NCTE 2019 Pregame- Gearing up our Action Plan!!!

Why am I so nervous?

The lights and the stage don’t scare me.  The topic of our presentation is something I’ve lived, day in and day out, for a few years now.  The faces in the crowd, the silence begging to be filled, the words I’ve rehearsed over and over…none of that scares me.

Is it because I want so badly for ears to hear our message? Is it because I’ve been afforded this massively important opportunity to share this message?

Late this afternoon, at the NCTE Conference, I will share the stage with some very important teachers.  These women, like me, believe that inclusivity is something that we must address intentionally.

I’ll spend every second of my allotted time sharing how I’m moving my classroom library from something that reflects traditional, mainstream texts to one that is more inclusive.  One that invites students to read books that give them a better opportunity to see themselves on the pages and a better opportunity to see themselves in this world.

Please join us this afternoon at 4:15 in 361 C.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

#NCTE18: Taking Action To Establish Cultural Competence In The ELA Classroom

“Cultural competence is having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry. This understanding informs and expands teaching practices in the culturally competent educator’s classroom.”

-National Education Association

Part of being a culturally responsive and competent teacher includes learning how to cultivate critical conversations. However, competence also includes taking a long, hard look in the mirror to figure out how our OWN individual identities impact our pedagogy.

Working together with students means modeling how to explore the ways in which our identities impact how we view the world. Creating classroom environments and cultures that encourage self-discovery through critical perspectives are vital to culturally responsive teaching. It is not enough to be AWARE that issues exist, we have to foster COMPETENCE among ourselves and our students enough to be critical voices in these conversations.

This Saturday, please join me at NCTE as I engage with my colleagues across the nation to discuss the importance of taking action to develop cultural competence among teachers and students in today’s ELA Classrooms.

Can’t make it? Start a conversation in the comments! What are ways you actively engage in cultural competence with your students? What are ways that YOU are looking to become culturally competence in your classrooms? I would love to hear your feedback as to how we can start a plan of action for ALL educators!
NCTE 2018- shared slides

Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, Texas. Her most salient identities include female, Chicana, feminist, mother, wife, educator, dog mom, and self-proclaimed advocate for social justice and equality. In between managing her career and grad school, she enjoys making paper flowers and spending quality time with her family. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3 and looks forward to collaborating with you at #NCTE18!


#NCTE18 –Ready, Set, Talk: An Action Plan for More Critical Conversations

“There can be no settlement of a great cause without discussion, and people will not discuss a cause until their attention is drawn to it.”  William Jennings Bryan

We’ve written quite a lot about the importance of talk on this blog. Too often, classrooms remain quiet as teachers impart their wisdom instead of helping students discover their own. Listening and speaking often get short shrift in our classrooms; however, with concerted team effort, we can change this.

At NCTE this Saturday, Lisa Dennis, ELAR teacher, and Alejandra Ovalle-Krolick, World Languages teacher, will share how they had a meeting of the minds and began shaping opportunities for learners to read and discuss culturally relevant texts across disciplines.

Opening windows and inviting critical conversations that explore our shared humanity is one way we become allies and advocates who instigate positive change.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

#NCTE18 We’ve Got Some Action Plans to Talk About

It’s cold. Not to be a whiner, but . . . We moved into a new house during the hot Texas summer. The air conditioner worked. We thought we were good. Then, this month, finally, cool weather. Cooler and cooler. The temperature drops, drops, drops. “Guess what?” he says, “Uh, about the heater. We never turned the gas on.”

I sit here with my hot herbal tea steaming beside me and the electric blanket warming my feet as a portable space heater I found in the garage radiates from across the room. One call and the heater will toast up the house in no time.

I know others aren’t so lucky. So fortunate. So blessed. Shall we say — so privileged?

Perhaps that’s simplifying it. I know.

I’ve spent my career teaching in Title 1 schools. A warm place to write is often not even on my students’ lists of worries. I’ve thought about my privilege, a white woman educator, helping children of color grow as readers and writers. I’ve rewritten and revised countless lessons all with the earnest desire to give my students what I have always taken for granted.

I know that is not enough. Not enough if I want systemic change for all children everywhere. The more I learn the more I learn how little I know.

This tweet was pivotal to my understanding:

privilege intersections

What does this mean for me as an educator? What does this mean for the approach I take to selecting texts, to engaging readers, to fostering writers, to facilitating classroom discussion, to advocating for students in my realm of influence?

At NCTE this year, some of us on this blog team will present on how we are Raising Student Voice: Speaking Out for Equity and Justice.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

I am still working on my 10 minutes. (I know. I know! NCTE starts on Thursday!) But here’s what I am thinking —

For those of us who advocate for choice independent reading, we often quote Rudine Sims Bishop’s thoughts on books being mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. (I quote her in this post I wrote last week.) I wonder how often we think about our students’ writing with a similar lens.

Do we empower writers the same way we hope choice empowers them as readers?

We should. We can.

I think I have a little of it figured out. If you will be at NCTE, I hope you will come join the conversation.


