A Former College Admissions Officer on Teaching College Essays by Amy Estersohn

my-small-page-notebookAs fall rolls into winter, I’m noticing that a lot of high school writing teachers are writing about teaching the college essay to their students.

I have a little bit to say about college essays.  Actually, I have a lot to say about college essays.  Before I was a classroom teacher, I read about 4,000 college applications over three years as a college admissions officer.   

If you work on college essays with your students, here are five things I want you to know about teaching college essays:

1.  A college essay is not the beauty pageant section of the application.

I’ve talked to dozens of students over the years who fear that their essays are going to receive the Simon Cowell (or insert harsh reality TV judge of your choice) treatment when they are being read by admissions officers.  As a result, a lot of student writers start aggressively self-editing ideas before they even start to write…. Their ideas aren’t impressive enough, their writing isn’t sparkly enough, etc. etc. etc.  As a result, the essays they submit are mild, canned narratives about a time they did something notable or won an award.

Here’s what I like to say to that kind of writer: a college admissions officer is going to have a lot of data points about you when he or she is reading your essay, including your performance on standardized exams, your academic history, your accomplishments and extracurricular activities, and recommendations from your past teachers.  If you try to present yourself as more impressive than who you are, college admissions officers will be able to tell that something fishy is going on.

Instead, college admissions officers are looking for evidence that you are thinking about something, that you can organize your thinking, and that you understand how to present yourself professionally in writing.

2.  Diagnose and treat common college essay issues.

Early drafts of student essays tend to fall into one of two categories: Play it Safe or Mile Wide, Inch Deep.

Students whose essays fall into the Play it Safe category write a story where readers can easily predict the ending and the message, if one exists.  An example of a Play it Safe essay is one where a student writes about overcoming a rough sports season to win a tournament is going to write about the importance of optimism and hard work.  The essay could be adequately written and could demonstrate an understanding of how to use word choice to impact meaning or how to vary sentence structure to engage the reader.  However, a Play it Safe essay lacks engagement and entanglement with a complex idea.

Encourage Play it Safe writers to consider a difficult question their essays could address. For example, how do you save face during a demoralizing season? What does it feel like to be an athlete on a team where the games aren’t well-attended by the student body?  If you play on a team where your games are well-attended, what does it feel like to have such a big audience for your victories and your fumbles?   What does it feel like when a coach says something like, “You’ll play better next time, I know it,” and then you don’t?  Is the coach lying, trying to be optimistic, or a little bit of both?

Students who write Mile Wide, Inch Deep essays have a lot to say, but in saying so much about their background, their hobbies, and their families, they often lose sight of an interesting story.  Find the golden nugget sentence in their essays and tell students to make that golden nugget sentence the first line of a brand-new essay that will only be on that one topic.  Remind Mile Wide, Inch Deep writers (again) that college admissions officers are going to come into an application knowing a lot more about the student than what’s on the essay, so there is no need to review what the admissions officer is already going to know.

(Side note: it might be worthwhile to go through the Common Application as a class to show writers what the admissions officer is going to know, including things whether the writer has moved around during high school, what his parents do for a living, how many siblings she has, and what he might want to study in college.

3.  Better to have many mediocre drafts than one near-perfect piece.

Depending on how many colleges a student applies to and what the applications look like, a single student may have to produce between 1 and 15 original pieces of writing for his college applications.  The more mediocre drafts and half-baked ideas a student is able to get down, the easier it will be to churn out an answer to a question like “What do you do for fun?” and “Explain something meaningful to you.”

If you teach writing workshop, you may ask students to write a page or so a day for a span of several weeks.  Invite them to write about what they think about in the shower, what they think about on long runs, what keeps them up at night.    It’s no secret that I enjoy writing in a small notebook… so that when I draft, I can write more pages and then brag to my writer friends about how many pages of rough work I produced.

4.  You (English teacher) shouldn’t be the only one reading a near-finished college essay.

I have always encouraged students to share their work with family members, coaches, clergy, and friends for feedback.  Sometimes we as teachers only see the student in one way and approach a piece of writing through an assessment lens and an assessment lens only.  If a student shares an essay draft with a trusted person in their lives, they’ll get the kind of feedback that’s most important to the essay: a check on whether this essay sounds like them or not.

5.  It should be clear from the first paragraph what the essay is mostly about and what issue, conflict, or question it will address.

This is probably my most non-standard advice.  Writers love to play, and part of creative and valuable play is play with leads.  Student writers often try blind leads, where they leave the reader guessing on setting, characters, and central issues until partway through the piece.  We see this kind of trick all the time when we read, so of course we want to try it ourselves.

However, this trick is likely to backfire when the admissions officer reading an application is underslept, overcaffeinated, and on application 72 of their weekend expectation of 80.  It is likelier to confuse and frustrate the reader.  On the other hand, if the writer makes it clear what the essay will mostly be about from the first paragraph, it allows the reader a smoother time reading through the thoughts to follow.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com.   Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.


Better Teaching: Please tell me your story

I already knew they were hard workers. This group of girls spent a lot of time in my classroom after school. They huddled together at the far table, speaking in a language I did not understand. They asked questions occasionally, afraid of being wrong.  

