Category Archives: Lisa Dennis


I’m late to the party. This I know. But my enthusiasm for this soirée is genuine, and it fueled some of my first day success.

In an effort to build community as quickly as possible this school year, and to get to know our students a bit over the summer, my colleague Sarah Sterbin and I decided to add some technological play to our AP Language summer homework. Using the hashtag #fhslanglife, students were asked to share their reading life twitter4throughout the summer.

They could snap photos of their trips to the bookstore, their feet in the sand and a book in their hands, and their smiling faces reading the summer away.

They could quip about quotes from required and choice reading, make suggestions to peers on what to read next, comment on the insights of others, follow my reading adventures, and the list goes on.

As often happens with open ended assignments, we got a wide variety of participation. Tweets ebbed and flowed throughout the summer, but each time a student posted, I made it a priority to comment, retweet, like, and/or tag an author to promote connections across the world of reading. When Ishmael Beah, Allen Eskens, and Matthew Desmond interact with your students over the summer, I call that a solid win for starting to build readers and a community with enthusiasm around reading.


On the very first day of school, and in the few days that followed, as we quickly collected summer work, set down to work with a quick writes, set up writers’ notebooks, organized editorial speeches for our first speaking opportunity, and took in the surroundings of our room, I asked students to use our hashtag to share their excitement about the work ahead. I love what they chose to share.

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Tweeting is a quick and easy way to build community. I sometimes display current tweets our daily PowerPoint/Syllabus to keep the movement afoot, and I love to hear students’ reactions as they come in the room to see their humor, insights, and recommendations on the big screen.


How do you use social media to promote reading and writing lives? Please leave your brilliant ideas in the comments below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest tweet suggests that she thinks about reading 24/7. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Build It Brick by Brick

In a sea of back-to-school positivity (well-founded) and hoopla (well-intentioned), I often feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared.

Blame a jam-packed teacher preparation week, a summer of mindfulness that limited a deep dive into my lesson plan book, procrastination, denial, or crippling avoidance in the face of too many awesome options. I’m stressed out. Already. And tired.

Honestly, most of it is that last option. I do pretty constantly think about teaching. Ways to improve my content base, opportunities to more deeply understand my students, and countless resources to pour through in order to refine lessons all populate my summer.foolish How then does it all seem to come crashing down so quickly? Where does that raw enthusiasm for “the new” become wide-eyed, survival-mode, toss-me-a-life-jacket exhaustion?

It reminds me of those early days of parenthood. When you are “supposed” to feel overwhelming joy and revel in the breathless beauty that is a new and precious life, but few (if any) people prepare you for just how emotionally and psychologically challenging the change can be. When compounded with minimal sleep, mounds of self-applied pressure to be brilliant, and the feeling that every decision is make or break, you’re never very far from the edge.

So, just as parents want little more in those early days than to do right by their kids, teachers want to start the year by forging relationships, making connections, and presenting students with opportunities to learn that they can’t refuse. We want to learn their names, find them the best books, spark their enthusiasm with the perfect discussion question, change a life with the first kind smile. I’m a bit tired just typing it. However, stop someone on the street and say, “This new school year has me exhausted already,” and I would imagine they would be tempted to remind you of June, July, and August. But, the struggle is real.

I’m here this morning with a quick reminder. A reminder that I too need to hear as I furiously capture moments of a student bio gallery walk to share on Twitter, check in scads of summer homework, collaborate on new curriculum with multiple colleagues, adjust to a new schedule, less sleep, and more stress:

Rome wasn’t build in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. 

Our work at the start of the year is certainly important. It’s foundational. That said, it doesn’t matter if it’s year one or year thirty-seven, remember to breath, remember to rest, and remember that our students are overwhelmed at the start of the year too. They need a bit of ease, understanding, and comforting as much as we might.

Epictetus once said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” I might add that one should be content to be exhausted as well, but loving students is exhausting. Most things that we truly value demand much more from us and are thereby far more valuable in the end.

