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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…

birthday11July 3rd is this blog’s third anniversary.

WrdPress provides a map of where visitors accessed this blog.

WrdPress provides a map of where visitors accessed this blog since 2012.

One way of determining whether this three year venture has been successful is to look at the overwhelming amount of statistical information provided by the host of this site, To date, the stat page notes that there have been over 70,000 hits, the most popular search term has been Of Mice and Men, the most popular post has been Teaching Elie Weisel’s Night with Choice Books, and the most frequently used category for this teacher, not surprisingly, has been EDUCATION.

The other way to determine the success of this blog, however, is to reflect on how well writing has served as my own professional development for the past 36 months. In writing each post, I have tried to find links that support or refute a position. I have searched and researched all elements of the Common Core State Standards; read journals or policy statements from educators and education reformers; and cited hundreds of quotes, graphics, and statistics to support my ideas. Even if no one read this blog, the writing experience has been important.

Many of the ideas for blog posts come from links provided by other educators on Twitter. Many ideas come from the students in my classes or from news stories that are related to education reform. Then there are the ideas I have while I walk with fellow educator on weekends.
For example, I will notice how the ripples on the pond create an interesting pattern, and I will casually remark, “that reminds me of how students can create ripples when they discuss their book choices!”
“Well, that’s a great idea for a blog post!” she will respond.

I have discovered that I have little control over my need to write; that the impulse to set things into print is hard to ignore. In addition, the motivation to write comes at the most inconvenient times, often late in the evening, and I have seen many digital clocks click into the AM hours of the morning as I polish a piece.
“Are you still awake?” my husband complains.
“Just finishing,” and I huddle to hide the glow of the screen while I reflect and revise.

Nothing has taught me more about how to teach writing than my writing this blog. Nothing.
Nothing has made me appreciate how hard it is to meet the deadlines and requirements of assignments given to students. Nothing.
Nothing has made me more aware of how important developing confident writers is in preparing students for the real world. Nothing.

My friend, who also writes on her own blog, often quotes the scientist Louis Pasteur who said,

“In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”

On this third anniversary, I am confident that writing on this blog has helped me to become a more informed educator. Writing what I think about education prepares me to say what I think when I am at leadership meetings, or department meetings, or when I am teaching. I am primed to discuss any number of issues related to education because my mind has been prepared, and the chances that I will talk about these education issues is more than good.

On this blog’s third anniversary, I am convinced that the best professional development I have is to write what I think.

muckRight about now, the last week of April, my Advanced Placement English Literature students are noticing a frantic tone creeping into my voice.

“No, finish this multiple choice practice FIRST, then complete the essay prompts. Any questions? No? Let’s go, now. Hurry….hurry….HURRY!!”
“Geez, you are so crabby lately,” notes one.

I am crabby; I understand the pressure they will be under during the AP exam in May, and I want them prepared. In contrast, they just want to be fourth quarter seniors.

These weeks are the “boot camp” weeks before the exam, and I am trying to improve their ability to respond quickly and decisively to a prompt. They will be writing three separate essays; each read by an audience of one, a reader who will grade hundreds of essays a day. They need to make a clear argument.

For practice, I offered a choice of four prompts to students. We just finished reading Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, and each prompt touched on one aspect of the play: the text, the characters, the theme. Rather than have them write a full essay response to a specific prompt, I had them write two separate opening and concluding paragraphs for their two chosen prompts. I gave them forty minutes to do both. The whining began immediately:

“I have a hard time just writing a beginning and an opening.”
“I always start in one place and end in another.”
“I need to write the middle or I can’t write the end!”

“That’s because you write to find out what you think,” I respond, “and that should show up in the introduction or the conclusion.”

Since the AP exam is a timed test, 120 minutes for three prompt analysis and response questions, timed practices are helpful. These truncated practice essays are incomplete and rough, but they do help students practice how to reconcile an introduction with a conclusion in a short time. In these hastily written drafts of beginnings and endings, I can help them distinguish their good ideas from linguistic clutter so an AP reader will better appreciate their argument. I do not want my students to make a thesis so hidden that the AP Reader is hunting for the “manifesto in the muck”.