“Is this right?” one would say, timidly showing me her iPad where she’d written a few sentences in the Docs app. Returning to her table, she’d share my response with her friends.

They held on in AP English by decimal points as each grading period ticked by. Lucky for them, I scored on improvement, not on the AP writing rubric.

In class we watched the documentary “A Place to Stand,” based on the book by the same name by Jimmy Santiago Baca who became a poet while serving time in prison. Baca’s story captivated my students. They identified and analyzed the argument: “Education matters. Fight for it. Words matter. Learn them. Write them. They empower you..”

Some students understood that more than others. These girls, for sure.

We read several of Baca’s poems. Although mine is primarily a non-fiction course by nature of AP Language and my syllabus, I know that it’s through poetry that my students more easily grasp the beauty and intention in an author’s craft.

The task was to re-read Baca’s poem “As Life Was Five” and to write a reflective piece in response to it.

These girls were struggling, so I finally joined them at their table.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“We just aren’t sure,” Biak said. She spoke more often than the others, although her English was only a little better.

“Can I see what you’ve written?” I asked, and she timidly passed me her writing, carefully penned on notebook paper.

She quickly broke into explanation:  “I wanted to write my own poem. I don’t know how, and I don’t know…” Words tumbled out, and she lowered her head, waiting for me to read the page.

I looked, and before I could read anything, the words “Burmese!! STUPID and CRAZY!” shouted at me.

“Wait,” I said, “I thought you were from Burma.”

Five voices rose in chorus:  “Yes, yes, we are from Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Chin.”

I needed them to teach me. I’d never heard of Chin, and my knowledge of Burma was limited to the first few chapters of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I’d tried to read and abandoned years ago.

“Will you tell me your story?” I asked, looking closely into the small faces of these beautiful young women, similar yet so different in features and personality.

Biak began to talk.

“We are from the state of Chin in Burma. The Chin are the mountain people. The Christians. The Burmese hate the Christians.”

And then they all talk and tell me their story:

They fled Burma with their families, leaving grandparents and loved ones behind. Sometimes not getting to say goodbye for fear the secret of their journey would be told. They traveled in groups, mostly at night, walking, walking, walking, they said. Often barely eating food, and even then, mostly rice balls or an egg stirred into water.

Bawi told of a Buddhist monk who acted as their guide. “He wouldn’t let us pray,” she said. “Every time we tried to pray, he would knock away our food. ‘Pray to me,’ he’d say, ‘I’m the one who gave you food, not God.’ He was so scary!”

“I lost my shoes,” Biak said, “I walked for miles and miles with no shoes, and the.. What are those things?” she turned to her friends, motioning with her hands like claws, “…those things that stuck to my feets?”

“Thorns,” they said.

“Yes, thorns stuck in my feets, but I had to walk. Walk and walk.”

“Walk quickly and don’t let go,” Kimi said.

“There was a pregnant woman with us. She could not keep up. When we reached the border of Malaysia, she could not run. I do not know what happened to her.”

“I remember we heard the POW POW POW. We had to run as fast as we can to cross the border. I was so little. My legs short. I was so scared.”

Biak begins to cry. She bows her head and covers her face with her hands, “I don’t like to think about it. I remember my grandmother’s face. We barely got to tell goodbye. She cried so much.”

I look around the table. Their eyes shine with memories.

“You all left family behind, didn’t you?”

They nod, and I see Van’s chocolate eyes pool with tears.

“Did you travel together?”

“No! But we all have same stories. All Chin students do,” Duh says.

“Wow,” I say, “Just wow.” My heart throbs in my chest, heavy with the weight of these stories. Resilience takes on new meaning.

“So you must think it’s pretty lame when your classmates whine about having to work a three hour shift and that’s the reason they cannot do their homework.”

The tension breaks, and they laugh.

“What an amazing gift you’ve given me,” I say, “You need to write your stories.”

“I wanted to write a book,” Kimi says, “but I don’t know how.”

I smile. “We can work on that.”

My heart changed after that chat with my girls from Chin. I also felt chagrin. I waited three months into the school year to extend the important invitation:  “Tell me your story.”

I can come up with fourteen different reasons why. None of them matter.

Throughout the fall, I struggled with my classes because I focused on the skills needed to be successful in AP English instead of focusing on the individuals who needed to learn the skills to be successful in life. I forgot why I wanted to teach teenagers in the first place.

Perspective matters.

The most important conversation is the one that invites our students to tell us their stories.

Those young women from the state of Chin grew to trust me because I asked, and I listened. They told me later that I was the first teacher who asked them to tell me their stories — they had all attended U.S. public schools for at least four years.

I am sure other teachers assumed they knew. I thought I knew until I saw the emotion in five pairs of eyes. “We all have same stories,” Duh had said, but that is not true. They all have similar experiences. Their stories are uniquely personal, and they serve as cardinal prerequisites to the identities of each individual.

Identity matters.

How our students see themselves — as teenagers, thinkers, readers, writers, friends, students — matters, and to instruct the individual we must know what she believes about her abilities and her capabilities, both of which have been shaped in one way or another before she ever steps through our door.

