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Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

Sit Down Next to a Child

The closing of a semester is a stressful time.

Exams are looming for both students and teachers, papers are stacking up behind, on, and under my desk, and I’m certain that my desire to crawl headfirst into a hole (with a book?) isn’t a positive indicator of mental stability.

It’s also usually the time of year (one time at least) that I look back and wonder:

Did I guide them toward appropriate challenge?
Did we study enough mentors to shine a light on the path of reading like a writer?
Did I book talk a variety of books wide enough to hook readers at all interest levels?
Are these students better scholars and citizens for walking into my room every other day for the past four and a half months?
Will they remember any of what we did, thought, explored together?

Did I do enough?
Was our classroom experience together ENOUGH for these kids? 

Often, I fear the answer is no.

With half the year gone, I sense a blur behind me and a haze in front of me, and here I sit wondering how I can do more without killing myself in the effort, because despite all the hopeful posts of great tips and tricks and successful tidbits to help kids become better readers, writers, thinkers, citizens…I don’t feel the warm satisfaction of someone who knows it’s been enough.

  • Several students are in danger of failing.
  • My struggle with manageable methods to hold students accountable for their work/thinking hangs over my planning, and reflection, and lack of free time.
  • There is a persist voice in the back of my brain that tells me there just aren’t enough days in the school year, hours in the day, or minutes in the history of the universe to meet the diverse needs of my students, the administrative demands of documenting student progress, or the expectations I have of myself to provide the timely feedback to students that will most benefit their authentic learning.

And then…

I sat down next to Leila.

enough

A quiet, but determined student, Leila and I have sometimes struggled during the year to let her insights shine. From anxiety to a difficult home situation, there have been tears after a graded discussion when Leila couldn’t bring herself to speak, writer’s conferences where the draft was so muddled with tangents that the heart of her message was lost, and plenty of weeks when reading goals were nowhere near met, because life and the chaos it could bring her got in the way.

But we’ve grown together. Slowly.

Leila is the type of student that packs up methodically after last period. Sometimes she has a question. Sometimes I can tell she just wants to softly say goodbye without the bustle of 27 other students in the room. Sometimes she’ll shyly ask if I’ve read her draft yet or how she did in discussion that day.

She wants to connect.

And often, we do – chatting for a few minutes before she needs to catch the bus.

But shame on me, there are times I feel rushed – hurrying to a meeting, wanting to sit down and get to a stack of papers, resisting the urge to pack up and run screaming from the building after a day of craziness (not often, but sometimes).

Yesterday, however, I got the end of semester reminder that I needed. Leila asked if she could talk to me about a personal problem. Family struggles were weighing heavily on her slight shoulders, and could I listen for a few minutes because she needed to “talk to an adult I really trust”?

I put down the stack of books I was distractedly organizing and looked Leila straight in the eye. She smiled weakly and I came out from behind my desk to sit right down next to her.

Her struggles are the struggles of countless students: split family, terrible treatment by a parent, a struggling single mother, a student who wants to succeed from a deep need to exist as something positive in a world that has shown her far too much negativity in her 16 short years.

And as I listened to Leila struggle through and very carefully chose my words to let her know I really heard and appreciated her, a buried spark was re-lit. The soft glow inside when you feel truly connected to another human in this vast expanse of brisk passings, hurried exchanges, and impersonal interactions.

It had been exactly six school days since I had had a meaningful sit down with a student. In the name of providing time to “do work,” I had not conferred with kids, talked up a book, or written a word with them. They were working. I was working. We were coexisting and it felt…cold.

A few weeks back, I had a big, fat, slam a door fight with my husband.

It had been a few days (weeks?) during which we had let the hectic schedule of daily life hollow out a growing gulf between us. From the depleted shells we can all become after a day at work, to the endurance needed to weather the willful meltdowns of our spirited daughter, to the dog who needs to be walked despite windchills below zero, to the painful universal truth illustrated by conversations centered around, “I don’t know, what do you want for dinner?”, we were operating in triage mode almost each and every minute.