Hang in there, friends. We’re in this together, and the mission is worth every ounce of weary we might be feeling.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She currently misses long afternoon naps, but squeezes in catnaps here and there, on her couch, under a book, and with her eyes open during stoplight stops. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Get Your Story on the Page

Get Your Story on The Page (1)

Once upon a time, in a land of equality and compassion…

Attention! Do not open! Live snakes inside…

To the Love of My Life, It is with regret that I must inform you…

The power of the written word to change our perspectives, alter our actions, stir our hearts, and change our lives are just some of the reasons we all work to teach authentic writing with such passion, urgency, and unwavering commitment.

We reach out to our students with mentors, craft study, low-stakes writing, and the call to put their hearts on the page, because we firmly believe that writing can empower, enlighten, and embolden their lives as it has ours.

I am so proud to hold up as evidence, the guest posts on this blog from the past two days. If you’ve not had “beginning of the year, crazy teacher-presession days, I’m trying to learn 172 names, you’ll find me in a corner weeping” time to read those two posts, I cannot recommend that you take the time more highly.

Charles Moore and Megan Thompson, both teachers from flood-ravaged Houston, tell their stories of the start of a school year that will alter their lives and the lives of their students forever. The posts are honest, raw, vulnerable, and everything we ask out students to put on the page from day one. They are informative, persuasive, and narrative at its best, because they come from a place of true connection between content and humanity.

Often, especially at the beginning of the year, I will hear students say, “I just don’t know what to write.” And I hear that. In the face of powerful mentor texts about tragedy, inequality, injustice, and the raw realities of life, it can sometimes feel like my words on the page are very, very small in comparison.

However, this is where our students need the most support. They need to know that their words put on paper are uniquely theirs and that they are important. They fulfill the timeless desire of humanity to express, convince, and connect.

As we get to know our students this year, I think it’s equally important to get to know them well enough to intelligently hand them books to move their reading lives forward AND to get to know them well enough to coax out of them the true stories they have to tell.

We’ll work all year to fine tune the telling of those stories (mini lessons, craft study, feedback galore), but my goal very early in this school year is going to be to help my students get to know themselves right along with me as I get to know them and to help them see that the desire to communicate has always been within them. Regardless of their live experiences, the wonderings of their minds and the musings of their hearts are great voices we need to help students tune back into.

When I got home this past Tuesday, after a twelve hour day of pre-session and open house, my daughter Ellie (age four) was just getting tucked into bed. As I sat down next to her bed and soaked up her barrage of hugs, she smiled broadly and told me she had left something under my pillow that I needed to go get right away.

When I returned to Ellie’s room with the slip of paper below, my four-year old read me a story of about two minutes in length that explained all the markings on the page. It detailed her day img_5459while I was away, her desires to have me stay home so she could hug me whenever she wanted, several additional expressions of love, and a suggestion that we get ice cream this weekend with gummy bears on top. Signed with her name, it was one of the first pieces of evidence I have of her desire to tell her story on the page.

We learn first how to write our names. And when we learn this skill it’s to take ownership of our ideas. To take pride in the sharing of what we’ve created. We can’t let our students lose this. As their skills grow, and they learn all the additional letters to organize into words that tell what they feel, what they need, and what they want others to know, we must validate that exploratory writing in order to encourage it to continue.

It starts so early, this need to share ourselves with ideas and feelings that can’t always be said, and it is up to us as the teachers of these darling children coming of age, to remind them of the power that a page of their ideas with their name at the top can hold, if only they take the time to make those ideas deeply felt and deeply honest.

This school year, as we teach the particulars of the craft of writing, let us remember to encourage our students to share what they need to. Let us encourage them to share what they might not even know/remember is in their hearts and minds, and that it’s important.

We owe it to ourselves and to our students to make our writing instruction about more than answering the prompt, getting it over with, and/or filling a page requirement. Remember the deep desire humans have in expressing ourselves, putting our unique voices in print, and (should we chose) sharing that tiny piece of ourselves with others.