Peter Johnston helped me understand the importance of identity in his book Choice Words. He reminds us, “[Children] narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23).




Trust and esteem are imperative to effective conferring. They are imperative to effective teaching. They are two cornerstones of conferences that allow for the relationships students need with their teachers, the relationships students need to learn.

If our goal is to help our students incorporate reader and writer into their identities, we must build foundations that allow them to take on the behaviors of those who read and write. Equity and autonomy create balance in this foundation and become the other cornerstones.

All students must feel that we meet with them fairly and without judgment. They must know our goal is to inspire independence as they become more effective readers and writers — and of course, literate citizens.

Really, it all begins with the invitation:  “Please, tell me your story.”


Graduates Lewisville High School Class of 2016

by Biak Par
Far from my Home, my Family
When looking at the sky they seem so happy
But me,
Thinking about that day
Every word they speaks, every looks, every smiles, every laugh
They tear me apart, the soul sing Be Strong
That day
Every word they talk, it burn my ears like Hell
Its torture me every night, in intimidate me every day
When I see those similar faces
That day
Those word, those eyes         
Tear my heart into two pieces.
Those words are as sharp as a razor
They call me foolish, Yea, I don’t know them
That day
My body fills with wound and remorse.
It like drawing into the water, I could not breathe nor talk,
Walking to class
All eyes on me,
Looking down with hope that there is a place I can conceal
But the room seems so small
As I take a step to the room, the room seems colder
Like I was at Antarctica,
Very Cold
Looking at the room I was isolated for this people,
This entire people are strangers.
That day
Standing still
People examine me, like I am from the others planet
That day…
My tremble body, drum in my blood
Eyes fill with water,
That day
The word of Burmese, such as STUPID, CRAZY echoed through my ears
Stupid, crazy,
My mouth wants to shout, but my mouth feels numb
And makes my throat feels tight like I am being choked,
Almost tearful
Wanting to run away can’t bear the exposes of feeling being hunted.
That day
Eyeing for a place to seat
But none of them invites me or speak,
It like I am walking into a room full of a babies Dolls,
They do not talks
But their EYES,
Their evil eyes talk, its say get out of this room
That day
Head down, looking at the floors as I walk toward to the edge of the room,
Seat alone,
The room feels so dark, so lonely and scary
Even, I was surrounding by those people
That day
My silent cry, wishing I can revisit to where I’ll be safe
Because every second, every minute, every hours this place seems so hazardous
That day…
Hopes and dreams are fading away like the wave of the cloud fade, little by little.
From that day the world is never the same
That day, change my life
Made me feels like a woman, made me realize
That because I am different from them (Burmese) and I only speak
They destroy and killed my hopes, my thought, my believe,
The thought of what might come next. I am Scared.
My soul sing to me, be strong. BE Strong Biak Par. Be STRONG.


#3TTWorkshop –Right Now Literacy

My 11th grade curriculum overview begins:  Unit I of English III invites students to explore multi-genre texts that reflect diverse perspectives through reading and writing. Students evaluate the credibility of different viewpoints and consider how the ideas of others strengthen their own voice.

I set out to design lessons that met these guidelines. I began introducing a variety of contemporary texts in a variety of forms — all about high interest, high profile topics. Good idea, I thought, for a never-an-empty-seat diverse class of sixteen year olds.

My plans quickly met resistance right there in the classroom, and I faced the terrifying conclusion:  My students are too biased to recognize bias, too emotionally attached to their own viewpoints, so they are blinded to the viewpoints of others.

Reminds me of a few of my “friends” on Facebook, a few of the people I follow on Twitter, a lot of the stories on pretty much any type of social media.

This fall as I’ve designed lessons, it’s been one puzzle piece after another as I’ve worked to meet the needs of all of my students in the limited amount of time they are with me. (Accelerated block means I have them only one semester.)

Then, the presidential election happened. The doublespeak, the false news, the protestors, the name calling, the ramifications, the incivility…on every side.

Obviously, my students are not the only ones who suffer from a suffocating bias that makes them blind.

And I am bothered. I know many of you are bothered, too.

So as educators, what do we do about it?

I wrote about this idea of Right Now Literacy in a post as I reflected on NCTE. I would love for the educators I trust most to help me think and expand this idea in a once a month post. The first Wednesday of each month, I’ll first get the ideas rolling and then ask questions to Shana and Lisa, and then we’ll run a post centered around my on-going investigation of right now literacy.

We invite you to join this conversation by voicing your own thinking in the comments. Here goes:

Amy:  We all attended some great sessions at NCTE, and we’ve all written posts with some of our reflections. One session that we attended together (thanks for saving me a seat) shines as a highlight for me:  The panel discussion called Expert to Expert: The Joy and Power of Reading with Kylene Beers, Pam Allyn, Ernest Morrell, and Kwame Alexander. (Lisa, I know you cried at least once. I would’ve slipped you a tissue if I had one.)

What was your biggest takeaway from that session?

Lisa: My biggest takeaway is that I should bring Kleenex to NCTE sessions. Rookie mistake. I had no idea how powerful this learning would be!