As a result, we were successfully coexisting, forging ahead, making steady progress, and maintaining stasis. We were not, however, connecting or particularly enjoying the experience.It wasn’t until we sat down next to each other and took the time to engage in meaningful conversation, that we fully realized how empty the very “full” days had been.

Such is the way of it with our students. Not the dinner conversations and toddler meltdowns, obviously, but the need to reconnect…or work to sustain the connections we’ve forged before too much stress, distraction, work time, or any sort of “other” gets in the way and makes it awkward.

So as this first semester comes to an end, I am trying to avoid the nagging questions of whether or not I have been, done, or provided enough in class so far this year.

When you become the trusted adult to any child who needs you, you have not only done enough, you are enough. 

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Sending anyone and everyone that needs it, a virtual hug today. Whether you find yourself at the end of the semester, or jumping headfirst into the new term, your work is important and valued.

Each and every time you sit down next to a child, it’s an opportunity. How blessed we are to have it.

So take a seat. You deserve it and your kids need it.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her new semester will start with State of the Union conferences for each student to reflect on the semester passed, set goals for the upcoming term, and connect. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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#NCTE17 – Pearls of Wisdom From Those Far Smarter Than I

Have you ever attended professional development that reached into your soul and stirred things up so thoroughly, so deliciously, so deliriously, that you knew your teaching would never be the same?

I hope so. If not, consider packing your bags for #NCTE18 – Houston next fall. Or book some inspirational PD for your district. Or simply follow any of the heavy hitters on Twitter. Professional development is everywhere because sometimes all it takes is a few words to send you down the path of beautifully rich, and possibly practice changing, reflection.

Our students deserve teachers who see the classroom as an opportunity. Teachers who see them as deserving of unending work to help create the best opportunities for their learning. Teachers who see each day as an opportunity to build up readers and writers, as the most important work to be done in education.

The voices below, that I was lucky enough to drink in at #NCTE17 this year, speak of opportunity in every endeavor: The day to day, the conversations we have with kids, the responsibility we have to see beyond test scores, and things we can do to stay true to what we believe as educators.

Dave Stuart Jr. – Doing more isn’t doing better. Refocus your practice with a personal Everest/Mission Statement.

Mr. Stuart’s session focused on how to teach English and still have a life. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I’m still working on it, personally, but anyway, this sentiment stemmed from the idea that we often spend a lot of time doing things that don’t align with our true beliefs about what’s important in our classrooms. His suggestion to craft and publically post in your classroom a mission statement really hit home with me. I need to boil down my practice to stay focused on what is most important in my classroom, and a visual reminder will help me filter my stressors through what I’ve claimed is most crucial to the daily movements in our experience as a class. Often, what stresses me out most, for example, is returning emails. While important, I’m certain it wouldn’t be included in my mission statement for my classroom. Therefore, I need to set some limits to when and where I allow this work to take away from the work that will move my students forward as readers and writers. My Everest statement, so named because it’s really evident what the goal of climbing Everest is, will bring me back to readers, writers, and critical thinkers who use both their heads and hearts to guide not only our work but their lives. Work in progress.

Kylene Beers – If we raise test scores but fail to raise compassionate people, we have failed.

I thought the crowd in the theatre might come out of their seats at this suggestion. If there’s one thing anyone who has ever been acquainted with education understands, it’s failure, and we avoid it at all costs whenever possible. I’ve let this sentiment guide my IMG-8069work this week specifically as it’s Kindness Week here at Franklin High School. Student need does not end (or perhaps more importantly begin) with the test scores they generate throughout their time with us, but if I can influence their capacity to better care for and understand one another, I’ve really made a difference.

Linda Reif – End in the middle of a sentence. It makes getting into the thinking again much easier.

