Can We Talk? The Silence is Killing Me.

Let me start by acknowledging the following : We all work hard.

Day in, day out, passionately, for hours outside the classroom, over breaks, through the night, in the summer, at the expense of our own health, sanity, and in some cases children, tirelessly, endlessly, hard.

We wrestle with accountability, making the right choices, bankrupting our personal finances, moving in new directions, providing substantive feedback, reinventing our curriculum, and capturing that often elusive “I’m making a difference” feeling.

And all of these opportunities, obstacles, maneuvers, struggles, negotiations, blessings…are well worth the effort. We know this to be true.

We grow. Students grow. The world brightens.

This week, however, a week of extra meetings, assigned readings, professional development planning, ACT Interim test data analysis, sophomore research papers and practice AP tests in all of my classes, has me feeling cranky, irritable, and disenchanted with the whole thing (and apparently listy, because I’ve got a lot of lists rolling here).

But it’s not all of these “bonuses” to my week that really have me in a funk. silence2

It’s the quiet.
The file in and file out of my classroom.
The silence of compliance.

My students have not been talking the past few class periods, and the absence of their ideas has me crankdified.

While it might seem nice to have a “break” to work while kids complete practice tests and independent study, it didn’t feel nice. It felt…empty.

It hit me last week during a discussion of Scott Brown’s “Facebook Friendonomics.”

We’re in a unit on community in AP Language and wrestling with the following:

What is the individual’s responsibility to the community? 

I had just read the piece aloud, asked students to respond to it in a quick write, and was now listening to a discussion on the author’s use of allusion. Brown suggests that the natural evolution of friendships is corrupted by social media.

The discussion was not initially brilliant. Students wrestled with some examples of allusion that meant nothing to them (the author details contacts in a Rolodex, quips about watching 90210, and references Garbage Pail Kids), so I suggested we try to update references, eliciting an enthusiastic walk (dance) down memory lane for my seventeen year olds, back to Pokemon cards and “Soulja Boy” (Ahhhh…2007).

As I listened to them reminisce about cultural touchstones in their lives, I had to smile.

“So, what is this author trying to tell us about community?” I asked.

Our discussion continued for another few minutes, encompassing author craft, the existence of Finsta (I am suddenly SO old), the unnatural qualities of social media “friends,” and the duality of both fake and fulfilling relationships through online communities. I sent my students back to their notebooks and they reflected a bit further on how discussion had expanded their understanding of the ways this piece answered our essential question.

And I…was happy. tree

I had listened, mostly. Invited a few students into the discussion who hadn’t shared. Pulled us back to the task at hand.

But I had let them talk. No agenda. No time limit. No right answers.

Now, I’m not here to suggest that having a discussion with your class is revolutionary. Obviously it’s not, but it occurred to me:

My individual responsibility to this community is to keep my students talking.

And while I’m on this soapbox (it’s not my preferred method of communication, thankfully, but I sort of like it up here), I’ll say it another way:

We need to listen. More.

Educators the world over, both seasoned and virginal, know, but all too often forget (so guilty myself), that the talk in our classrooms that is most vital to engagement, progression, retention, and overall enthusiasm for learning, is not our own.

Facilitated and guided by the teacher – yes.
Framed by objectives, teaching points, and standards – of course.
Aimed at gradual release – ideally.
Supplemented with our insights, passions, and ideas – I certainly hope so.

Talk to their small groups, talk to the class, talk to me, talk to their notebooks, talk about talk. It’s all talk that can promote discovery.

We need students talking, not just to check comprehension (flashback to the initiate, respond, evaluate cycle of classrooms I grew up in), but far more importantly, to develop their thinking.

My modeling and guided instruction is far more beneficial in the long run, as the goal of each is to get students involved in a way that has them taking the torch and forging ahead on their own.

That’s where the emptiness of this past week had come from. We weren’t involved in anything together, and I felt the absence of the interaction keenly.

With the testing behind us and the research papers waiting patiently for another hour (or seven hours, if my calculation for that stack is correct), I conferred with several students during reading time, to selfishly feel better myself. During our quick write, I sat down at a table with my kids and wrote, as opposed to staying at my desk. I started several writing conferences during workshop time with, “Tell me about…”

I’m not in any sort of denial that what I’ve written here is new or different in any way,  but I am certain that the reminder did me good. I hope it does for you too.