I wrote yesterday about Kwame Alexander’s insights that we must “be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope,” and that we must “help students become more human.” These ideas have propelled quite a bit of writing and reflecting in recent days as I reexamine my daily practice through the lens of developing my students as people as well as learners.

Early in my career, I was just getting my footing. I taught the way I had been taught and the way my collaborating teachers were teaching. It was pretty traditional. But about a decade ago, our department really started changing. More choice, more authentic assessments, more student voice. I learned to talk with my students instead of at them. Alexander’s quotes above reiterate this to me. Hope for the future flourishes when people take ownership of resolving problems with well reasoned and fair solutions. In this case, allowing students to take ownership of much of their learning fosters hope for their futures as critical thinkers and skilled communicators.

In that same vein, I’ve examined the resources I have made available to kids, because as Kylene Beers said in the same session, “If you don’t have kids falling in love with reading, take a look at the books in your room.”  All of these ideas together remind me that I need to consistently refine my role in the classroom to see learning through the eyes of my diverse students and their unique experiences. While my ideas, plans, and suggestions might guide our daily practice, it’s the students that fuel the inquiry and it’s their discoveries that we expand on to emulate in writing, debate as a class, and guide future reading selections.

Shana:  Pam Allyn is right up there with Penny Kittle and Tom Romano in terms of people who have impacted my teaching life profoundly.  She is brilliant and brave and I fell madly in love with her and her work at NCTE last year, when I sat next to her mother to listen to a similar session.  We got to turn and talk to our neighbors about a variety of topics, and at the time, I was pregnant with my daughter.  I’ll never forget Pam’s mother telling me about the books she’d read to Pam as a young child, and I think of that every time I read to Ruthie–look what a literary giant was borne of a simple indoctrination into a love of reading.

But, I digress.  Pam referred to the fact that the day she spoke was the anniversary of the Gettysburg address, a “hopeful story on a ground of despair.”  She mentioned this in the context of saying that “we’ve been enculturated to allow injustice to occur, especially in education.  We have to say when something isn’t working.

For me, that rang true.  I can’t sit back and listen to people discuss practices of blatant readicide, assuming someone else will speak up–they have been enculturated not to.  Instead of viewing this as a battle, though, I think standing up for what’s right is an act of hope.  As Kwame said, “Teachers, librarians, and parents are purveyors and manufacturers of hope.  We have to offer literature to kids to help them find, raise, and share their voices.”  That’s what I want literature to do for kids, and I have to speak up about it.

Amy:  When Ernest Morrell answered Kylene’s question about the kind of literature we should be reading now with the comment: “We are in a new classic movement in English Language Arts. It’s a need for right now literature.” I thought of a million reasons why a workshop pedagogy fits the immediate need of students today. It wasn’t seconds before my brain connected so many dots made bold by the election:  What we really need is Right Now Literacy, not just literature.

Here’s some of the thoughts percolating in my notebook (They may even work as chapter headings).

  • Story as an Equalizer — How do we give voice to every student’s story?
  • Audience Participation — How do we truly give voice if we are the only listener?
  • Communication as Compromise — How do we move speaking and listening skills to the forefront of instruction?
  • Reading as Literacy Presencing — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to see themselves in the books they read?
  • Reading as a Bridge — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to view multiple perspectives?
  • Critical Lenses — How do we teach bias, fallacies, multiple viewpoints, how to validate of sources, including a focus on digital literacy?
  • Design Thinking — How do we shift learning to designing? This is what employers want.

How do you define Right Now Literacy? What would you add or take away?

Shana:  Amy, you are so great at conceptualizing books as mirrors, windows, or doors.  I was thinking about this and realized that while I’ve heard those terms thrown around a lot at NCTE, I don’t know where they originated.  After some googling I discovered the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who pioneered the idea of taking these terms from architecture and applying them to the reading of literature.  Here are her words:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

So, those concepts to me are central to what Right Now Literacy is:  in an era of homophily and a lack of cultural responsiveness, we need to teach kids how to see not just literature as windows, doors, or mirrors, but also the stories of other people’s lives.  I’ll draw on the Tom Newkirk lovefest when Tom’s editor read aloud the first line of his book, Minds Made for Stories:  “Our theories are really disguised autobiographies, often rooted in childhood.”  She advised us to get curious about the stories that lead people to their stances and belief.  I don’t think kids know how to do this, and for me it’s a big part of Right Now Literacy.

Lisa: I love what Shana shared about literature reflecting the “larger human experience,” and how we seek ourselves in books. In addition to these ideas, I think what Amy referred to as “suffocating bias” is at the top of my Right Now Literacy Focus.

Literacy instruction can be daunting enough when goal is to help students gain the necessary skills to first comprehend, then analyze, and evaluate what they read. This is, of course, in addition to the self-affirmation piece Sims references. But now, it’s become downright demoralizing that teaching literacy must not only mean standing guard against bias, but evaluating sources of “news” for outright lies.  

But while it’s difficult to stomach that teaching these additional skills has to be a part of Right Now Literacy, and that we need articles like NPR’s “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts,” this is necessary work in our modern world. Students need to be able to sift through the information around them, tossing out the misleading and sometimes incendiary “news,” if we are to hope that they can synthesize the perspectives and get back to the enlightening work of finding that self-affirmation referenced above.



photo by Jeremy Thomas   Longmont, United States

Amy:  Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Lisa and Shana. Dear Readers, I hope you will join the conversation, too. What are your thoughts on a Right Now Literacy?