Amy Rasmussen loves her work with teachers and teenagers. She binge watches a lot of Netflix originals with her best-friend husband and reads a lot of YA lit. Her recent reading favorites: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacilagupi, and Swing by Kwame Alexander. And the teaching book she’s most excited to dig into if it ever comes in the mail:  We Got This by Cornelius Minor. (We are honored to have Mr. Minor chair our session!)


From Victim to Validated

lit is good for youIn RWW, we aren’t teachers of literature per se.  Still, the spectre of the literary ideal can show itself in our workshop classrooms for reasons from the pedagogical (as mentor texts) to the administrative (curricular requirements).

In Advanced Writing, an elective class for seniors, Mariana and I are taking students through a fiction-writing unit. As we blithely assembled a set of short stories as mentor texts, it dawned on us — more slowly than I am proud of — that with minimal exception, our short-story mentors were all writing about women in peril.

In an effort to ground what has in the past been a scurrilous unit, both teaching-wise for us and writing-wise for students, we required students to ground their stories in some real-world element. We read an excerpt from Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates’s retelling of the Chappaquiddick incident from Mary Jo Kopechne’s viewpoint. Then, because they are exquisite examples of the form — and because Mariana and I love them so much — we read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by JCO and “Victory Lap” by George Saunders, for plot/characterization and character/p-o-v, respectively.

Lo and behold, a young woman is preyed upon in each of these three unconnected stories. Ha ha, we laughed. How art imitates life, we laughed. We then went about the business of selecting short-story material for students to “read like writers” while we are at NCTE later this week, intending to offer an oeuvre of stories representative of sex- and region- and race-diverse viewpoints.

Here’s what we came up with in our initial brainstorm:

  • “Hairball” by Margaret Atwood
  • “Brownies” by ZZ Packer
  • “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

In “Hairball,” a woman undergoes surgery to remove an ovarian cyst and then has her Peril job stolen from her by her married lover. The little girls in ZZ Packer’s Brownie troop suffer both racial and disability slurs. Kurt Vonnegut’s 6-foot asexual heroine is abducted and raped inside a futuristic museum of the Kennedy Compound. And in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother “would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

How much of what we teach — in English and other curriculum — reminds students of the perils of patriarchy but without the empowerment? How do we balance our content to provide windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors, AND those heavy doors that take effort, will, discomfort to open, as Amy writes about so eloquently here.

I face a similar struggle in my class of sophomores. Our curriculum calls for a literary analysis, yet the suggested texts typically depict the great suffering endured by a variety of marginalized groups. (It just occurred to me in writing this why so many high school students still prefer to read about superheroes.)

In oHeads of the Colored Peopleur persistent efforts to give voice to the voiceless without beating the same very-much-alive patriarchal horse, we turned to some more recent fiction by writers of color. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires includes a story called “Fatima, the Biloquist: a Transformation Story,” in which a young Black woman who attends a mostly-white private school seeks to embrace her Blackness. The title story in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection Friday Black exposes the grave danger inherent in American consumerism from the perspective of a retail clerk who, literally, is above it all. I also love to use Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” as a quick write prompt.

Alas, if art needs must imitate life, we can find ways for students to see triumph and celebration without oversimplifying their experience. Or putting them in even more peril.


When Workshop Hits the Struggle Bus…

One of my favorite new terms this year is the struggle bus. My kids say it when they’re having a rough morning or when they don’t understand something or when they’re just generally having a difficult time in life–“I’m on the struggle bus today, Mrs. T.” It seems that hardly a day goes by without someone mentioning that phrase, so maybe that’s why it seems resonant to me today.


Actually, that’s not why at all. My workshop work has hit the struggle bus a bit this year in my grade level classes–that’s the truth of the matter. If you’re in this field at all for any length of time, you’re bound to hit it. That big old bright yellow school bus of a struggle bus is sometimes hard to avoid–is it those long tough early months of school? Struggle bus. Is it a gaggle of girls who just can’t seem to settle in to what you’re working on? Struggle bus. Is it game day and a classroom full of giant man boys who are so hopped up on adrenaline that reading and writing in the last period of the day is the last thing on their mind? Struggle bus.

So what do you do when you hit the struggle bus? Well, you find a way to mix things up and shake things up. I’ve hit some struggles this year with a couple of my classes that I haven’t experienced before. You see, I’ve always been pretty good at figuring out how to get kids interested in reading, and I’ve gotten to be pretty good at putting the right book with the right kid. I pride myself on it. I think back glowingly to the number of kids in the past few years who came in as avowed non-readers or who proclaimed themselves to be “over” reading since it was something that they did in elementary school with AR. Almost all of them left my room having read more than the year before and many of them have reignited a reading habit that I hope will only grow as they mature. I see them in the halls and they update me about their latest book or the new series that I should try. They reach out to me from college to ask for book suggestions or to mention to tour that they took in a college class of Flannery O’Connor’s home (and I was JEALOUS!). We formed bonds over those books and those conferences and those shared experiences, and those bonds haven’t ended just because they’re not currently enrolled in my classes.