Students may hesitate, but their stories matter. Let’s get them on paper.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee.  Follow her developing story on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Time Well Spent: Getting to Know Our Students as Readers and Writers First

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Perhaps this school year is your very first as an educator. Maybe it’s your thirtieth. It could be that you’ve moved schools, or changed rooms, or will be teaching in a new subject area. Regardless of the circumstances, it isn’t unusual to have back to school dreams (flippin’ nightmares, if you ask me – driving to the wrong school again isn’t just embarrassing, it’s downright inexcusable fifteen years in), enthusiasm and optimism tinged with anxiety, and a bit of sheer panic that while you thought there wasn’t enough time to get ready at the start of August, now you are really, painfully sure.

However, the first day of school will come, as surely as the fireflies start to fade from warm summer evenings and the emails begin rolling in from panic-stricken students, who left somewhat less time than they probably should have to complete summer assignments.

And when that first day comes, all new outfits and nervous bellies, I’d like to ask that we all keep in mind something that I have come to see as very important in my classroom. I would ask that we all consider carefully how we spend out time.

A few weeks back, I came across a tweet from Danny Steele. He said,

I don't care

How true. How do I spend my time? How will I spend my time during pre-session? Drowning in data and prematurely exhausted by situations I cannot control, or physically and mentally preparing to welcome students to my class and the deep learning we will do?  During class, am I promoting books, writing in front of my students, talking with instead of at my students? Do I make time for my students beyond the class period? Beyond the class day, will I make time for my own reading and writing in order to live the life I sell to my students as essential?

For my students, we’ll need to discuss the very same concepts. For many, a case for becoming readers and writers will need to be airtight if it will successfully compete with loads of homework from other classes, endless hours of extracurricular practice/performance, and the responsibilities to after-school jobs, family, and friends. Thankfully, the most important job of an adolescent (discovering who he/she is and wants to be) is beautifully bolstered by time spend exploring experiences in a writers notebook and devouring the writing of great thinkers, explorers, and dreamers. My brief sermon to students very early in the year will repeatedly support good reading and writing habits by reminding them of the power of the choices they make in relation to these areas of their lives.

So, as workshop is dependent on the tenant of choice, teachers and students becoming writers and readers is reliant on choice as well, not just the choice of what to write/read, but how, when, for how long, and to what end.

This means, on day one, when I see each of my classes for only twenty minutes, I will be promoting the choice to become (continue as/make time for being/change a mindset around living a life as) readers and writers. I won’t be handing out my syllabus. I won’t be putting insane pressure on myself to know them all/love them all/build a community in one day. I will be giving students time to get acquainted with the idea that a life as a reader and a writer will be real in this class and my ultimate goal will be to make it real for them outside this class as well. In an effort to start this discussion, I’ll ask my students to write about the following:

What choices do you make as a writer and a reader?

In what ways do those choices lead you to becoming a stronger writer and reader?

When Sam suggests that his choice is not read, well, at least I’ll know. When Kara claims she wants to read but doesn’t have time, at least I’ll know. When Joe says he only reads science fiction no matter what, at least I’ll know. Because once I know, I’ll know better who and what I’m working with.

In the days that follow, my priorities will be to:

Continue to establish a workshop community that values reading and writing by talking about books, helping students select their first choice books of the year, writing with my students every day, talking about books every day, and using more pointed questions for reflection/conversation around getting to know my students as readers and writers specifically. For this purpose, I plan to use George Couros’s “5 Questions to Ask Your Students to Start the School Year” from his work at The Principal of Change: 

  • What are the qualities you look for in a teacher?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What is one BIG question you have for this year?
  • What are your strengths and how can we utilize them?
  • What does success at the end of the year look like for you?

Strongly promote curiosity as a mainstay of our work together. More to come on this in a future post. Amy and I started talking about student curiosity when I was working with her in Texas earlier this month. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it as a mandatory component to my planning that has been on the back burner for awhile. Of course the work we all do each day is to pique student curiosity, but I want this back at the forefront of my teaching. How often have you had a student answer the question above about what he/she is passionate about with a response of “I don’t know” or “I don’t think I’m really passionate about anything”? Readers and writers embody curious spirits, therefore, we need students to locate that curiosity that our traditional education system has beaten out of them by second grade.