I often have my students end their quick writes by suggesting that they should take a moment and wrap up their thoughts. I’d never considered the subtle shift of having them stop mid-thought as an encouragement to go back and finish, expand, explore, and keep at those thoughts. A quick write is inherently incomplete in terms of the time given and the depth of process used, so why suggest to students that their work should be wrapped with a nice little bow? I head back to my writing often. It’s where some of my best work grows – from the hazy suggestions I started with, to the revisited and revised thinking. Ask students to come back to their work more often. They might be surprised at what comes of it.

Kelly Gallagher – Reflected on Nancie Atwell’s quote about American schools having an aversion to pleasure.

This suggestion made me laugh out loud. How painfully true, yes? How often have I struggled to let go of the control in my classroom? How often have I feared that exploratory writing would be at the expense of preparation for the work my students would do after they left me? How often have I worried that it would be a “waste of time”  IMG_7306.jpgto extend a discussion or let students read just a bit longer? Far too often. As a colleague of mine famously suggested years ago, “Big Bird can’t come to class every day,” but pleasure doesn’t have to be a throwback to elementary playground free-for-alls. It can be simple. It can be personalized. But it must also be considered a worthy goal of any daily lesson planning. What opportunity for joy, satisfaction, or pleasure am I organizing for my students today? If the answer is nothing, then I wouldn’t want to be in my room either.

Tom Romano – There is language inside of you…Be fearless in heading down the page with it.

Tom said this casually before we did some quick writing in his session on multigenre writing. While I filled two pages with notes on how to incorporate a multigenre project into my classroom, this simple sentiment really stuck with me. I’ve used it several times with my students since then because I love how it rephrases the idea that we have to outwrite our inner critic. This phrasing suggests that we are already full of valuable ideas! We need simply to give ourselves permission to let them out onto the page.

What seemingly simple sentiments have changed your teaching for the better? 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 personal mission statement is a work in progress but needs to involve equal parts readers, writers, thinkers, believers, and dreamers. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

#NCTE17 – A Story I’m Thankful For

Like Amy, my NCTE experience this year was a blur of the most magnificent proportions. I was able to share the experience with an amazing group of colleagues, survived flying on standby in a peculiar route from Milwaukee to Detroit to St. Louis, and wrapped up my planning about 72 minutes before 3TT spoke to a wonderfully supportive and inquisitive audience on Friday.

I have 7 pages of notes, in 5 colors, saw so many English Gods and Goddesses speak I lost count, sat down three inches from Cornelius Minor to plan a forthcoming 3TT Twitter chat (Ekkkk! Fangirl moment), got to room for three nights with my bestie like college roommates watching Hallmark Christmas movies, secured over two dozen books for students in the exhibit hall, spent time with my amazing co-bloggers from Three Teachers Talk, and deliciously foreshadowed Thanksgiving with a calzone of turkey, cranberries, pecans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy dipping sauce.

thanks1So, when we flew home on Sunday night, I got to bed at about 11:30 pm. Up at 5:00 am, Franklin had school through a half day on Wednesday. I then hosted Thanksgiving for 11 people on Thursday, managed a Black Friday marathon shop with my daughter Ellie (She’s four and up at 6 am anyway – might as well take advantage), cut down a Christmas tree on Saturday, and tried to be a teacher again on Sunday in order to tackle 70ish AP Language responses and plan for the coming week. Next week (I am so excited), we fly to Arizona to visit family for a long weekend.

thanks2

Spoiler Alert: I ended up at the chiropractor this past Tuesday. She said she was surprised I could turn my neck at all. “Do you encounter a lot of stress on a daily basis?” she asked. I almost choked and laughed in her face.

Needless to say, my notes from NCTE have waited patiently for me.

NCTE last year was such an incredible experience, I came back to my district and raved about the opportunities our department could reap if a group was able to go and fan out across the convention to sample the wealth of presentations that take place. I am so lucky to teach with such amazing English teachers and even luckier to get to travel with them to this event.

