Category Archives: Guest Post

The Seemingly Small by Jessica Paxson

url.jpgSometimes, in teaching, you just need a day.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  You have all of these beautifully planned lessons, but there are always scraps and pieces that don’t seem to quite fit perfectly into any single day.  Sometimes these tiny scraps need to get done, but cannot be just tossed anywhere for fear of interrupting that creative flow.  Creativity ebbs and flows, and so should lesson plans.  

It was the week before Thanksgiving and I needed a little of that ebb, so I planned a station day.  We began the day just like any other, with SSR followed by writing in our notebooks.  The rest of the period was intended to be spent tying up loose ends.  Here’s what I had on the docket:

  • Find a reading quote from the pile that speaks to you.  Glue in notebook and “write-around.”
  • Recommend titles for the Library of Paxsonia (classroom library).  Enter titles in the Google Form along with why this book stuck out to you.
  • Confer with Mrs. P./Reading Reflection: Mrs. P. will call you up individually.  Complete the reading reflection as you wait.
  • Writing Folders: Find graded work and organize neatly in your writing folder.
  • Reading Accomplishment Poster and Photo Booth: Make a page-sized poster detailing your accomplishment and growth as a reader this semester.  What makes you proud?  
  • Take a photo at the photo booth and send it to Mrs. P. for our Thank You Package.

As I began to circulate and chat with students, the conversations I heard were incredible.

Student 1: I’ve read an entire book for the first time in 4 years!

Student 2: I finally found a book I didn’t have to lie about reading.

Student 3: I finished a book in one weekend and asked for another one.

The day went on, and the students, of course, needed a bit of clarification.

Student: Mrs. Pax, if I haven’t finished a book, but I’m close, can I put that I finished a whole book?

Me: Remember, not what are you GOING to accomplish, but what HAVE YOU accomplished?

Student: Okay, can I put that I’m not finished yet, but can’t wait to get to the end?

Me: There you go!

Here are a few more of my favorites:

“I finished one and a half books in one semester!” -Sydney

“This is the first time I’ve finished a book and actually enjoyed it.  Thank you for such amazing books to read!” -Lacey

“I’ve finished one book in this semester and I’m proud!” -Dipo

“I finally finished the last three pages of a book.” -Edgar

“5 books down!” -Lauryn

“Mrs. Paxson helped me rediscover my love for reading.” -Zoe

In developing readers, it’s absolutely essential to remind them that it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.  Becoming a reader is a lifelong pursuit–as is becoming a writer, a leader, or someone who stands up for what she believes, for that matter.  

Unfortunately, there’s no TEK or Common Core Standard that says: Students will be able to celebrate the seemingly small accomplishments on the journey to becoming a better reader or writer, and recognize them as the big stinkin’ deals they truly are. (Disclaimer: If I wrote Standards, they’d have a bit more sass and spice.)

If we have to take a break from the “real stuff” to recognize the REAL STUFF–our growth as readers and learners–so be it.

This day turned out to be one of the most productive in all the ways that are not reflected in our daily objectives, but that are essential to building a reading culture in the classroom.

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.

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Appleman’s Lenses by Michael Janney

51rakay9iel-_sx396_bo1204203200_When I hear teachers underestimate their students, it really grates on me. Setting high expectations that aren’t always met doesn’t translate into failure on anyone’s part. It simply notes varying levels of understanding. With time and repeated exposure, all concepts and skills we want to teach can be worthwhile.

I had such a conversation a few years ago with a Ph.D. literature student who had spent some time as a high school English teacher. We were discussing the resource classic “Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents” By Deborah Appleman. I said that I loved the idea, as I didn’t get much exposure to literary theory in high school — or college for that matter. She disagreed, arguing that “in high school, you’re just not ready for it,” and that literature instructional time would be better spent on close reading.

I still think students are ready for it. We live in a complicated world and teach in highly-politicized public school environments. High school students — and all of us — could take more time to view our surroundings through critical lenses.

Appleman says so herself:

“Literary theory is not intellectual cake for adolescent cake eaters — those who are privileged by social status and other factors to have significant educational advantages. Because many of the theories deal with issues of power, students on the margin, for particular reasons — ethnicity, class, ability — are often more receptive to the basic ideological premises of these theories than are their more privileged peers, who sometimes view theories such as those of gender and class as mechanisms for using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”

But how to introduce these critical lenses? Of course, students need a concrete definition of each lens as a start. They also need texts that strongly suggest analysis with each of Appleman’s chosen lenses.

Resources that lean toward direct instruction just won’t do either. The readers’/writers’ workshop centers itself around authenticity and treating each text you introduce to students as a work that can stand on its own. It isn’t about supplements, but about connections.

So, it’s got to be something short, familiar, and striking enough to make them remember the learning when they’re analyzing other texts later in their lives.

Cartoons!

Yes, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Yogi Bear and all those other other goofy, googly-eyed weirdos; you get a small story that’s entertaining and rich with material to pick apart.