Teaching Humans and Other Daily Adventures

A few posts back, I quoted several brilliant speakers from NCTE in The Joy and Power of Reading session I attended with Amy and Shana. I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to hear such well known and powerful educators and writers speak in person before, and I sat (once I got over my fangirl fawning) in awe at their brilliance and passion.

oneKwame Alexander stuck with me very specifically.

I recognized his name from his popular book The Crossover, but it was his quick smile (that goes all the way to his eyes – a sign of sincerity of character, I’ve been told) that kept my eyes sliding back over to watch him think and wait for him to slip in another insight that should be immediately printed on an inspirational poster for every classroom and dentist’s waiting room in America.

In his cozy green scarf and olive colored jacket, he just looked like poetry personified. A man whose worldly experiences are outshone only by his worldly ambitions. A man you want to have a cup of coffee with, just to sit and sip and feel smarter by proximity. A man who, in his own words, knows the value of helping students to “become more human.”

So, in the weeks since the conference, I’ve been working that “more human” perspective over in my mind. It’s led me to some pretty serious reflection about what I used to “do to” kids.

Never in my career have I strayed from the answer that I teach “because of the kids.” They are the reason I can’t comprehend ever leaving the classroom. They are the reason I stayed in the profession, when early on, I wasn’t sure it was where or who I really wanted to be.

Yet, I too have gone through years, weeks, units, lessons, where I got down on myself for not “getting through.” Whether it be through the content or through to their long term memories. In both cases I ended up feeling constantly behind. Chasing my lesson plan book across each week, racing toward an assessment or final exam time. (To be honest, I don’t know why I was in such a hurry…the scantron machine used to give me nightmares. Listen to all those beeps! They haven’t learned ANYTH…Oh. Wait. I messed up the key. Great.) 

And, while that stress is still very real in some necessary instances (not the scantron stress, thankfully…I’ve moved well beyond that special form of educational torture), for the most part, I save my energy. My colleagues and I are working to provide opportunities each and every day for our students to grow as learners and skill-wielding consumers of information. Each class period is like a buffet of literacy with reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, self-reflecting, and problem solving on the menu almost daily. We, as teachers, are working hard to root all of our foundational work in the standards, and therefore the assessment of those standards, but if that were our only focus, we could (and for some, probably would) easily teach the way that we used to.

But workshop returns students to that foundational level too and makes them co-planners. Choice puts students back in on that ground floor in order to let their voices speak their discovered truths instead of only those of their teachers. We’re not just sending students to the bookshelves and waiting for the class to start collectively singing kumbaya, but we are encouraging them to reinvest in their own learning through some much needed validation of their interests.

Basically the divide between the traditional of what I used to plan and the recent effort to balance it with workshop, stems from the question:

How can I focus on helping my students become more human, if I’m wrapped up in only my own plans for their education?

It’s a delicate balance, for sure. We have mandated tests, the necessity for a well-versed and inquisitive electorate, our desire to just get students actually reading, and countless other seemingly contradictory notions that fly around our profession. But when faced with the uncertainty that is every single day in our classrooms, the undeniable need to encourage, model for, and then trust our students as readers and writers is the only way to make real progress, in my opinion.

Yes, we (the teachers) are learning too. The accountability piece is occasionally far too optimistic to be effective. The right ways and times and books to help our students challenge themselves aren’t always readily obvious or available. Reading goals are made and consistently broken in the name of “I had other stuff to do,” and if I could get in an extra four hours or so of prep everyday, I might feel prepared…ever. But this is the way of it. This is what growth looks like it’s messy and scary and stressful and totally, completely, unquestionably, worth it. Our students depend on us to facilitate learning. That doesn’t mean we need to or get to dictate every facet of that learning at their expense.  two

In that regard, Alexander also said that day that, “we [educators] have to be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope.” In my opinion, the way we do that is to work not only for our students, but more closely with them as well. That means exploring mentor texts and connecting the author’s craft moves to students’ independent novels. It means taking time to conference with students both during reading and workshop time, and also providing feedback on low stakes writing throughout a unit. It means encouraging kids to talk, and reminding ourselves to listen. It has to also mean providing materials for students to see themselves in the written and printed word, because students are more human when we recognize the many facets of their humanity.

I want to give my students hope by handing them mirrors and pens at the same time. I want to manufacture hope through encouragement of students’ growing talents and fuel that development with repeated exposure to challenging and engaging prose, poems, arguments, and drama.

In an interview with NPR back in April, Alexander also said, “I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to worry or wonder or hope that things are going to get better. I spend a lot of time making things better.”

Our students live in a scary, dangerous, often depressing world. Our classrooms can be, and arguably need to be, safe places where our kids feel secure enough to explore, question, challenge, and deepen their thinking, not just to answer the questions I ask, but answer the questions they have.