This year, though, I’ve got a tough crowd. Oh, they’re the typical crowd I usually get–mostly super sweet, lots who are quite smart and interested in the world around them, some who are struggling in a variety of ways, some who like to act big and bad but are soft and squishy on the inside–teenagers are teenagers, after all. There are lots in this group, though, who seem to be particularly immune to my charm and reading connection magic. Some of my favorite “go to” books have fallen flatter than Tom Brady’s football in Deflate Gate. Some kids are serial quitters, picking up a different book every day. We just finished reading The Great Gatsby as a core text in my grade level class, with them reading Gatsby outside class and us working on connected texts during class…except I think very few were actually reading Gatsby outside of class.

I had my year all planned out based on some tweaks that I wanted to do from last year, but after Gatsby, I decided that what we needed was a major overhaul. Out go the window with my plans and carefully designed goals. I can teach many of the same standards with almost any piece of text–do I have to be tied to a plan that I made over the summer without a full understanding of the people in my room who would be most affected by those plans? Nope. What I’ve come to realize is that my year doesn’t have to be in exact lockstep to the plan I laid out for it. I work in a small private school, and I’m the only one who teachers Junior English, so I do have some autonomy that may not be available in other settings, but I intend to make full use of that opportunity.

Since I’m having trouble getting them to connect with longer texts, I decided that we’d spend the rest of the semester reading and writing poetry. Rather than having them dig into Farewell to Arms (for now, anyway) or jive our way into the Harlem Renaissance, we’re going to spend some time reading lots of poetry and trying our hands at doing some writing as well. I figure that I can pull in traditional beloved poetry and help my kids to see the connections to the new things that are being written today and even to the songs that they’re listening to on their phones.

That, for me, is the beauty of workshop. Because I tend to work with these texts as mentor texts, I have more freedom to tweak and adjust as I go and as I see needs in a classroom. If I have a group that responds particularly well to rhythm and rhyme, then maybe I pull some poetry that I can compare and contrast with some of Tupac Shakur’s pieces from A Rose that Grew from Concrete. (I also have to confess that they’re often shocked when I, a 45 year old white lady who I’m sure they think has no clue about such things, pulls out something from Tupac or references Biggie’s artistry. 🙂 I was in college in the ’90s–Tupac and Biggie were staples in the music scene. 🙂 ) Or maybe I’ll pull some silly pieces from Ogden Nash. Nothing gets a room full of teenage boys giggling than some of his silly poetry. But the magic happens when I hand the reins to them and have them enter the playground and try to work on their own versions of these texts, inspired by the style or by the content of one of these mentors. I love nothing more than seeing the big bad dude rush excitedly to his friend to share the phrase in a poem that he has just come up with or when the quiet kid decides to do her own parody poem of the “Johnny Johnny” meme and stands up to perform for the class and gets cheers and ovations.

The struggle bus will always be around, I suppose, but instead of getting run over by that big looming sense of doubt and uncertainty (or just of tiredness!), think about changing things up and switching them around, and invite kids into the playground that can be poetry. It doesn’t all have to be old stuffy boring pieces that make their eyes glaze over with boredom; it can be bright and vibrant and relevant and can reinvigorate your classroom.

What do you do when you hit the struggle bus in your classroom (or when the struggle bus is hitting you)? Let me know in the comments section!

Stick to It: Reading Goals with Staying Power

In the world of Readers Workshop, I am still working to strike a balance between the promotion of reading for the sake of enjoyment, and my capacity to hold students accountable for that reading on any consistent and meaningful basis.

In the past, I tried (and liked) Google Forms to have students reflect on and make reading goals, the use of their writer’s notebooks to track current and past reading throughout the year, and of course conferences with students to see who and where they are as readers.

However, my capacity to consistently track the reading lives of 142 students (which is far fewer even than many of my colleagues) often feels daunting, if not completely crippling. I rarely feel like I’m giving enough attention to, or celebration of, the ever-evolving reading lives of my students, at least early in the year. As the year progresses, regardless of the method, we get to know our students well enough that their reading lives come into focus, but the before Thanksgiving days are far too murky for my taste.

My goal this year was to figure out a way early in the year that I could take manageable snapshots of my students’ goal progress in order to both celebrate the success that would fuel reading momentum and to get a handle on who among my students would need the most encouragement.

For this purpose, I’ve worked to make our goals more visible, easy to check in on, hard to ignore, and readily accessible for quick conferences.


  1. I started the year with my Reading Goal posters prominently displayed for my 9th grade classes. Each week, students would set a goal after calculating their reading rate, let me know the progress they would be working to make in their books, and how long they had spent reading. Not surprisingly, for the first few weeks of 9th grade, my projected sample of a Post-It didn’t necessarily (consistently) get us a clear picture of what we were looking for. Numbers weren’t labeled, titles weren’t always included, etc.
  2. I decided to take out the guesswork and use a Post-It template I found and photocopy quick reflections each week that would make it easy for both students and teacher to see:
  • What book are you reading?
  • What page are you on now?
  • What page will you be on based on your current calculation of reading rate?
  • How long have you been with this text?
  • Did you meet your goal for last week?

As I hand back slips to each child each week, I can do a quick check-in to see how on target, or not, my students are. This quickly prioritizes conferences for later in the week.

How do you keep track of students’ reading goals? Please leave a comment below!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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