We plan to debrief with administration and our department in a few weeks. I promise to share some of the information and inspiration they gathered. We attended sessions from Writing MultiGenre Papers, to Having a Life as an English Teacher, to Arab Voices in the Classroom, to Using Self Assessment with Students, to “let’s listen to Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Robert Probst all from the same stage and try not to faint with the fatigue of trying to write down all of their brilliance.”

So, until I find a few minutes to sift through those notes and take in the depth of learning we all did, I humbly share with you the slides from my portion of the Three Teachers Talk presentation on reclaiming our voices as teachers and students through narrative writing.

In it, you will find:

  • Some embarrassing personal photos I used to open our presentation with an illustration of  my own story and how it illustrates the power of narrative to define me: who I am, what I do, and why that might be.
  • Supporting information on how narrative defines the human experience. 
  • Explanation of the Visual Biography assignment I used to have students tell their own stories to start the year.
  • A quick write to get students thinking and telling their stories “outside the box” with a reading from Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. 
  • A final plea to see the value of student story in narrative writing as a way to know students, value their humanity, and give narrative a proper place next to argument and expository writing in our classrooms.

Amy wished us a happy December in her post earlier this week and shared her slides as well. We hope that December really does come soon. Tomorrow, maybe?  May it bring a few moments to breathe and reflect. When we do, we will be sure to shower you with all the #NCTE17 insights you could ask for.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Last year her NCTE notebook pen of choice was the PaperMate Flair, this year she highly recommends the PaperMate Ink Joy pens.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

3 Sparks to Shift Thinking and Practice

What gives you pause as an educator? Not politically speaking. Not shake your head and think of simpler times speaking. Not even “Yes, death is the narrator in The Book Thief. You’re on which page?!” speaking.

I’m talking about the changemaker moments. The moments that make you stop in this crazy profession, take a breath, and think about how you do what you do, why you do it that way, how you got to where you are, and how to move forward in the best interest of kids.

You know. A Tuesday, for example.

If you frequent Three Teachers Talk, chances are you’re quite familiar with the benefits of reflective practice. You’re already on the lookout for motivation and inspiration to move your professional work forward. You’re interested in change. You’re not afraid to wear stripes with polka dots.

Three Teachers Talk

But often, the moments that change us the most are the ones that sneak up on us. We don’t go looking for them, but there they are, in the blink of an eye, demanding, “So, now what are you going to do?”

I started this workshop journey over two years ago. And while I’m sad to say that the move wasn’t so much motivated as mandated,  I was ready for a challenge and always in pursuit of positive change. Or, so I thought.

When I found Three Teachers Talk, I had naively come looking for a way to ‘deal with endless annotations to assess assigned reading’ in the workshop model. Yikes. wisdomJust typing that feels like malpractice. I had an open heart and and open mind, but past practice and a limited knowledge of varying philosophies afforded me a narrow scope of imagination on the subject. My mind heard choice, voice, student talk, and for the most part, I believed I was already “doing all that.”

And to some extent, I was.

But, in many cases is was how I was doing it that kept me in control and my students in a cycle of compliant work completion vs. curious exploration as readers and writers. I’m happy to say that I’m growing, but like most things in my life, I have plenty of growing left to do.

So, because I work best with snippets of inspiration, the kind that I can digest, reflect on, and work to put into practice without feeling paralyzed by the scope of change before me, here are three shifts in my thinking and practice this week, and where they came from, where they took me (or took me back to), and the great minds that inspired them:

  1. Shana got me thinking hard earlier this week. Her post “What Will You Teach Into?”, stirred so many feelings that had been resting heavy on my heart the past few months. The world we live in, raise children in, guide students through, and try to navigate ourselves (because really, who among us can consistently stomach everything that’s been crashing down upon the nightly news lately?), is no longer just frightening, it’s often demoralizing.