What “muck” you ask? Essays cluttered with empty words:  a lot, kind of, sort of, actually, stuff, thing, very, really, quite

Essays cluttered with the muck of empty phrases:

  • Because of the fact of
  • The reason…is because

Essays cluttered with the muck of statements of the obvious:

  • The author uses diction and syntax to communicate his meaning.
  • The theme is the message the author is trying to communicate.
  • Words have meaning.

In one block period, the students wrote the truncated essays of introductions and conclusions in response to O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play,  A Long Day’s Journey into Night.  We reviewed each draft to find the one powerful statement that publicly declared that student’s view, a statement that could get an AP reader’s attention. The prompts are in bold; student’s statements below each prompt:

PROMPT #1: Select a line you find especially memorable; analyze the reasons for its effectiveness.

  • When I read about this family, it reminded me of the advice, “only the strong survive’; the Tyrone family lives like a pack of animals, not a family.
  • If the characters in the play had the ability to leave behind their past, forget the things that made them lesser, they would be better off.

PROMPT #2: Describe how the author manages to give internal awakenings, discoveries, changes in consciousness the sense of excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action.

  • James is struck with the conflict of having someone say his greatest fear is being in a class he does not think he belongs. 
  • The choice presented to each character is which moral or ethical barrier to shatter in order to overcome the cycle of insanity.
  •  Literature is an extension of human understanding and comes from our musings, our curiosities, and our imaginations.

PROMPT #3: Discuss the contribution scenes of social occasions reveal about the values of the characters and the society in which they live.

  • Whether these experiences dealt with alcohol abuse, substance abuse, or general unhappiness in life, all topics were acted out to be ignored or forgotten about, yet these [experiences] remained the most memorable. O’Neill wanted the conflicts to be pushed aside, which then caused the audience to latch on and never forget.
  • We seek out the approval and forgiveness of others when our own soul’s condition is purely of our own pilot.

PROMPT #4: Explain how the tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others and that the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work.

  • In this way, each individual’s poisoned action spreads like a virus and affects all those in its proximity devouring them to the point of self destruction.
  • Edmund’s sickness is not just  source of unwanted strains on the family; it is an object to represent the family relationship.

When I come upon one of the above statements, in the beginning or the end of the draft, I can almost hear the “clink” that went on in the student’s head (and hand) as he or she drafted the essay.  At a point in the writing conferences that followed, a student will agree, “Yeah, that was when I figured out what I was writing about.” My experience is that students write their way into a thesis, and it is important for the student to recognize that statement, so he or she can parse away the clutter, removing the muck so that the AP Reader can find that statement too.

During this last week of AP English Literature practice, students will work at drafting responses to prose and poetry prompts. They will be writing their responses quickly, and I will still be crabby. But because of the practice, there will be less muck that covers a student’s manifesto in an AP literature essay response. After that, they can go back to being 4th quarter seniors.

One of my favorite cartoons features a young woman, obviously nervous, seated next to a white-suited, white-haired caricature of Samuel Clemens. Above her head floats a thought bubble,“‘I want to be a writer,’ she thought, mused, considered, said aloud, to no one, to herself, giving voice to the idea passion she had always had in her heart but had only recently discovered in her hand head.”

I also always wanted to be a writer, but the responsibility of writing stopped me. Writing was a task that I took very seriously. I had to write papers for courses I took. I had to write letters-personal and professional- and I had to write memos for work. Writing was a product that needed to be perfect. As a result, my writing duties had stifled my writing passion.

