 22 years in teaching because I want students to respond to stories through writing and through speaking. And I stayed because I wanted to encourage students to record their own stories. I want to read and hear and see their stories.

In this great cultural experiment of public education for ALL, I stay to share the stories.

brainwith contentThis winter, I am discontented. I see less of the “click” of recognition in a student’s eyes when he or she “knows something”. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy (“old-fashioned person,” 1871, American English, of uncertain origin), my students used to come to class pre-loaded with information; they had a predictable set of stories in their brains. These were often fairy tales such as Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk or folktales such as Rip Van Winkle or Johnny Appleseed. And speaking of apple seed, students used to know many of the Biblical stories as well. They may have been misinformed that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an apple and did not know that they could thank John Milton’s Paradise Lost for that substitution, but at the very least students used to be familiar with the Garden of Eden stories, the genesis of multiple allusions.

Today’s students’ lack of content, specifically story content, means that a good deal of class time is spent on a “back story” so they can better understand all the allusions or references in a particular text. Allusions are critical to understanding almost anything taught in English: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Steinbeck, etc. For example, our 10th grade is beginning Beowulf this week, and we read the Burton Raffel’s translation. He opens with the monster Grendel down in his cave howling at the sound of men singing the song of creation. Grendel swears vengeance against the “Almighty” for the exile of his ancestor Cain:

He was spawned in that slime,
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel’s death.

“Can anyone tell me who Cain or Abel is?” we ask.
This year, only two out of 27 students had any idea about the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s relationship to Grendel is part of the monster’s motivation, and so we were forced to do a little “Bible as literature” storytelling. Unfortunately, the number of students who have no information about the most basic Old Testament stories, which happen to be the same stories in Torah and the Koran, grows every year.

Fortunately, we are a 1:1 district and our students are equipped to quickly use their devices to learn who Cain and Abel are, so we can stop and have them quickly research any allusion, but this immediate research on a digital device disrupts the flow of the story of Beowulf. Moreover, the need to constantly look up information ultimately turns every text into a hyper-text.

This constant researching could be reflected in measuring the lack of information our students have when they approach a task. Last December (2012), the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released and, despite significant improvements,  students in the United States did not rank as high as did students from other countries. The results were discussed at a forum at the Washington Post where  David Conley, CEO of the Education Policy Improvement Center noted,

“One of the great ironies is that we are headed into an age where students can get almost any piece of information off their phones, yet, what we are doing is getting more and more information into their heads. The goal is to go beyond that and make them understand that they have to own their own learning.” (Conley, Ed Policy Improvement Center)

I agree; students need to own content for successful recall and application. I have no objection to students improving their research skills; even Wikipedia is acceptable for quick textual reference research, but students must understand the content in their brains in order to apply that information when they encounter a text. Employing content and applying information is different from employing the skill of accessing information. Owning content is critical to understanding an author’s use of allusions or references. Owning content contributes to fluid reading and better understanding. However, not all owned content is equal.

My admiration for the plethora of animated cartoon sources that do provide story content with a modernized twist is a bit mixed. For example, the popular Shrek series is riddled with storybook allusions. Unfortunately, students often do not understand allusions in these modern re-tellings as parodies. Students need to be disavowed from a belief that Puss ‘n Boots is fat and wears a pink bow or that Snow White is very proud and vain. One could argue the same modernized treatment was done for the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales which have been made more palatable and child-friendly. However, these gruesome original stories were the allusions for writers in earlier centuries. When the Common Core State Standards suggested reading list is filled with the literature and informational texts from centuries past, the recently released cartoon parodies of the originals may not be particularly helpful in understanding these allusions.

While the students today are exposed to information from a myriad of sources, they need to own information to be educated. Students need content, stories and information that they understand, to apply to a text or problem without relying on a digital device. So, this winter, the heightened level of my discontent is measured by the increase of fingering for information on devices. I miss the light that would go off in the students’ eyes when they “knew something,” particularly if that “something” was a story.

I miss content.