    In response, Shana wrote, “This week and every week, I hope teachers are having difficult conversations with our students. I hope we are not shying away from the ease of ignoring our nation’s pain in favor of teaching about comma splices or symbolism or character development. I hope our time with students is deliberately geared toward talk about these incredibly complex, nuanced topics.”

    In an nation so politically polarized, it may seem uniquely difficult to have these conversations, but it’s precisely for this reason that the conversations are all the more important. Our students need to see, and in some cases learn, what civil discourse looks like.

    Our classrooms are certainly not the place to promote our own political opinions, but they must be a place to explore nuanced topics with students. My step this week was to have students look at the statement Senator Chris Murphy made after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas this weekend. We’d recently talked about the debate over guns in our country, sadly after the previous mass shooting in Las Vegas just a few weeks before, with Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week that presented opinions on both sides of this debate, and Senator Murphy’s statement brought us back to this discussion with an exploration of not only the topic, but writer’s craft, bias, and argument.

    Students quickly latched on to word choice (“That word, ‘slaughter,’ it’s heartbreaking.”), the use of context, and possible bias from a senator from the Democratic party. What mattered the most in the course of our 15 or so minute exploration, was that we devoted the time to do it at all. Students referenced the article of the week pieces we had read previously and marveled at the fact that we were having to talk about this. Again. So…we focused on “again” and students vented some of their fears and frustrations about what this all means for their daily lives.

    We didn’t change policy. We didn’t write to legislators. We didn’t protest. We talked. We talked carefully and candidly. It was the best spent 15 minutes of the week so far.

    These conversations are not easy. They shouldn’t be. But they must happen. Reading Shana’s piece reminded me that the time is now. Have a conversation, let students write, invite them to read, today.

  2. Students in our AP Language classes have been writing one pagers weekly since the first few weeks of school. With 76 students, the feedback on these pieces has been relatively minimal. I had been thinking the task of providing consistent feedback on this writing was well beyond my capacity, so I filed this work away as the writing students need to do, even when it’s not assessed.

    However, as I sat scrolling through the weekly work on Monday, it struck me that I had my feet in two worlds. Students still receive a formative grade for this work. Often, when I fail to record consistent scores, their work falters. So, I take a look, put a formative score in the gradebook and try to email five students from each class with feedback each week, which happens…sometimes.

    Noble, I guess, but straight up stupid on my part too.

    It’s disingenuous to record a score to make students compliant in writing these explorations of their independent reading, when growing as writers (which requires more consistent feedback!) is the goal.

    So, I’m getting out from behind my desk and moving those feet, previously in the two worlds of old school and real school, to more purposefully make moves as a workshop teacher.

    On Monday, I recorded reflections on the one pagers for my fourth period class. Just for five students. During reading time, I went to briefly speak with these students about what they had reflected on in their one pager. Since they write these pieces from the books they are currently reading, we just had more to guide the conference. I asked a follow-up question from the one pager and students talked about their writing process in relation to the book in their hands. Heart. Warmed. Goals. Clarified.

  3. Lastly, and probably most impactful, was a reminder from Carol Jago that I nearly scrolled past on Twitter. I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s catapulted my thinking back to a place I’ve known, but sometimes forget. It’s sparked some wonderful conversation with my dear friend Alejandra. It’s made an immediate impact on the feedback I’m giving:

    carol
    There are huge implications here. Enough for a whole separate post. But, I will say this – My shift here had less to do with philosophical agreement, because I’m already there, and everything to do with mindset. It was a simple reminder to encourage and instruct more, and correct less.

    My pledge to my students this week was a return to the type of feedback that has everything to do with their next paper. If I do my job and confer with students during the writing process, in an effort to improve the current work, my focus can and should remain on the writer and his/her next paper when I give summative feedback.

The power of wonder moves us forward. The curiosity that surrounds our work is not only necessary to foster in students, but critical to keep our own work fresh, functional, and full of meaning for everyone in the classroom.