However, sixteen months ago I started this blog to share the ways I had increased the number of books in school classrooms. During the first month of entries, I wondered if I would have enough materials to write about on a blog about used books in class.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that what I have discovered is that writing is less product and more thinking. Sadly, I was an English teacher who required writing and encouraged students to write regularly in class, but who did not cognitively understand that writing is really a recording of thinking. I was always interested developing (and assigning) the prompt and collecting (and correcting) the final product. I did not fully understand the necessity of thinking as the most critical part of the writing until I began to write myself.

Now, as a convert to writing as thinking, I am using this post to encourage others to write in order to think.

October 19-20th, 2012 will be the National Day of Writing. The National Writing Project (NWP) is encouraging people to contribute to “What I Write” on their website:

What do you write or compose? Blog posts? Poems? Videos? Grocery lists, computer code, or song lyrics? Whatever you write, on Friday, October 19, use the hashtag #whatiwrite to share your compositions with the world as part of this year’s National Day on Writing.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has  links on their blog for people to read what authors say about why they write. The NYTimes Learning Network also has a page on their blog asking, “Post what, you ask? Well, could be…

  • Thoughts about what you write, whether it’s poetry, short stories, school essays, computer code, love notes, song lyrics or Facebook updates.
  • A link to some writing you want to show others.
  • A photo or drawing that illustrates something about writing, or illustrates something you’ve written.
  • Thoughts about things you’d like to write someday.
  • Notes on your writing process.
  • Thoughts on the role of writing in your life in general.
  • Advice about writing.
  • Links to good pieces about writers or writing

So, on Friday, October 19th, I will have my students create lists of topics they want to “think” about, topics* they want to explore in writing over the course of the year. We will collaborate on a master list using a Google doc that we can revisit over the course of the school year. I want my students to learn how to write, but more importantly, I want my students to learn how to write so they can think. I want they to feel free to write without constant assessment. I want them to write and read what they write to understand what they think. Hopefully, in this process they will discover that writing is not an academic responsibility, and that good writing is really good thinking. And I will imagine  thought bubbles over their heads as they write.

Share the hashtag #whatIwrite.

*Topic list created 10/18/2012

The New Year 2012 is here, and there is nothing more promising then a new calendar of opportunities. Now is the time to take stock of student progress and make plans for the second half of the year. Now is the traditional time to make a resolution. What resolution do I want to keep?

Resolution 2012

RESOLUTION: Assign less student writing that will be seen by the teacher alone.

Currently, the routine standard is student writing to teacher—teacher corrections back to student. So, why should a student’s writing be limited to this repeated stale volley of paper?

Classrooms, particularly language arts classrooms, are designed to be safe areas for students to engage in repeated practice. Unfortunately, that means school are limited in duplicating the demands of authentic world experiences. Yet, schools are charged with the responsibility of preparing students to become “productive citizens in an ever changing and dynamic society” (to paraphrase school mission statements everywhere…)  So, what can I resolve to do with the remainder of this school year  to try to make the student’s experience a real world experience?

I resolve to break the “assign, grade, return” cycle of student writing as much as possible.

The  purpose of writing is to communicate ideas, opinions,and/or information, and that purpose does not change once a student leaves school.The only differences may be that post-school writing will be on varied platforms, perhaps to wider audiences, or  limited in breadth or depth in ways that are not seen in the classroom.
Therefore, I resolve to assign writing that can be viewed by larger and diverse audiences, audiences outside the walls of the classroom.

I specifically resolve to:

-use persuasive  prompts in order to have students develop the skills to articulately express their opinions, and then share those opinions through different media;
-continue student blogging while encouraging students to write to each other on blogs beyond the standard “I liked what you wrote” response;
-place student presentations on school websites instead of limiting them to class time by posting links, QR codes, or embedding powerpoints for public viewing;
-use collaborative essays to improve transitions and organization in group assignments;
-encourage students to submit creative work to forums that actively seek to publish original work.

These five resolutions to make writing real in 2012 should also help me control the paperwork load and allow me the opportunity to give students the feedback they need in a more timely manner.

I also resolve not to grade everything a student writes, because sometimes students need to practice without penalties. That is also a real word experience.