Here are my suggested cartoon pairings for Appleman’s lenses. Try one out when you need students to understand critical literary theory, and let me know how it goes!

Reader Response — “Steamboat Willie”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4

Begin with a classic! While “Steamboat Willie” wasn’t the first cartoon short ever, it’s the first with synchronized sound and it’s synonymous with Walt Disney. Simple in its form, it gives students a chance to offer their interpretation of the text — the essential element of reader response theory — as well as comment on the form of the cartoon short.

Race Theory — “Old Rockin’ Chair Tom”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6Hfk13LZIQ

This one’s a personal addition, because it isn’t in Appleman’s book, per se. It’s much needed, though, as many of the texts bureaucrats approve for schools lack diversity. This particular short features the recurring “Tom & Jerry” character Mammy Two Shoes, a classic example of the mammy archetype that shows how texts can perpetuate stereotypes and prevent us from recognizing the individual as part of diversity, and not a generic “other.”

Marxist Theory — “Hen House Henery”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d84KcSDUz6M

Henery the Chicken Hawk and ultimate Southern gentleman Foghorn Leghorn battle over farm capital — the hens — in this short. Each character is confined to a particular role in the farm society, and Leghorn gets to use the knowledge afforded through his age and social status to succeed in keeping his and the farm’s wealth.

Gender/Feminism — “Mississippi Hare”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbQbz3couU4

In one of Bugs’ many gender-bending shorts, he poses as a Southern belle as a last resort to thwart his adversaries. Here, you might ask students why cross-dressing Bugs is taken so lightly as opposed to his true self? Cross dressing is a common gag in comedy, so this cartoon also opens up discussions as to why the act is so funny.

Postcolonialism — “Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17BHa_7kTbA

Bugs Bunny runs circles around the subject of the classic Longfellow poem. While the cartoon Hiawatha can be interpreted as a stand-in for Elmer Fudd, he also becomes the brunt of Bug’s antics. It can start a dialogue with students about how colonial powers can marginalize aborigines through cultural works after they’ve already conquered them politically, economically and socially.

Deconstruction — “Duck Amuck”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrE5fdigIpA

Daffy Duck is ready to star in a cartoon, but the cartoonist keeps changing the rules of the game on him. Bit by bit, the animator rips apart each part of the cartoon: scenery, setting, clothing, sound, etc. Daffy’s frustration grows each time the cartoonist makes a change, precisely because those changes are a contradiction to the Looney Tunes form and what fans have come to expect from his character. This is the essential pivot of deconstruction, and probably one of the most concrete — and hilarious — examples on the list. My personal favorite!

Try one or all of these cartoons as part of your next reading unit and let me know how it goes. You’ll be surprised what connections students can make with applicable examples of each literary theory.

 

Michael Janney, 9th grade English teacher, Yearbook advisor; Shepherdstown, WV
When I sit down to read a book or write, I’m not concerned about circling the nouns or verbs. I’m not concerned with labels or checklists; right or wrong. Instead I’m focused on purpose and aesthetic— authenticity. If we want our students to become authentic readers and writers, we have to offer them experiences in the classroom that transcend the artificial routines of school culture. These experiences must include choice, creativity and validation so students can realize their power as readers and writers in the grand conversation of English/Language Arts.
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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.

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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).  

___ LESSONS LEFT TILL FINAL EXAMS

___ DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS BREAK

___ DAYS TILL SPRING BREAK (WILL BEGIN AFTER CHRISTMAS BREAK)

___ DAYS LEFT TO INSTILL LIFELONG KNOWLEDGE INTO THESE SENIORS BEFORE THEY TAKE THE REAL WORLD BY STORM

…AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:

___ DAYS UNTIL I GET TO START ANOTHER NEW YEAR WITH ALL THE KNOWLEDGE I’VE GAINED FROM THIS ONE.

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.

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Book Birthdays by Amy Estersohn

img_20161006_115756265Tuesdays are bar none the best day of the week.  Tuesdays are when most new books are released.  On Tuesdays, you can run to the bookstore, go to the library, or wait eagerly for a package to arrive.  If you love reading new books, Tuesdays are nothing short of wonderful.

I have a Book Birthdays list in my room to help my readers and I track upcoming and highly anticipated new releases.  I use chalk ink (more on how much I love chalk ink another time) and a section of my blackboard for this list.  Though I don’t spend much, if any, class time talking about books that are on the list, I sure get a lot of questions, requests, and (occasionally) demands from readers as to which birthdays we should be celebrating.  

I also update this list about twice a month.  For example, I booted off the second book in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series after its October 4 release date in order to make more room for the social media thrillers of Sarah Darer Littman and Stuart Gibbs’s goofy mysteries.

Creating a customized list of upcoming releases can seem like a daunting task, but with the right tools it’s easy enough to build and maintain over time.