Reflect on, discuss, dive into, write about, and work to digest the current events, perspectives, conflicts, and life-altering chaos of this summer in order to promote civil discourse and debate about how to move forward. Easy, right? Yeah. I’m sure we’ll have this all solved by the end of quarter one. Sigh. This work is going to be some of the toughest of my career; however, it’s necessary work. For my students from all walks of life, experience, and personal bias, we need to work more than ever to build understanding, empathy, and support for one another in order to send these scholars off to a life beyond high school with both hearts and minds wide open to the truth, the history and current actions that mold that truth, and how to make this nation and our world better.

And that, friends, is no small undertaking for the first few weeks of school.

At the heart of everything we do though, the grounding feature to the start of my year will be to focus on how we spend our time. What will we spend our time talking about? What will we spend our time worrying about. What won’t we spend our time worrying about? What will we promote and what will we let go of in an effort to be better students, better educators, and better people?

We will spend our time talking, I know that, because the best source of data in my room is the collective and individual voices of my students. So while I am nervous for all we have to do and be, and I’m sad to let go of the summer I am currently living (I type this on the couch in my pajamas, with my beautiful daughter curled up next to me), it’s time to spend my time a bit differently. It’s time to spend it in one of the most influential places in life. The classroom.

What will you be tackling the first few days of schools? What are your major goals for those foundational days of the school year? Please share in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her first days of school will also involve an increase in caffeine, Kleenex for spontaneous weeping at the sound of the alarm at 5:00 a.m., and an insistence that her lovely husband consider saving her life by dinner. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

There’s Still Time to Get Lost (And Found)

The school supplies are coming! The school supplies are coming!

You’ve seen this, right? You walk around the corner, minding your own business with a cart full of summer clearance items (I know, I know…there’s a reason the summer items are on clearance) and BAM! Pencil themed signage and endless bins designed to heighten Copy of Three Teachers Talk(1)the appeal of protractors, highlighters, and color coordinated glitter glue. (That last one should sell itself, no?)

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some school supplies. I still get excited to line them all up, to organize them, to dream of a perfectly categorized school year when I can find everything I need, revolutionize my post-it note-taking system (They are everywhere. Every. Where.), and create the equivalent of a zen garden on my desk with pretty pen holders and file folders.

But, I’m not ready. Hear that, corporate America? I’m not ready to go back.

You’re stressing me out. Your Hello Kitty backpack pushing, pink eraser wielding, bento box my lunches mid-July attack on my summer is not welcome.

Truth be told, I need more time. I need more time for two very important things:

  1. To get lost. A few weeks back, I wrote about remaining calm through mindfulness and embracing summer by being kind to yourself. When I will actually get around to taking my own advice remains to be seen, but thankfully, I have great friends, and one of the best said something just this past week that reminded me of something I really needed to hear: “There’s plenty of time to get lost.” He is so right. There’s plenty of time to get lost in more books, lost in the garden, lost at the movies, lost in my writer’s notebook, lost on the patio with great friends, lost in thought about nothing at all.
  2. To be found. Despite everything I’ve written so far, or maybe because of it, I do get excited to get back to the classroom. Honestly, the rejuvenation I seek isn’t about checking out, it’s about checking back in with fresh eyes and a full heart for the coming year. I love to lose time on Twitter searching the ideas of amazing educators. I love the stack of pedagogy books I get to tackle, and after Shana’s post last week, I think I need to add Rewriting by Joseph Harris. I love learning alongside educators whose enthusiasm for choice, talk, and student voice will inspire me the whole year through.

So summer is a balancing act. A mix of letting go of school, to again embrace it as a teacher who is grounded in passion and emboldened by a capacity to grow, change, and reinvent myself. To be both lost and found, I return again and again to the possibilities presented to teachers and students when the classroom focus is to build readers and writers.

I find myself thinking this week, post emotional meltdown in front of a Target employee, about a piece I read from

“Our students need to be taught how to see, not what to say.”

Get LostThis thought has been ringing in my ears for days. In context, I found it to be a brilliant way to suggest a necessary departure from formulaic writing instruction. Beyond that, I find it resonating with my continued desire to be both lost and found during this blessing that we call summer vacation.

The duality of a “vacation” that often serves as just more time to work and prepare for the upcoming school year in the traditional (formulaic) sense, can also be a time to stop and look around at how experience, observance, and appreciation can mold our practice in the coming year.