Let’s talk about talk in the comments below. I’m a good listener. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves to listen to the Decemberists, the call of redwing blackbirds, and audiobooks read with British accents. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 



Will You Share Your AP Scores? Here We Go Again

I am not mean very often, but last week I was mean. Okay, not mean exactly, but certainly snarky.

I friend asked me about my AP scores. Innocent question. Struck a nerve.

I’ve written about AP English and AP test scores in the past, and I imagine as long as I teach AP English Language and Composition, I will continue to do so. I really do not mean to be snarky, but the more I talk with kids about their reading lives, the more I keep hoping more and more teachers Aim Higher — not just in AP classes, but in all English classes.

In the signature line of my school email, I include this quote by Emerson:  “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

I like that it helps me focus on what matters in my practice:  Teaching beyond a test. Always teaching beyond a test.

So what does this look like in my practice? Mostly, it looks like helping readers find their way back to a love of reading. After all, the best readers are usually the best writers, and the best readers and writers are usually the best test takers.

When Jessica asked me about my test scores last week, I know she was just working on building a case for choice books on her campus, a case for a workshop pedagogy. And while my scores did improve 50% the first year I moved to readers-writers workshop, no testing data captures the learning that happens in my classroom. No data shows an accurate picture of my students’ growth as readers and writers.

See for yourself:

For our midterm last week, my students wrote self-evaluations of their reading lives. Their words are much more valuable than mine when it comes to adding weight to the debate for time to read and choice of books in all English classes.

Leslie is a talker. She speaks with a beautiful Spanish accent and loves to use the new


Giselle and Leslie, Nicola Yoon fans, dying for the movie!

vocabulary words she’s studying. I often have to hush her table because these girls like to talk about what they are reading during reading time. The fuss over Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon is on-going. They LOVE that book! Leslie writes:

“My reading goal for next nine weeks is seven books, I want to reach my reading goal and I will make it happen by reading more and do it because I enjoy it not just because I have to do it. I can gladly say that I love reading now, back then I used to be allergic to books and never touch them to read the beautiful stories that they have inside their covers.  After I become the perfect reader I intend to become the perfect writer.”

Giselle’s list of books she’s read so far this year reads like a spine poem. When she writes about whole class novels, she means our book club titles. I use book clubs to push many students into reading more complex books.

Lissbeth has been in the U.S. for three years. She titled her post “No Excuses for Not Reading.” My favorite line: “One of the things that I have learn thanks to my English teachers, is that reading is not just something you do for entertainment, it can also become a lifestyle.” Of course!


Audrey’s Currently Reading list

Already a reader when she entered my class, Audrey explains her reading experience since last August:

I have learned some about myself as a reader. I’ve learned that I like to stay in my reading comfort zone, but with a little nudge I’m able to read other genres and enjoy it. I’ve learned that I’m always growing as a reader. My reading rate can always improve. My vocabulary can always improve. As a reader I know that with due time, and with a lot of reading and determination, I can read ANYTHING!” [Note: If you read Audrey’s full post, when she mentions me giving the class a list, she’s referring to our book club choices. I do not have a list of all the books in my classroom library.]


Some students are in my block class, so I’ve only had them since mid January.

Cheyenne, who has read 14 books since the beginning of the semester, feels pretty strongly


Cheyenne’s book stack

about the whole class novel. She writes: “I definitely have a deep dislike for class novels. This has more to do with the fact that I hate being forced to read certain books by certain deadlines, for me, it defeats the thrill, if you will, of reading the book in the first place.”

This year was the first time since middle school that I have been excited to read in class, and that was because we weren’t assigned a class book to read and we got to choose a book we wanted to read,” Rachel writes.

If you don’t believe some students lose a love of reading because of school, ask them. Ask them questions about what happened. Every kid I know was once an excited reader. Few are when they get to me in 11th grade.

Reghan confirms this in her post. She writes:

From elementary school through middle school, I read every kind of book, big or small. From nonfiction books about the unsinkable, sunken ship: the Titanic, to fantasy books about alternate universes and dystopian societies, I was a reader.

“Until my freshman year of high school.