We work everyday, as Alexander says, to “make things better.” As I said last week, skill development is my professional responsibility and human development is my personal responsibility. We’re all in the business of developing humans, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s an exciting and daunting task. It’s also an impressive responsibility. I love knowing I’m not alone in embracing that responsibility. You’re all right there with me.

Mr. Alexander, I’d like to hug you if you’re up for it. You are truly an incredibly inspiring human.

Which thoughts of great educators are guiding you right now? What’s making you reflect on our practice? Please comment below! 

Opening a Space to Help Others and the Spirit to “Lean in”

I sat at the Heinemann breakfast at NCTE listening to those who knew and learned from him honor the legacy of Donald Graves. Penny Kittle began. She spoke of Don’s ever mindful mission to “open the space to help others” and how he had a “lean in” spirit. Everyone he spoke to knew he listened, knew he truly cared about who they were as people as well as who they were as teachers. Penny said Don had a “settle the soul” effect on those he encountered, even strangers in an airport on the way to NCTE after 9/11. In a time of turmoil, Don publicly read poetry.

Every individual who spoke that morning shared a credo, rooted in the influence of Donald Graves.

We listened, enthralled in the passion and purpose that bound us together as educators — all attending a conference intent on improving our practices to better instruct the children we teach.

I have only felt this kind of community two other times in my career:  once at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Literacy Institute, the other at the North Star of TX Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute in 2009.

In class this week, my students and I read a poem that lead to a discussion about indelible moments, not just the ones that mark us with memories we cannot shake, but the ones that infuse us with new found understanding, new purpose, new hope. They change us for the better.

My experience with North Star changed me for the better. I owe a lot to this writing project.

I had only been in the classroom three years, and I was newly assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition. I didn’t have much of a clue. That summer I met other educators, who like Don Graves, had that “lean in” spirit. They knew how to “settle the soul.”

Dr. Carol Wickstrom lead with wisdom and wit and listened as I expressed frustration about my lack of preparation to teach an advanced writing class. Kip Nettles demonstrated daily routines of writing workshop instruction and modeled how these moves could have lasting effects on writers.

I grew to love the other teachers who attended that ISI with me that summer. We wrote. We shared. We worked hard to learn the meaning of authenticity in writing instruction. We cried as we read our writing, and we cried as we listened to the heartfelt writing of one another.

Heather Cato showed me how to “play” with technology and taught me how to effectively use it for instruction. She became my dear friend, thinking partner, and first writing collaborator, and along with Molly Adams, we started the blog Three Teachers Talk.

Few people know the history of Three Teachers Talk, but I tell it when I lead professional development, which thanks to an ever growing move to Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop has been quite a lot.  In that history are the roots of what Don Graves modeled so ardently:  How do we open the space to help others?

We started writing at Three Teachers Talk as a way to share how we internalized what we learned through our National Writing Project (NWP) experience. We wanted to help others welcome authentic choice writing practices into their instruction. We wanted to stay connected as friends and collaborators.

Molly and Heather have since moved to other great spaces in their careers. I am sure they write other places now:  Molly at her high school and with NWP and Heather as a curriculum and instruction leader in her district. I follow (stalk) them and celebrate their successes. I will be forever grateful for their listening hearts and “lean in” attitudes, especially Heather who shouldered me along at a time when I wore heavy boots to work each day.

It’s belonging to a community that brings out the best in who we want to become. When we surround ourselves with those with the same passion to learn and grow and share, we learn and grow and share passionately — or at least we learn how to open the spaces to do so.

Another North Star TC Amanda Goss opened a space for me when she told me about the UNH Literacy Institute and that I could take a class from Penny Kittle. I did, and my world shifted. My teaching took on new meaning as did my writing, and I met the friends who now write with me at Three Teachers Talk.

So many North Star TC’s have opened spaces for me that have helped me grow as an educator and as a human:  Audrey Wilson-Youngblood, Carol Revelle, Dr. Leslie Patterson, Marla Robertson, Juanita Ramirez-Robertson, and Holly Genova, Whitney Kelley, and Amber Counts.

Thank you for “leaning in,” “settling my soul,” and walking with me on my journey to become who I want to become.

In the summer of 2013, I sat in a class at UNH and listened to Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk talk about the influence of Donald Graves on writing instruction. They co-edited the book Children Want to Write, compiling his writing, research videos, and presentations to teachers and spoke warmly of their mentor, Don. In chapter one, they write:

“We used to joke that after a talk, a line of teachers would wait to speak to Don. And each one would say some version of, “I thought that you were speaking just to me.” That was his gift, an uncanny sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers…Before the advent of No Child Left Behind, he saw the negative effects of mass testing — testing is not teaching, as he claimed in one of his book titles.

“But more significantly, he could articulate, and even dramatize, the reasons we all went into teaching in the first place — the challenge of monitoring the progress of students; respect for the decision making and reflection (even improvisation) of thoughtful practice; the rock-solid belief that student learning is tied to teacher learning; the need for focus on the key goals of learning (cutting through the curricular clutter); and his belief that no system or program — even those drawn from his own work — could predetermine the decisions a teacher must make. He stood like a rock in the face of anything that diminished this form of learning. It is a message more critical now than when he was presenting three decades ago.”