The same duality exists in workshop. The rules for school (the guidelines, the philosophies for best practice, etc.) need to apply to all stakeholders in the literacy education of our students, not just to the students.  As Amy said a few weeks back, “Every Teacher of Reader. Every Teacher a Writer.” In this case, it’s every teacher a seer too.

I’m taking time this week to really see (and again, mindfully appreciate) the possibilities: The English Journal read out on the patio in the sunshine, the extra time to write about everything and nothing at all, the planning meetings at a coffee shop instead of deep in the windowless conference rooms many of us are familiar with. I want to really reflect on how these more relaxed approaches to learning can inspire some of what I will ask my students to do and how I want them to see getting lost and found in our time together. I want them to see reading, writing, and talking about their ideas as opportunities to lose themselves in reflection, and find themselves there too.

So, no. I am not ready to go back, but I am ready to see both the lost (escaping into some poetry writing inspired by Iron and Wine’s Endless Numbered Days album) and the found (I just read Anne Whitney’s piece on authenticity in the classroom in the July release of the English Journal – blew my mind in a thousand amazing ways) of this summer.

The school year may loom large, and in truth, much of what I want to work on the rest of the summer does have to do with school, but I’m not on anyone else’s timetable yet. The bins of washable markers can wait. I still have a stack of books to get lost in, moscow mules to sip, and animal-shaped clouds to count, and even that (at least the first one) will make me a better teacher come fall.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Enjoy. Again, you deserve it.

How are you leaving time to get lost and enjoy?  How are you ramping up for the start of school?

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. This post was finished in front of a bonfire in our backyard, after a day spent reading at the pool. Cheers to summer. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Summer Alert! Educators, Remain Calm!

I was speaking with a friend yesterday about summer anxiety some teachers experience. How the “endless” expanse of summer gets eaten up by, well…work.

We agreed that “teachers have the summer off” is a dangerous myth, both politicallyimg_4296 (which I’d need 289 pages to dig into, so I’ll avoid that angle) and emotionally (which I will explore, but just a bit. My daughter and I are heading to the park, because I’ve been working on prioritizing). It’s a myth that was making me downright twitchy, because I thought I was “doing summer wrong.”

Summers of my youth were eternal. Swimming, biking, The Sandlot viewed from sleeping bags, vacations to Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg (my Dad was a history teacher), and reading countless books. Reading in my swing set fort, unless I saw a spider. Reading on my trampoline as I liked to imagine I was multitasking, because I was also tanning. Reading in the car, until I felt like puking – such a bummer for a bibliophile to get carsick from reading. Reading as a cliche, under the covers with a flashlight.

Stress was not a part of the equation. Various foods on a stick, mud up to my knees, and bicycle trips to pay for candy with a bag full of pennies, yes. Stress, not so much.

These days, summer days years later, I was finding myself legitimately nervous. Such anxieties include:

  • It’s already the Fourth of July! What have I done with the past four weeks?!
  • Each week of the summer has had at least one day (more likely two or three) on which I either went to school for a meeting/to work, or I worked several hours from home.
  • I’m reading, but not enough.
  • I’m writing, but never enough.
  • I’m spending time with my daughter, but…is that enough?
  • My list of to-do projects is largely unchecked.
  • I’ve burned once, but returned quickly to sickly Wisconsin pale.

In short, I’m doing a lot. However, I think my big mistake so far is that I’m still trying to balance being a teacher and taking time off. In other words, I haven’t actually allowed myself any vacation.

Today, the AP scores come out for the great state of Wisconsin. Awesome. No stress there.

Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet this morning, linking to a post from Diane Ravitch about research into AP courses and their impact on our school system. Basically, the courses are important. Rigor is important. However, what we’ve done with the courses (high stakes for class rank, stress on students who overload, etc.) is far from ideal. On extra stressful days like these, I am reminded each year of Amy’s post about what really matters in AP courses: creating readers and writers out of our students. Not hyper-focusing on the test and the scores.

In the same way, I need to stop hyper-focusing on school during the summer and remember what’s really important. If I don’t take some time to recharge, I am going to burn out by October.