“Ninth grade wasn’t easy for me. A lot went on that year with my family and personal life, causing me to be unfocused on school, my grades, and reading…and my transcript made that very obvious. I don’t think I read even one book in that entire year, summer included. This carried into my sophomore year, as well as part of my Junior year too. Zero books read, many to go.

“Being in AP English this semester and having to work hard to stay afloat has helped me tremendously and it wouldn’t be possible without my teachers . . . I’ve read four books this nine weeks including: Paper Towns by John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foerand Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and I’m on my fifth: Columbine by Dave Cullen. That’s more than I’ve read in the last three years, combined. I’ve been introduced to books that I’ve never heard of and books that I never would’ve picked on my own. In fact, thanks to our assigned book clubs, I now have a new favorite book which is the aforementioned, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

” I credit Mrs. Rasmussen with my progress because of her belief that we as students are more likely to read if we’re choosing books that we want, not that our chosen for us. In my experience, any book that has been chosen for me by a teacher, has been uninteresting and/or hard to finish. Being able to choose has only helped me and there’s proof in the numbers. Not only has this freedom improved my desire to read, but it has showed me who I am and what I like as a reader.”

And then there’s Ciara, who wrote “The Oprah Winfrey (with a little twist) Show.” Here’s a reader I am still working on, but oh, her writing voice. And her taste in TV shows! (We’ve bonded lately over quite a few.)

So in a post with AP test scores in the title, I give you a post about what students have to say about their reading lives.

That’s gonna be my answer every single time.

I happen to be assigned to teach AP English Language and Comp, but what I teach is how to love reading to students who miss it. Most of them miss it.

What are you doing about it?


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She also facilitates professional development for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

PD Book Review: BETWEEN THE LINES by Michael Anthony and Joan F. Kaywell

Between the Lines by Michael Anthony and Joan F. Kaywell is frank teacher-to-teacher talk about how you can run a reading/writing workshop in a high school environment even when school administrators aren’t invested in “low-brow” reading.  This book is the pep talk you need if you want to steer your classroom towards workshop but are tied in by constraints.



This book lays out the following:


  1. Ways to fit in independent reading and writing inside a highly scripted (and highly controlled) curriculum.betweenthelines
  2. How to talk to administrators about the value of the work.
  3. Example lessons and Common Core-aligned activities centered around independent reading.
  4. Suggestions for connecting independent reading to whole-class novels.
  5. Models of authentic student responses …. And examples of “phony, lookalike, and limited letters.”
  6. Examples of teacher prompting, and means of assessment.
  7. Specific advice for building up classroom libraries.
  8. Detailed appendices of awards for YA books to follow and popular YA books for classroom library collections.  (This list is almost 20 pages long!)


The implications are clear: even if there are a lot of things in this book you can’t do, there is something here that you can incorporate.  Can the movie on the day before vacation and do some booktalks or play some book trailers instead.  Spend less time reviewing quizzes and more time sharing reading responses.  Be proactive about book donations and procuring used books.  Talk to administrators about repurposing homerooms and study halls as time for independent reading.


Since Anthony and Faywell’s attitudes are all about flexibility, I would add three considerations to any teacher using this book to implement new routines around independent reading and writing:


  1. Anthony and Faywell ask students to fill out reading logs and include a signature from an adult who is accountable for that reading.  I feel iffy on logs to begin with, and even more iffy on asking teens who are old enough to drive for an adult “reference” for their reading progress.   Adult signature gives an air of “I don’t trust you” and “You are not yet fully responsible for your own growth.”
  2. Anthony and Faywell’s reading accountability is based on peer-to-peer correspondence and peer-to-teacher writing.  Casual correspondence is lovely, especially if you do not have time to confer with readers.   However if writing were the only way I was holding readers accountable to independent reading, I would think about opening up the reading response beyond just I think/I wonder/I notice approaches to new genres and styles.  If you are already committed to teaching impartial literary analysis and other “old school” writing modes, why not open it up when it comes to the fun stuff?  Why not invite the reader to become creative and revise the ending or to be critical and write a review?  Why not retell part of the story from another character’s point of view?  Why not allow for students to journal about reading and their feelings towards reading?  Why not write a comic?
  3. I would have liked to have seen more attention to graphic novels and magazines in this book, as these texts include valuable reading experience and are closer to the brain candy that teens are likeliest to reach for once they leave our classrooms.  