Ten years into my teaching career now, I embrace Don Graves message. I thank those of you who have helped me get here. I can only hope I can emulate his “sense of empathy and understanding for the situation of teachers” and stand “like a rock” as I teach my own students through the lens of Don Graves teachings:

“Teaching…[is] a form of research; it [is] real intellectual work” (6).

“…create the “conditions” for writing to occur and for students to become invested in their work” (11).

“Children want to write” (15).

“People want to write” (20).

“…when students cannot write, they are robbed not only of a valuable tool for expression but of an important means of developing thinking and reading power as well” (20).

“A democracy relies heavily on each individual’s sense of voice, authority, and ability to communicate desires and information” (20).

“Good teaching does produce good writing” (21).

“Writing is most important not as etiquette, not even as a tool, but as a contribution to the development of a person, no matter what that person’s background and talents” (21).

“Writing contributes to intelligence” (21).

“Writing develops courage” (22).

“Inane and apathetic writing is often the writer’s only means of self-protection” (22).

“Writing also contributes to reading because writing is the making of reading” (22).

“Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic systems are all at work when the child writes, and all contribute to greater skill in reading” (23).

“The ability to revise writing for greater power and economy is one of the higher forms of reading” (23).

“Children want to write before they want to read” (23).

“Neglect of a child’s expression in writing limits the understanding the child gains from reading” (24).

“…if writing is taken seriously, three months should produce at least seventy-five pages of drafts by students in the high school years” (26).

“Seldom do people teach well what they do not practice themselves” (27).

“Children may see adults read and certainly hear them speak, but rarely do they see adults write” (27).

“A single completed paper may require six or more conferences of from one to five minutes each” (29).

“Without information a student has nothing to write about” (31).

“Writing is the basic stuff of education” (35).


One Semester of a Workshop Classroom: A Reflection by Jessica Paxson

It’s December.  If you’re like me (i.e. HONEST), you’ve begun your Very Important Countdowns (V.I.C.s).  







Okay, so I’m not counting down until next school year yet.  First, that would be incredibly overwhelming.  Second, I maybe sorta cry any time someone mentions these students no longer being with me every day.  Third, I just pulled out my sweaters, and certainly do not have my summer reading list ready yet.

However, I am certain (a.k.a. extremely hopeful) I’m not alone in tending to focus far too much on what I can do better, but hardly at all on the victories of the year.  Considering the fact that this is my very first semester of workshop methods, improvements are rampant and victories seem more like weak, flickering dollar store candles.

I thought it would be best to reflect publicly on these victories in the hope that others might reflect on their own faithfulness in the trenches.

imagesStudent Victory #1: Seyi.

Seyi assured me on the first day of school that I would not be able to find him a book he would enjoy.  I said, “Challenge accepted,” and returned the following Monday with a brand new book I knew he would love.  Towering over me at about 6’3” and exuding the desire for personal growth and holding himself to a high standard, I knew Seyi was a basketball player before he ever told me.  During my conference period, I scoured TTT for book recommendations for young men, and this one immediately jumped out at me.  I went to Barnes and Noble and bought Life is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention.  Monday morning, I greeted Seyi at my door with his book.  As I handed it to him, he said, “This is for me?”  I said, “Yes.  I don’t ever back down from a challenge.”  Seyi brought the book back to me the following Monday and said, “ Mrs. Pax, I want more books like this.”  

Reality Moment #1: I’ve had trouble making any other books stick with him.  I can’t help but feel as though I should have buried the lede.  HOWEVER, I do plan to get to every basketball player with this book.  I’ve got two down so far.

Student Victory #2: Edgar.

Edgar reminds me of myself in that he decides he has an aversion to something and sticks with it.  For me, it’s pigeons (rats of the air).  For Edgar, it’s finishing the last three pages of a book.  I’ve diagnosed this as gamophobia (fear of commitment).  He confirmed this when he said, “Endings are always just disappointing because I imagine something different.”  One weekend, I challenged him to finish a book in three days.  I drew up a sticky note contract and had him sign it.  He came back successful on Monday morning and wanted another contract to finish the entire series before Christmas.  That’s a big deal for a gamophobe!

Reality Moment #2: Not every student will take a sticky note contract quite so seriously.  However, Edgar taught me that kids respond more quickly to challenge and competition than they do to simple routine with no reward.  I need to focus on celebrating each and every finished book and even ambition toward reading.  It’s getting somewhere.  It’s getting a lot further than they were before.  

Student Victory #3: Tiffany.

I asked Tiffany if the vocabulary in her new book was challenging, knowing that she’s really struggled with it in the past.  She said, “No, I actually like that it’s hard because it makes me feel really intelligent.  It’s like a puzzle that I try to figure out with what the rest of the sentence is saying.”  That’s a better explanation of words in context than I’ve given before.  Maybe I should let her teach the lesson!

I just named three students out of 120, but that’s three more students who are set on a path toward becoming lifelong readers.  That’s a win.  

“The great thing about teaching is that it matters; the HARD thing is that it matters EVERY DAY.”

Pour yourself a cup o’ joe–or three–, grab your writer’s notebook and jot down some victories!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.



What is Your Teaching Everest?

I’m standing on my desk.