What has sparked moves in your thinking or practice this week? Please comment below and share the love through snippet PD. 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her desire to grow as an educator is only inhibited by the number of classes she can conceivably afford to take, the number of times her daughter wants to re-watch Mary Poppins, and the number of hours in the day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

News You Can Use

I find most of what’s reported on the news today to be either deeply disturbing, horribly demoralizing, or downright exhausting. It almost feels like the past few months have been less of an end to summer/start of fall and more of an obstacle course of the absurd, obscene, and disappointing.

However, in the unending quest to inform our future electorate, we forge on. Articles of the week, hot topic debates, impassioned student speeches on the criminality of injustice, and an endless stream of quick writes to vent some of the hot, hurt feelings.  Then there are the daily discussions on the struggles we face, the struggles of those we need to know more about, and the struggles to balance it all when sometimes we just want things to feel whatever definition of “better” might help us through.

In the face of all of this, here is a recent success I had that championed choice and voice (coupled with a bit of creative reflection) around some of the news that might get overlooked in the whirlwind of our current news cycle.

News You Can Use

  1. Students selected an article from several that I had re-tweeted in recent weeks with our class hashtag –#fhslanglife. Topics varied widely and I simply went through and briefly highlighted the focus of each article in an effort to pique interest. Here are a few I included. Student response was awesome. We could have easily talked about these articles for the full 86 minute class period:

Are my students reading pieces on the economy, info-graphics, and authors (even authors they love) on their own? Not often. Are they talking with gusto about the relativity of these pieces, sharing insights on author craft, and talking about topics that impact them in the here and now when they are offered up as choice? You bet.

  1. Then, inspired by the Three Teachers Talk Twitter chat earlier this week with Tom Newkirk (#3ttchat), I stole a quick idea (the very foundation of Twitter chats,yes?). I love the quick and dirty nature of professional educators hurling greatness at one another in rapid succession and a maximum of 140 characters. For this week, I was immediately able to implement the single line, or as I told my students, “THAT line. You know the one” craft analysis. Based on the awesome insights of my fellow chatmates, I asked my students to do their reading and zero in on THE sentence that made the piece.

  2. Students read for 10-15 minutes, jotting down reflections and searching for “the one.” Once they were finished, I challenged them to respond in their notebooks in a creative approach they didn’t usually use. A dialogue, letter, poem, etc.

  3. After sitting silently for roughly 30 minutes, I had students get up and connect with someone from the other side of the room. Get the blood flowing a bit. They were to connect with someone who read the same piece and debrief. Ideas flew around the room.

  4. We then came together to share and here is a sampling of what I heard throughout the day:

  • From Ward’s piece on raising her son, Kaitlin pulled out: ” I hope I love him enough in the time I have with him, that while he can be a child, I give him the gifts of a childhood: that I bake chocolate chip cookies and whisper stories to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to burst with joy. “
  • The info-graphics brought Nhan’s attention to: “We can trace the US story through stereotypes.”
  • After looking over the maps detailing climate change, Karan wrote a dialogue between President Trump and an environmentalist.
  • Several students brought up questions about college vs. career after reading about the jobs of their future.
  • Jerry Khang (who told me to publish his last name so you all know who he is even before he’s famous) read the John Green piece and wrote the following poem in about 4 minutes flat:

Books are a closer look into a person’s soul. 
We find ourselves deteriorating, gloomy, and so dull. 
But when we are able to read, to relate, to medicate our minds, 
We’re temporarily fixated on happiness in a short burst of time. 


When we provide students with relevant, yet challenging reading material, choice, time to write, time to think, and time to talk, 30 seemingly innocent minutes reading an article and writing about it can be beautifully rich, engaging, and rewarding.