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her best reading experiences as a kid happened without adult knowledge or supervision.  Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MSE


A Pedagogy of Engagement

Several weeks ago, I saw that many of my teacher friends were sharing an article on Facebook.

The title?  “Your kids bored at school? Tell them to get over it.

Oh boy, I thought, and clicked on the link to see what it was that so many of my friends seemed to agree with.

This author’s argument is that student apathy is one of the biggest problems plaguing education; that teachers cannot be expected to “dazzle and awe” their students for fear of burnout; that students are now consumers and education is now a product, and that if students “aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they’re not buying.”

Hudgens–a high school teacher herself–thinks students shouldn’t be such choosy consumers, but should rather be self-motivated to find their own success at school.  “It’s a teacher’s job to make learning exciting,” she laments, but, “the world isn’t a video game…and doesn’t always offer fun and exciting paths…through life.”

While I agree with some of this author’s points, such as her goal for students to feel passion toward education and a motivation for life-long learning, I think her writing reflects a trend I’m seeing lately when it comes to the imprecision of language educators use when we talk about our goals for students.

969ceec4f3d8facdf86e9cd9a703dbf7There are a number of things Hudgens seems to conflate.  The first is that “this is hard” and “this is boring” are the same thing–and they’re clearly not.  When students are disengaged, either something is too hard, or too boring–not both. When they’re not in the zone of proximal development, students are not in a place for learning.

So whose job is it to get them there?

In my view, it is mine–a great principal once told me that “you are the only factor in the classroom you can control.”  This is true, and if you’ve ever been in front of 32 teenagers in 8th period, you know you can’t control much of anything in that scenario.

I believe fostering engagement is my job.  Once I can get kids hooked on a just-right book, or writing fluently in the zone of proximal development, and they catch the bug of feeling successful in their learning endeavors, engagement is self-sustaining.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 6.51.39 AM

The second part of this author’s argument that I disagree with is her belief that students’ rejection of how education is “packaged” is due to their lack of self-motivation.  Research on Generation Edge shows that this just isn’t true–Gen Edgers reject standardized education and embrace progressive education because they find more value in the latter.  This means that one commenter on the article hit the nail on the head:

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 7.41.22 AM.png

I have to agree with this reader.  Students recognize, and reject, an old-school emphasis on sit and get.  In contrast, they embrace engagement when work is appropriately challenging and authentic.

My final issue with two ideas Hudgens seems to muddle is this one:

Unfortunately in a consumer-oriented educational system, words such as habit and discipline have all but gone by the wayside. We emphasize concepts like differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning and data-driven instruction over student responsibilities like organization, perseverance and hard work.

In no way would I ever believe that differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning, or data-driven instruction are not good practices for student learning.  Why are those placed on opposite ends of the spectrum from habit, discipline, organization, perseverance, and hard work?!  All of those things have a valuable place in our instruction.
Habit and discipline are concepts teachers should be teaching–I spend time with my students helping them to learn habits that will develop fluency in reading and writing, and once they feel empowered, they build their own habits of discipline and perseverance when they attempt to read challenging texts or write complex compositions of their choice, spurred by intrinsic motivation when they see what’s possible.
These are authentic habits of engaged students, not arbitrary habits of compliant kids pushing through things that are boring or meaningless like rote instruction often is.  The opposite of rote instruction is engaging, student-centered learningnot “fun” or “exciting” teaching whose purpose is to “dazzle and awe,” in the words of Hudgens.

To create self-motivated, lifelong learners, our goal must be engagement.  And a pedagogy of engagement is not the same thing as teaching that is “fun” or “exciting.”

The bottom line is:  when we design instruction with a pedagogy of engagement in mind, student self-motivation is the result.  Students do not need to “get over it” if they’re bored in school.  This is outmoded thinking.  Our learners have every right to reject the asymmetrical and arbitrary power imbalance of teachers over students, and demand high-quality instruction that is challenging, personal, and individualized.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.


Does Manga Belong in Your Classroom Library?

I had a hard time figuring Noelani out. She was a seemingly confident young woman who was pretty vocal about not liking to write. I think her actual words were: “I hate it.”