Step 0.  Gather a list of authors that your students already enjoy reading.  Sprinkle that list with authors you hope your readers will discover.    My readers come in knowing and loving Margaret Peterson Haddix, Rick Riordan, Raina Telgemeier, and Jeff Kinney.  By the end of the year I also want them to read Jason Reynolds, Gary Schmidt, Marie Lu, Renee Watson, Pam Munoz Ryan, Gordon Korman, and Jennifer Nielsen, among others.

Step 1.  Create a Goodreads.com account.

Step 2. Visit these authors’ pages on Goodreads to “follow” the author.

Step 3. Go to your “account settings” under your avatar and click on “e-mails.”  If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll notice an opt-in settings for New Releases e-mails and e-mails from authors you follow.

Step 4. Wait for e-mail notifications to come to you.

Depending on the age and independence of your students, you may even consider opening up this task and invite students to help build a list of highly anticipated books.  

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.

Three Good “Ninja” Books About Children of Alcoholic Parents by Amy Estersohn

downloadI’m always on the lookout for ninja books – the kinds of books that address tough issues directly, but are also swift and subtle in how they go about doing it.  These are books that have middle school-appropriate characters, plot points, and pacing with some high school-ish themes.  See also: author Kerry O’Malley Cerra’s #mggetsreal campaign.

Without further ado… here are three terrific ninja books about children of alcoholic parents:

Shug by Jenny Han

Shug (nickname for Sugar) is stuck between being a child and being a teen, and she’s in the unfortunate situation of having a huge-o crush on her male best friend, Mark.  While Shug is primarily an optimistic if awkward tween relationship novel, astute readers will pick up on Shug’s mother’s social withdrawal and her tendency to rely on wine to solve problems.  This novel reminds us that chemical dependency can affect anybody without regard to class or gender.

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

This book is about a boy named Arthur Owens who throws a brick at an old man’s head, nearly killing an old man. Whenever I booktalk this book, there’s always a reader who says, “Surely it was an accident that Arthur threw the brick.”

To which I smile and say, “No, Arthur really meant to throw that brick.”

The Seventh Most Important Thing just might be my favorite book ever, if I really had to choose a favorite book.  It’s a book that transformed me; it’s also transformed some of the readers I’ve worked with, readers who have never felt compelled by any particular text until THIS ONE.  (Note that this book isn’t some magic cure-all, as some of my readers find it a little too character-driven and not cliffhangery enough.  But still.  This book.)  

I won’t give too much else away here, but I will say that Arthur’s father did his best to be a good dad to his children despite a struggle with alcohol.

This Side of Home by Renée Watson

Watson has written a book I can only describe as a gentrification romance.  Twins Maya (named after Maya Angelou) and Nikki (named after Nikki Giovanni) are watching their Northeast Portland neighborhood change before their eyes.  It’s becoming more white, the stores are changing, and their neighbor and best friend Essence’s landlord has started remodeling the bathroom and kitchen … before raising the rent on their apartment.   Maya wants to go to Spelman with Essence, while Essence isn’t sure she’ll be able to leave Portland and her alcoholic mother, who constantly needs her help.

Each of these three books gives a different lens into how different characters may cope with an alcoholic parent, and each of these titles could appeal to younger and older teens.

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.

Knowing Where to Look by Amy Estersohn

I’ve discovered a way to pack more reading conferences into my day.

No, I do not possess the ability to extend class time (though I wish I did!) and no, I am not able to talk to multiple students at once (though I’m sure my students wish I could!)  

4816266197_7805b15db2_z1However, I have been able to sharpen my powers of observation, and through these observations I’ve been able to deepen my sense of the readers I work with.

I begin observing before the Pledge of Allegiance.  Who is using the minutes before the bell to read?  Who comes to my classroom looking for a new book because he finished one on the way to school this morning?  Who approaches me in the hallway to ask if I have the sequel to a book finished long ago?  Who remembers that she owes me a book?  Who mumbles apologetically because he loaned the book that he borrowed to a younger sibling?

I continue observing the hallways.  Who is carrying a book?   Who brings comics to lunch?  Who brings books to a school assembly?  On a field trip?

student-147783_1280When students have an opportunity to read in class, I observe body language.  Different readers have different methods of getting physically “into” a book.  Some fold the book in half like a newspaper and bring the book inches from their eyes.  Others put their heads on their desks.   To the untrained eye, teen readers can look slouchy, lazy, or inches away from napping.  These are students who have entered what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone” — they are so immersed in a story that they are lost to the outside world and are unaware of how others are perceiving them in that moment.

The conclusion of independent reading time gives me another time to collect observations.  Who is eager to close the book?  Who is reading to the end of the page for a sense of closure before placing a bookmark?  Who doesn’t hear the first warning and needs additional cueing away from the reading zone?  Who softly moans, “Noooo”?

When students browse for a new book, how do they navigate your classroom library?  Is there a section that they zoom towards?  Do they pick up the first book in their field of vision, or do they spend time weighing and considering their next book choice?

The data to help us build better readers is all around us when we learn how to look.

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.

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