There are ways to let go. There are ways to really embrace a little bit of summer.

And for those of you who are like me and aren’t so good at it, here is a list off the top of my head:

  • Read. Read under the covers with a flashlight if you are feeling nostalgic. Read exactly what you want, when you want. This one should be easy…it’s a part of being a workshop teacher.
  • Take the time you can. Maybe it’s a weekend or maybe it’s two/three weeks in a row, but no matter how much time, intentionally set it aside for you and for your family. No meetings, no planning, no curriculum work, no searching Twitter for ideas (save your Three Teachers Talk blog post from that time as something to look forward to later!).
  • Practice some mindfulness. I was introduced to this concept by a friend. As a teacher, I’ve lost a bit of “in the moment” thinking in favor of planning ahead and reflecting back. Resetting myself to return again and again to the moment I am in brings grounding and appreciation for what is right in front of me.
  • Grab some of your summers past youthful innocence back. My daughter just said from the other room that Belle and the Beast are finally loving each other now. I took a break. I went in to watch Belle throw snowballs at the Beast. Tale as old as time: you need to play more than you work sometimes.
  • Let yourself take a break. Good heavens…you know you deserve one.

How are you capturing summer? Please leave your comments below!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves to count fireflies in her backyard, sip root beer floats through striped straws, and get so lost in a book that she loses all track of time. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


Are You a Reader, Darlin’? 

A few weeks back, I was on a flight home from Dallas to Milwaukee, my thumbs clicking away at my phone. Working to stifle my usual chatter in a effort to be a good fellow traveler to the woman I was sitting next to, I had been reflecting on the past few days of learning with fellow educators. However, it hadn’t taken me long to realize that I might be sitting next to an archetype wrapped in pink. My curiosity was piqued.

She was an older woman with white hair cut into a sassy pixie style, a pink shawl wrapped around her tanned shoulders and a pink Bible in her lap. I was Honey, Darlin’, and Sugar in the first 20 minutes I knew her, and she had even put her hand on my knee Are You A Reader, Darlin'- (1)to ask me to reach up and adjust the air vent for her, replying to my action on her behalf with a long and drawn out, “Bless you.”

Her slow, sweet drawl suggested that she was the one on a trip North, not headed home as I was, and when we ended up chatting, she confirmed she was headed to Milwaukee to visit a friend she met on a cruise almost 30 years ago.

After awhile, my new friend reached over with a long, manicured finger (you guessed it, pink nails) and tapped the book on my lap.

“Now, isn’t that an intriguing cover. The Nest,” she said, emphasizing the E with a smile and turning the word to Nast. “Do you like it?”

I smiled back, “I haven’t had a chance to get very far yet. Do you like your book?” I took a chance at a small joke.

She chuckled. “Darlin, I’ve read this one several times. It’s a bit different each time. Never read it in pink before though.”

We laughed and I asked if she read often.

“Oh, yes, (I love how E’s are A’s in the south) always been. How about you? Are you a reader, Darlin?”

I smiled inwardly at the revelation that the North needs to use more pet names and told her a bit about workshop.

“Then you are a reader,” she said, leaning over a bit and pausing. With a dropped voice she whispered, “Go make a lot more of ’em.”

I smiled broadly at 40,000 feet. Yes, Darlin. I’m a reader. 

An educational leader capable of professionally developing peers? Of that, I’m still not sure…

But a day earlier I had been in Dallas, sharing a two day workshop with Amy for about 40 educators. To say I was nervous would be a gross understatement. 3 years ago, I didn’t really know what workshop was. Now, I was walking into a library, full of expectant educators, to professionally develop them, like I had the necessary social capital (thanks for that new one, Amy!) to pull it off. 

As the training got underway, I felt like it was the first day of school. Ever. The very first day of my very first year, when my smile didn’t quite reach my eyes because I was actively trying not to vomit. However, as I think back on my first professional development experience, from the other side (and vomit free), I feel blessed.