In my class, we use our independent reading books as mentors to help us become better writers, so I needed a bridge, someway to help Lani want to write. For most of my students, the books they choose create that bridge. I wasn’t so sure about the books Lani chose week after week after week.


I used to hate the idea of students reading manga. But throughout the school year, Lani kept returning to this genre. When we chatted about the books she was reading, Lani showed a lot more interest and a lot more enthusiasm when she talked about this genre than when she talked about any other. And she was able to discuss not just pretty complicated plot moves, but the rhetorical moves of the authors she loved, confidently proving my bias toward manga wrong.

For part of our midterm exam, students wrote top ten lists based on some of their favorite books. Here’s Lani’s:

Top 10 Mangas with Interesting Plots by Noelani Cevis

Deadman Wonderland Vol.2 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou

In the first volume, the mangaka tells the reader about the earthquake that destroyed half of Tokyo and introduced the main character, Ganta, who is a middle school student and also survivor of the earthquake that took place 10 years earlier. One seemingly normal day, a man in crimson, grinning madly, called the ‘Red Man’ slaughters Ganta’s classmates and imbeds a red shard in his chest instead of killing him. A bit later Ganta is sentenced to death and is sent to a private prison called Deadman Wonderland. Personally, to me the plot is interesting and hooked me right away so I would like to continue reading this series.Alice in country

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar’s Game Vol.3 by Quin Rose and Mamenosuke Fujimaru

Continuing Alice Liddell’s story after getting out of the Country of Hearts, we find Alice stuck in the Country of Joker now! In this Country there’s something a bit weird going on, and Alice has to get to the bottom of it. In the first volume, she met up with old friends and was told about a festival that is happening soon in the country. In the second volume, she meets the Jokers and the point of view switches to tell you a bit of what’s happening on their side of the story. It’s a fun, easy to read, adventure manga that unlike Deadman Wonderland, has a happier feel to it but also is mysterious enough to keep the reader intrigued.

No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular! (A.K.A. WataMote) by Nico Tanigawa

Tomoko Kuroki is a fifteen-year-old girl who thought she would get popular once she entered high school because she played a lot of otome-games. Little did she know that in reality she would be a unsociable loner: the exact opposite of what she thought she would be. The manga follows her through high school as she works on her social skills and tries to become popular. Honestly, I have a connection to this girl because I feel like we’re similar to each other. I wanted to see how high school goes for her compared to how it is going for me.

Sumomomo Momomo: The Strongest Bride on Earth Vol.2  by Shinobu Ohtaka

Koshi Inuzuka, a high school student and son of the Dog clan, and Momoko Kuzuryu, daughter of the Dragon clan and high school student, have been betrothed by Momoko’s father to produce a strong child. However, Koshi doesn’t like Momoko like she likes him. In fact, they just met! But instead of giving up after being turned down by Koshi, she continues to pursue him while protecting him from assassins coming to kill him to keep him from marrying Momoko. It’s a hilarious martial arts love story that I have only just gotten into but will definitely continue reading.

Noragami by Anoragamidachitoka

Yato is supposedly the God of War and Calamity, however he is dirt poor and not very popular at all and will do any odd job from babysitting to evil slaying for just 5 yen. His goal for the future is to become very popular and rich and in the process of trying to reach that goal meets a girl named Hiyori Iki who just so happens to be the only human that can see him. To reach his goal of being rich and famous he goes on adventures and gets caught up in trouble with his new friend Hiyori. Lately, gifs of this anime have been all over Tumblr and they highlight this manga in funny and interesting ways.

Blood Lad Vol.5 by Yuuki Kodama

Staz is a vampire who refuses to attack humans like those before him and instead stays inside watching anime and reading manga. One day a girl named Fuyumi accidentally ends up in the Demon World and meets Staz, but their meeting is soon cut short by a demon fight happening close by. To save his allies, Staz jumps into the fight, but while he isn’t paying attention, Fuyumi is eaten by a carnivorous plant and turned into a ghost. Afterwards Staz pledges to find a way to bring her back to life. I began watching the anime of this before I read the manga but I soon stopped watching the manga and instead started the manga it was really good and funny and interesting so I would like to continue reading this series.