And beautiful is something I think we could all desperately use right now.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her social media scrolling is driven largely by searching for class related articles and pumpkin soup recipes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most

I’m a fan of literary mic drops. It’s often those last lines of text that make me smile, sigh, or chuck a book across the room. In conjunction with my unending impatience, I often find myself paging ahead to the conclusion of a text to see how the author and I will part ways. What profound bit of wisdom will end the conversation we’ve been having? How will we part? Do I get to hug this book tighter as I read because I know the beautiful place we’re heading together? Have I glimpsed a future I can’t stomach? Do I need to consider ending the relationship early?

Often, I am rewarded:

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” 
“He loved Big Brother.” 
“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”
“All was well.”
“Are there any questions?”
“I wish I felt confident that I have the best words, but I’m glad I wonder whether they’re worth saying” 
“And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.” 

“I don’t know where there is, but I know it’s somewhere, and hope it’s beautiful.” 

haunted

So it goes with my journey alongside Tom Newkirk in his Minds Made for Stories. Spoiler alert, I paged ahead. Spoiler alert, Mr. Newkirk did not disappoint.

In a text deliciously layered with reminders that narrative is the very foundation of our understanding of the world and our place in it, not merely a cute exercise for the early grades, Newkirk ends with:

“But as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” (146).

Yes. Humans must tell stories. We must tell stories to explain how we got here, why we need one another, what we’ve suffered and celebrated here. We must tell stories to share who we are, what we need, and where we should never go again.

Creation stories. Quest stories. Comedic stories. Sob your eyes out stories. Monster stories. Our stories. And if our classrooms aren’t the place where these stories are born, or shared, or honored, or revered, where will they gain footing? Where will they take flight? So often, students already feel their ideas aren’t worth much. If we don’t support their experiences, wonderings, and desires to connect to their own humanity (or encourage them to have such desires), who will?

If we are in the business of promoting the beautiful stories of creative thinkers , how can we look at our students and say that their beautiful stories must fit within the constructs of our unit-based curriculum? The stories of our students, their questions, their pain, their searching, must find a home in our classrooms before these same students are convinced that their stories don’t matter. Likewise, if our students are convinced that they must fit their stories into the structural mold that we give them or that the grammatical difficulties therein supersede the story’s worth, our students will continue to be finishers rather than learners, with passions dulled and attention diverted to less complicated or messy endeavors.

In a world of Everything is an Argument a mantra I readily subscribed to when I took over the AP Language and Composition classes at our school almost a decade ago, I needed to read Minds Made for Stories. I needed to remember, as Newkirk says, that narrative is a “property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company.” It is “a foundational mode of understanding” (34) that demands so much more attention than it’s afforded as a unit of study or structured paper our students pump out once a year.

In fact, narrative is at the very core of every significant argument and every engaging expository text I’ve ever taught, read, witnessed, or created. Without the drama of human experience, argument falls short and exposition falls flat.

Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast recommended to me by my husband. We were driving home from Lambeau Field, in the pouring rain, after the Packers had lost their first game of the season without Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone will haunt the state of Wisconsin for at least the next nine weeks (See? Narrative).

Anyway, the podcast, Under the Skin, is produced by Russell Brand (stick with me here, I promise we’ll get through this together), who will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whose brilliance (it was a surprise to me too) extends far beyond raunchy comedy. In this episode, Brand is interviewing Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History Of sapiensHumankind. Throughout this conversation, Harari and Brand explore the idea that life is built on fictional stories that create our nonfiction existence, and if deeply examined provide the cooperative construction for all of civilization as we know it.

Harari hypothesizes that fiction, or in our case narrative, helps determine what the shared goals and values are of a specific group, and thereby their role in or purpose as it relates to society. All of our shared fictions (corporations, money, countries), in other words, are the bedrock of large scale human cooperation.

So if story, whether it be fiction or nonfiction,  is at the very core of who we are, how we interact, what we seek, and what unites or divides us, how can we limit it to a six week unit, the focus of which is a hook to capture the audience, transitions to move seamlessly between chronological points of interest, and the use of narrative techniques as scored on a rubric?