I’m blessed because I was afforded the opportunity to teach other teachers about something I am truly passionate about. I am blessed because their questions and concerns not only helped clarify my own beliefs, but strengthened them. I am blessed because I was able to teach beside one of my workshop mentors, Amy Rasmussen. I’m blessed because I got to see the excitement and possibility that light up the eyes of fellow educators when they see how empowering choice and talk can be in their classrooms.

Then, this past week, our fellow writer Jessica asked a few questions in our ongoing Three Teachers WhatsApp conversation that took me right back to McKinney:

How do we prove workshop to our colleagues? How do we prove that it works? That we are doing the right thing? How do we prove that it can help make all the difference for our students and their futures as readers and writers?

The short answer? We do it.

We jump in and try it. Just as Amy and I asked the teachers in McKinney to do, you try it. You hold on to the core values of workshop (choice, student talk, time to read, mini lessons, conferring, writing with mentors) and you begin. A comment made by a veteran teacher during our McKinney training sums up this ironically simple, and yet seismic, shift quite pointedly. This rather stoic, obviously brilliant, and totally skeptical educator, leaned back in his chair on our final day of training and said to the group, “What the hell have I been doing all this time?” 

This gentleman’s astonishment at how limiting teaching English can be if we are trying to teach students to be English teachers, was moving. It does nothing to negate all of the amazing work he (all of us!) has done in his career to move students forward. The practices he implemented in good faith and with good reason were to benefit students.   But now, he was seeing that something could be added to benefit the young people in front of him, not only as students, but as people. Something could shift. Something meaningful needed to change if his ultimate goal was now different too . No longer was the fight to make students read a particular text (or to read/write at all), but to build a support system to show students all of the opportunity, benefit, and enjoyment that come from reading and writing, and the lasting impact if can have on their lives.

Ambition (1)

It’s not easy.  It will not be easy, but the right work rarely is. My move to workshop and my recent training work has reminded me that this is the good, hard work that I need to be doing. In order to do it, I need to remember the following:

  • Be vulnerable. This is hard. No kidding. But it’s about effort to be real with your students. They need to know you are a human writer, not some enlightened literary god/goddess who is there with the right answers and a perfect draft each time you put pen to paper. Write with your students. Share your work. Share your revisions. As Shana suggested earlier this week, share your writer’s notebook. Also, keep in mind, that vulnerability doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Students don’t need to know every little detail about you in order for you to share. Not comfortable detailing the deep dark secrets you only share with your therapist and your murky, tortured soul? Good! Being vulnerable means sharing your writing about dogs, because you love them, not your poetry about the loss of your innocence. Open up a little and you’ll get back a lot.


  • Be honest. There is little room in my classroom to connect with students on the level I need to in order to know them well enough to build them individually as readers and writers, if I am anything but myself. If we as teachers are not raw ambition, pure desire for student success, and the occasional humble failure, then we are not really what our need.  Tell your students which books you’ve loved, which you’ve abandoned, and which classics you haven’t read. I keep Don Quixote, with 258 pages read, on my desk for that very reason. I thought I should read it. I struggled so long, I grew to dislike it. I moved on. I haven’t read all of the classics. Who has? And who determines the classics?! Share the pieces that mean something to you in an effort to help students find pieces that mean something to and move them.


  • Be a reader and a writer (Darlin’). If we truly want to build readers and writers in our classrooms, we must be readers and writers ourselves. Listen, a few short years ago, I wasn’t a reader. I had always loved reading, but in the first few years of my career, I had allowed myself to read less, because I claimed to have no taste for it after reading so many student papers. This just can’t be. Of course we can share our love of books through the pieces that have touched us over a life of reading. But, how can we claim a life and love of reading, if we aren’t doing so voraciously now? The same with writing. It’s malpractice in my mind to promote reading and writing as transformative if we, the teachers, are not taking the chances and the time to transform ourselves in the same way. I want my doctor to love and practice medicine. I want my mentor to truly believe in the power of education and promote best practice through his own leadership. I want my students to know they can trust what I’m selling them, because I’ve bought in.

I’m a reader and a writer, Darlin’. Won’t you join me?

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. As this summer rolls on, she looks forward to sharing more of the wonders of workshop next week with the awesome educators in Wiley, Texas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


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