Horimiya Vol.8 By HERO and Daisuke Hagiwara

Horimya follows the lives of a boy named Miyamura and a girl named Hori and their experiences during high school. It’s a cute story filled with romance, laughs, tears, and everything in between. I read a lot of dark type mangas so having a few cute, easy going ones like this are refreshing and fun to read.

Oresama Teacher Vol.11 by Izumi Tsubaki

Mafuyu, a former gang leader, is a high school girl determined to live a normal life after being caught by the police and transferred to a new school. However, it turns out that the reason she became a delinquent is also a student at this new school and the new school is full of delinquents! Will Mafuyu be able to live a life as a normal high school girl like she wanted? I still don’t know the answer, even though I’m reading this right now, because the manga is so crazy it’s hard to really tell what’s going on sometimes. It’s a fun manga to read though and ilabyrinth of magics full of laughs.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic Vol.19 by Shinobu Ohtaka

Magi is told through the eyes of a magi named Aladdin who was secluded his whole life and originally didn’t even know what he was. When he finally is let out to see the world he meets a boy named Alibaba, and they meet a girl named Morgiana. The manga follows each of them through their adventures together and apart. It’s a very action packed manga with not a lot of romance, but that’s alright because there are lots of cute or funny moments in it still, which is a nice change of pace from what I usually read.

Inuyasha Vol.31 by Rumiko Takahashi

Inuyasha is about a half-demon named Inuyasha who was trapped by his dying lover during the Sengoku period and a 15-year-old girl named Kagome who is pulled into an enshrined well, which happens to lead back to the Sengoku period from the present time. It follows their adventures through the Sengoku period trying to find the woman who trapped Inuyasha and all the pieces of the shattered Shikon Jewel. This manga has the perfect mix of action and romance that will have you excited one moment and angry the next. It’s very interesting and fun and addictive.

Lani left me a better reader and writer than she was when she entered my class. She read many other genres besides manga, and even admitted “Those were pretty good books.” She is now a senior, eager to graduate in a short nine weeks.

About her reading life, Lani says, “Although I don’t read much these days, I love reading. It’s a fun hobby, and it’s a good way to get away from things when I need a break from everyday life.”  Outside of school she is interested in anime, video games, Japanese and Korean language/culture, music, interior design, travel, and skin care. At school she is involved with AVID and orchestra. Lani describes herself as anxious, insecure, and soft.

I see her as a young woman ready to conquer her goals and attack adventures, similar to the heroes in these books she’s read.

What are your thoughts about manga? Do you include these books in your classroom library? Please leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She leads professional development on advancing readers and writers through a workshop pedagogy anywhere the call takes her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass


The Savior Complex

The Savior Complex

The lesson was going great. Discussions were facilitating deep thinking, work was getting done, kids were talking about their reading without my prompting.  Then I saw him: Head down, possible drool pool hiding beneath the pillow he constructed out of his arms.  As I went to gently shake him awake, I thought, Shoot–how did I miss that?  I had been furiously conferencing with other students and must have been turned the other way.  Almost simultaneously, I heard a student–who generally favors the hyperbolic statement–say, It is so freezing in here.  I HATE THIS CLASS.  

And then it started to go.

Matthew Quick’s character, Bartholomew Neal, would call it the angry man in his stomach.

Oskar Schell would claim he was getting heavy boots again, and might pinch himself for his shortcomings.

Julia Cameron dismisses it as the Inner Critic.

The Bible would call them lies spun by the enemy.

Either way, the moment I hear a negative comment, see a student who has slipped through the cracks for five minutes, or stare at all the red in my grade book for hopeful graduating seniors, I can’t seem to quiet that voice–whatever you choose to call IT–no matter how many times I attempt to smother or extinguish the flame.

IT says: You’re the worst teacher on the planet.

What makes you think you can change the world, or even one class period, one student?

They say you’re doing a great job, but what does anyone really know?  Don’t they just see what you present to them?

And worst of all, God didn’t place you here, He probably just forgot for awhile, and this is where you ended up.

Amateur.  Inadequate.  Soft.  Never Enough.

Forget the fact that I know all these thoughts are false.  They plague my mind daily, hourly, sometimes even by the minute.  So what is it that allows me to take the few negatives as failures, even when juxtaposed with many more positives?