It’s dangerous, but exhilarating, and I probably look like a loon, but I don’t care. (Please see my post where I embrace my dorkdom in an effort to really get to know my students and move on happily with passionate living and teaching.)


High heels kicked off, channeling the spirit of Mr. John Keating and brazen pigeons everywhere, I’m perched on the edge of my desk during prep, looking around the room to try and gain gain a different perspective.

Oh, Captain, my Captain…Somebody call security. She’s lost it.

No, no. I’m all right. (Well, you know – Relatively speaking. Dear colleagues, if you hear a thud, please investigate.)

So, what caused this poetic exploration of my abandoned classroom? I was thinking about a quote I heard at NCTE 2016:

What is your Everest this year as a teacher?

No, my desk isn’t my Everest. I’m not that far gone. But, per Shana’s inspiration to start with a question, I was thinking about what needs my attention the most right now. With 86 minutes to plan, grade, create, and locate necessary motivation to do all of the roomaforementioned tasks, what should I start with?

There’s certainly a lot to chose from: stacks of papers, countless books to read, share, and sort, a department in need of collaborative time to plan, students flying under the radar.

Everything in front of me is important. I need to grade the narratives my sophomores wrote, to put some ending punctuation on that adventure. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is calling to me too. That book is Hester Prynne meets Offred meets futuristic criminal justice system that injects offenders with a skin altering virus based on their crimes – I need several extra hours in the day to read. Truth be told, I should have started this post sooner too. Procrastination and exhaustion mix into a delightful little cocktail called Crippled Motivation. Bartender, I’ll take another when you have a minute.  

In all seriousness though, I return to my question (Yes, I’m off my desk, Mom), because answering it means I can get something done. I’m weird that way. Could I pick up a stack of papers and just start? Of course. But I have to mentally work up to it, know my plan, have a reward of some sort (read five papers, read When She Woke for five minutes). This time, the question, the task, the implication is much bigger.

What’s most important right now? When I could do a thousand things, what needs to be done right now because it will mean the most?  I know the answer. And not only because I was just standing on my desk :

My Everest this year is feedback.

Consistent, responsive, quick feedback that first encourages, and then focuses in on promoting growth. Remember the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? That’s the stuff right there.

I want to move my students forward. We all do. But now, more than ever,  I believe the way to do it is through sincere investment in the original thoughts and explorations of my students. Personal connections that, yes, take some time, but build relationships that have helped me to better recommend texts, suggest style moves students may need to make in their more formal writing, and encourage additional critical thinking beyond the classroom.

I used to stress about “finding something good” to include in my comments to my students. And I hate to say this, but it’s downright hard in some instances, isn’t it?

I really like what you did with the title there. 
Interesting transitional choice. 
Wow. So many words in that sentence.
Nice…font selection.

But now,  I’m thinking about feedback in new ways and delivering it in new ways too. To reach my Everest, I’m going to have to get creative and intentional. So, here’s what I did this afternoon:

  • Read through a section of one pager submissions from my AP students. Check them in with the quick rubric for a formative score, and email five students per class with reactions. Not corrections, but reactions. Students are encouraged to explore in these writings and the best means of moving them forward in this case is to share additional insights, question, and encourage. I highlighted the students’ names in my gradebook to know I’ve contacted them and I’ll do the same with several more students next week. Writing feedback…check.


  • I made a plan for conferring during reading later this week. Without a plan, it’s feeling random and I’m not doing it enough (the thousand things on my desk keep capturing my attention). So, I have a list. I know who I want to talk with based on quick writes students did today. They reflected on their progress toward their weekly reading goals and some students are struggling. Just by having them take a quick photo with their phones and email me the page, I got a literal snapshot of how each and every one of my students is doing with their independent reading, and I didn’t have to collect notebooks. Now, I’ve emailed a few students congratulations and made this plan. In the picture below, Alexis refers to her current read as “a beautiful romance of adventure.” Love! Reading feedback…check. 


  • Students will self-assess their latest practice AP argument essays. Feedback does not need to come from me to be beneficial. Using the AP rubric to help justify scores, students will take a sheet of paper, put a score and justification on the top, fold it over and hand it to the person next to them. Scoring will proceed in the same way around the table until everyone has his/her paper back. The table will then need to calibrate/norm and agree on a score. Self assessment and peer assessment…check
  • I am going to question and listen more. Long ago, I gave up on the idea that my imparting knowledge on others was the best way for them to learn. Everyone learns best when the are motivated to do so through personal connection to the work, interest in the material, and an understanding of how to improve. Workshop sets this up in a classroom, it’s now my job to remember to listen more and jump in less. During conferences, during book clubs, during discussion. Listen first, respond, encourage, and redirect/suggest later. This certainly doesn’t mean my presence in the room diminishes. It means I remember that my presence in the room is to guide my students, not steamroll them.

Gaining a new perspective feels like hitting the reset button to me. It provides clarity of mind and purpose. Skill development is my professional responsibility. Human development is my personal responsibility. They work hand in and hand and they are the Everest I will climb all year, every year, as I talk with, respond to, and gain insights alongside my students.

What is your teaching Everest this year? We’d love to hear from you! Please add your insights to the comments below! 

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