We can’t. It’s unconscionable.

However…we need grades. I get it. I live that too. Gah.

But what Newkirk has awakened within me, with his reminder that narrative is “not simply a structure or plan or outline,” but rather a “deeply embodied invitation to movement” (50), is that narrative needs to be a part of my daily practice and needs to be freed from our check-listed systems of construction. If I am to stroll about my classroom and pontificate on the value of our lives as writers, then I need to provide more opportunity for and reminder of the importance of story within that work. Narrative as a part of all writing, not just a stand alone.

In other words, I can’t on the one hand see the inescapable connection between human experience and our desire to share it, and then tell my students that their narrative writing needs to live neatly in the confines of an MLA formatted page that shall not exceed x number of pages.

Narrative writing needs to weave it’s way into everything we create.

Our students need to be given opportunity to tell stories, their stories and the stories of fellow humans, in a way that connects us to our past, highlights the questions that matter to us in the present, and hopefully provide answers to the issues that will impact our futures.

It can all start with a quick write. In the low stakes freedom that is a blank page in one’s writers notebook. Let students give voice to their stories without the pressure of our expectations and rules. If we value these stories (fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, political opinion, context for expository poetry, and the like), and give them a place to grow, our students will value them too.

-Three Teachers Talk (1)

We as “time-bound humans” must allow narrative to run boundless through our classrooms. If it defines our lives; it must not be relegated to a neatly packaged composition assignment dictated by the Common Core. Rather, it must be woven into our talk, our choice, our writing.

Narrative gives voice to the parts of us that make us human. Let’s give it a more powerful, empathetic, educated, diplomatic, and beautifully crafted voice.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She can’t wait to meet Tom Newkirk in St. Louis at NCTE and have a truly embarrassing fangirl moment. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

What Are You Reading?

I don’t know about you, but I have a few things on my plate right now. If the number of tearful, fretted, “I can’t do ALL of this” conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks are any indication, your plates are pretty full too.

Teaching does not look kindly on a work/life balance, and I’ve spent 15 years trying. And while minimizing these very real demands on our time doesn’t make any of them go away, take less time, or command less of our attention, I personally could use a little check-in on my reading life.

The first few weeks of school, when establishing a workshop routine in my classroom, I teach students about the brain benefits of reading, the academic benefits of reading, the stress reduction associated with reading, and then…I find myself struggling to find time to read. Well, that’s not true. I find the time, and then I fall asleep. No book is to blame. It’s me. I’m tired. I also feel that I can confidently speak for most of you, in that you’re tired too.

What we need, in my humble opinion is a little book club-esque support. I often have my students quickly share with each other what they are reading in order to promote expanding community around a reading life, provide opportunities to grow our classroom libraries through bankruptcy inducing book purchases, and just talk about books to build excitement around books. It’s fast, it’s easy, and for bibliophiles like you and me, it’s exciting.

Now it’s our turn.

I’ll start:

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I’m reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and it is SO good. Dystopian in a fresh way (ironic when related to a worldwide flu pandemic!), this story weaves together the lives of several intriguing characters across decades, miles, before the fall of world civilization, and after.

I’m loving the author’s style as she reveals details to start a chapter, but jumps back in time to provide the context. This book is uplifting, soul-crushing, page-turning literature. Seriously…it makes me realize that my full plates might  not be so bad after all, if the alternative is the Georgia flu which arrives on a plane from Moscow and wipes out 99% of the world’s population.

Your turn! Let’s talk about books! #3TTReads

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  3. Tweet your current read and/or a photo of your own shelfie on Twitter, @3TeachersTalk with #3TTReads

Can’t wait to catch a glimpse of your reading lives!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Along with Station Eleven, Lisa is finally reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is her sincere belief that we become better readers two books at a time. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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