In response to one of my messages one day, my friend and trusted mentor, Amy, called it The Savior Complex.  We want to save all the students–ALL OF THEM.  And by save, I mean engage, facilitate growth in life and learning, help them to feel loved and valued, encourage their ambitions and challenge them each and every day.

Seems doable.  (Not that I set lofty goals or anything.)

It’s my goal in these last few weeks to focus on the positive and deal with the negative.  I don’t want one to replace the other.  I don’t want to only see the positive, because that would take away the growth.  I just want to give each one its due in contributing to what I speak to myself each day.

Just like I tell my students:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying to someone else.

How do you deal with that Angry Man in your stomach or the Inner Critic?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. (Can 11 weeks qualify as “a few?”)

Note: This post was originally published on Jessica Jordana.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Assigned Reading often Fails where Choice Reading Soars

Sometimes things just hit me wrong. A joke that’s more cutting than cute. A meeting where complaining is the conversation. A book that gets ruined in the rain. A comment on social media that shows we are ignorant or arrogant or just right out rude.

I get asked often about whole class novels. If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I am not a fan, not a fan in the traditional teacher-makes-all-the-choices-and-all-students-read-the-same-book-at-the-same-speed kind of fan. I do think there’s a place for a shared novel experience. I also think there’s a place for a lot more conversation about the pros and cons of it.

If you read the posts in the NCTE Connected Community Teaching and Learning Forum, perhaps you saw this one Whole Class Novel Studies, which began with this request for help:


This teacher shares a legitimate concern. I would imagine that most of us who reflect upon our practice and want to do what’s best for students have at some point shared this struggle.

Those of us who read Penny Kittle’s Book Love (or perhaps we came to similar conclusions on our own) understand that every room of readers means many readers reading at a variety of reading rates. And we know it’s not just because students aren’t interested, are too busy, seem apathetic. It just makes sense:  students will be at “different places in their books” because students are all different.

We keep trying to make them all the same.

In response to this teacher’s query, four very helpful teachers shared what works for them. There are some good ideas here. Then, this response, which made my head nod:


Followed by this one, which…well, you’ll see:


Did a professional just dis another professional? Did a curriculum designer and educator on a public ELA forum just dis Dick Allington, one of the lead researchers on reading acquisition and best practices in literacy instruction?

This is just wrong. Wrong on many levels.

Now, I know that Mr. Allington was being sly in his comment here. He wanted to furrow some foreheads and force some frowns. I’m sure. And it worked to instigate some important discussion, which many of us would like to see more often.

One person commented from the perspective of a parent:

“When my son received the summer reading list to prepare for his first year in high school, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club topped the list. Being the rule follower I am, I forced that copious and joyful reader to trudge through that text. He didn’t read a thing in English class for the next four years. A brilliant reader and thinker, totally disenfranchised. As Allington said, he didn’t read the text.

“…the abusive pedagogy of the whole class novel described here is oppressive and culturally irresponsible. Sure, there are strategies that teachers can employ that mediate the boredom and disengagement. There are methods that utilize a whole class novel as a shared or mentor text and as a model for instruction or springboard for discourse. And there are a few teachers that can engage the readers throughout a methodical plodding through a classic text. But the question remains: what exactly is taught with the whole class novel? Are you teaching the novel itself? The habits of mind to diffuse any text? Or the student? When do they do their own thinking, independent practice, with influential and engaging texts?”

Shona, you won my heart. My four sons were very similar to yours. All avid readers but not when it came to reading for school.

Yetta wrote this comment:

“Richard Allington is raising a very important curricular issue.  Why should readers only read books chosen by other folks? Self selection of books is a concept that needs to be part of every class concerned with reading development including fiction and non fiction.

Book clubs, reading discussion groups, etc. are organized by many teachers to involve and support students with self selection of reading materials.”

Followed by Yvonne:  “Self-selection works. I was/am always surprised by what students choose to read. Students  amaze me.”


Leslie and Yoly with their favorite reads of the fall

Me, too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what readers do when they get stumped or confused or even bored, using mini-lessons and shorter whole class texts, we help students learn how to navigate and improve their own reading lives.

Shona continues, quoting from the work of Louise Rosenblatt, a researcher who has shaped much of my work:

“A history of the teaching of English (Applebee, 1974, 1996) reports in all periods dissatisfaction at the lack of success in achieving the humanistic goals of literature teaching that school profess and the failure to understand that the traditional approach conflicts with these aims. Literature is treated as primarily a body of knowledge about literary works rather than as a series of experiences. To produce readers capable of critically evoking literary works for themselves and deriving the pleasures and insights claimed for literary study evidently requires different methods and a different educational climate from the from the traditional teacher-dominated explication of literary texts” (p. 71).”

Think about this for a second:  What does Rosenblatt mean by a “series of experiences”? Ones the teacher carefully crafts through engaging and interesting novel studies, or experiences each student knows how to create for him or herself

Reading in English classes cannot be about the books. Reading in English classes must be about the readers. 

I know what some may say. I’ve heard it a lot:  “But I loved English is high school. I read every book. I wrote every paper on every book. I enjoyed the discussion around those books. That’s why I wanted to become a teacher.”

Yes, I know. Me, too. And you know what (and this is embarrassing to admit):  It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself, dragging sophomores through To Kill A Mockingbird in 1st through 3rd period and juniors through The Scarlet Letter in 6th and 7th when I had this epiphany:  “There are some students who are so different than I was when I was in school. They don’t read. They don’t do their homework.”

How naive. How sad that I was so unprepared for the readers I would face in my classroom.

In Lisa’s post last week, among other things, these few sentences rang true for me, too: “Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.”

Assigning reading

Providing study guides

Giving content quizzes

For the first three years of my career, this is how I taught, too. I thought I was supposed to teach great literature — and then test on it — instead of helping students become readers who engage with great literature.

I believe we can do both. I believe when we keep the student — his abilities and needs, her interests and desires — as the pilot of our pedagogy, we can do both.

the quiet table reads

My quiet table — readers all.

I know you can click on that link at the top of this post and read the thread on the NCTE forum about whole class novels. I hope you do. In case you don’t, I’ll quote a bit of what Dr. Paul Thomas wrote:

“Teaching ELA/English involves a unique (compared to other disciplines, although somewhat shares by math) tension between our obligations to teaching disciplinary content (knowledge such as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a part of American literature) and also literacy skills . . .

“And thus many high school teachers become trapped in teaching, for example, The Scarlet Letter to make students experts on that specific novel and/or the work of Hawthorne, all as part of gaining so-called cultural knowledge of American literature.

“In that pursuit, often the process negatively impacts students’ eagerness, joy in reading and writing because, as Yetta and others have noted, assigned reading often fails where choice reading soars.

I appreciate Dr. Thomas delineating disciplinary content and literacy skills in such a way. Perhaps this distinction is at the core of the tension between what often seems like two sides of our field: #teamstudentchoice and #teamteachercontrol.

Dr. Thomas goes on to caution against “demonizing” those who choose one approach over the other, and this is where, I’ll be honest, I might be a bit like Screwtape, except in a good way.

My writers and I hold fast to our tag line:  Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop. We write this blog to encourage others to take a chance on choice, to share student reflections and accomplishments, to promote current books and diverse authors, to show how choice works, and research matters. And sometimes it’s hard to not speak up and speak out a whole lot more.

This semester I have this amazing student teacher. (Anyone in north TX hiring?) He’s brilliant, proactive, a natural. He “gets” our students, and they love him. Throughout the fall semester, Joseph observed my classroom. After “hello” the first thing Joseph said to me was “I have never been in an English class like this. I was so bored with English is high school.” Joseph has stepped right into a workshop pedagogy and embraced its benefits, as a student and as a teacher.

But I share Joseph with a teacher down the hall. He joins her each afternoon and mostly watches as she assigns reading, provides study guides, and gives content quizzes. Heavy boots walk back to my classroom every single day.

And this makes crazy.

We can do so much more. We owe our students so much more.


Maybe we can help each other out:  How do you have critical conversations about choice and workshop and the wonders of books with your colleagues? Please share in the comments.


For more from Dr. Thomas see his post “We Teach English” Revisited. For more on the research around student learning and choice, see Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, LaBrant, and this post on Donalyn Miller’s blog.


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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