Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

Politically Motivated: Positively Harnessing Student Passion in a Time of Uncertainty and Fear


Yesterday morning, I stood outside for 17 minutes. Per the instructions of my administration to maintain the opportunity for all students to learn without interruption should they choose, after a moment of silence in our school for the victims of the Parkland shooting, if students chose to participate in the national walkout, teachers were to follow only if every student in his/her class left the building. After a few seconds of looking around at one another, one by one my sophomores stood up and filed quietly out of the room.

Outside, a small group of students had prepared statements to lead the several hundred students gathered in the chilly March sunshine through 17 minutes of reflection, support, and silence. The group was large, diverse, respectful, and unified, if not in purpose (likely a few students were carried out more by curiosity than conviction), then in the experience itself. A hush I’m not used to experiencing in the company of several hundred high school students quickly fell on the chilly March morning and the group stood in near silence, listening to their peers eloquently unite the crowd in peaceful purpose.

Teaching in time when I feel that I must often couch statements with a reminder that logic and facts should not be considered political, I must again come to you today and suggest that the overwhelming pride I felt in the students gathered in front of our school yesterday, and at the student-led debrief/discussion held during our resource period afterwards, had nothing to do with the politics of their statements. It has everything to do with the way I saw students, our students, standing together in support of one another to promote safety, unity, and empathy, not only for our schools but for our communities.

Several weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who were not even alive when the shooting took place at Columbine in 1999, process such violence and uncertainty as a constant shadow to their educations. Little did I know that our school too would need to process an alleged threat to safety, a school day where several hundred students stayed home out of fear, social media-fed rumors of possible violence, and countless discussions with students who said time after time that even though this particular brand of violence has been taking place for the entirety of their educations, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to feel. They didn’t know how to cope.

They just want it to stop.

I looked at their faces and saw fear, anger, and pain that frankly frightened me, and for the millionth time this year, I knew I needed to figure out what we could do.

Discussion, writing, reflecting, sharing, and hugging was working, but much like this past month, something felt different.

These kids needed to DO something.

My colleague Sarah and I decided to have our AP Language students write letters to their representatives, expressing their researched opinions on how to end the violence of mass shootings. Their arguments would be their own, bolstered by research to better understand the issue, their own positions, and their audience.

social changeWe were clear with students from the very beginning that this was not an assignment in support of any particular political agenda. Instead, it was an exercise in better understanding our preconceived ideas and more deeply, and diplomatically, developing our rationale for how to bring about change  As long as their research came from credible sources, students could argue for changes to gun laws, support of the 2nd amendment, mental health considerations, school security, or any other defensible position to end mass gun violence. They could write to state or local representatives, as long as they researched that representatives current position on related issues, providing students with key insights to audience consideration we’ve previously only talked about or tried to emulate through blogging.

Supported with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible argument unit published over the course of 12 days on his personal blog, Sarah and I helped students through pointed research to build letters rich in ethos, persuasive argument, and pathos that could only be provided by the very students whose passions for activism have been flamed because they are so heavily and personally burdened with the threat of this particular brand of violence.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I have:

  • Seen students come in more for help/feedback with this assignment than any other throughout the year. When I asked a student after school yesterday, what had him so dedicated to crafting this particular summative he said, “Because my school work matters, but this assignment is going outside of the school. It matters outside of these walls.”
  • Watched young people who before could not identify who their state or federal representatives even are, research these people and their positions on key issues, and write directly in response to those issues in order to argue to an authentic audience.
  • Helped students channel their feelings of helplessness into purpose, simply by picking up a pen.

What these kids have produced is incredible. I am so proud of the way they have positively focused their overwhelming emotions into powerfully convincing letters to the men and women with means and opportunity to make changes to protect our students from further disaster.

Here are a few excerpts from letters that have started rolling in. In the coming days, we will get the letters printed, addressed, and mailed to Madison and Washington.





I am a firm believer that addressing issues in a constructive manner is a significant step toward positive change. We owe it to our students to provide them with, encourage them around, and support their efforts in making positive changes in their own communities. Though unequivocally necessary as a foundation to an informed electorate, we will not raise the citizens this nation so desperately needs on standards, skills, and summative assessments alone. A new reality is built on the combined knowledge and passions of the humans willing to take risks in support of that reality.

I will certainly never stop teaching my students that deconstructing a prompt is the best way to dig into a timed writing task or that commas don’t occur only where you would naturally take a breath, but I will also never stop supporting them in all they have to teach to us. Our students deserve our help in amplifying their voices to bring about a better world. In this, our jobs have never been so important.

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



Hope is the Thing with Feathers – Teaching in a Time of Overwhelming Tragedy

How does one process news like that of the school shooting in Broward County yesterday? What do we do when the classroom bell rings for us today, but a school just like ours will instead be dealing with the loss, hurt, pain, fear, emptiness, and uncertainty of another mass shooting? What can we say to adolescents whose educational experiences are littered with pox far beyond even the terribly usual trials young people can and must endure?

Painfully, we’ve all had more than enough practice at wrestling with such questions, but attempting to digest the senseless slaughter of innocent school children within the walls of our professional workplaces is never easy. Blessedly, it feels far from normalized. Horrifically, by the sheer number of circumstances we’ve been presented with over the past few years, it does, in fact, become almost routine.

Basically, the haunting normalcy of these events leaves in its wake a sense of utter helplessness, despair, and at times, hopelessness.

As a teacher, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as an educator who teaches next door to her very best friend and works with people she considers family, I am close to lost. The what if of such a scenario playing out at yet another school, let alone my own, is something beyond terrifying. It rips into the realm of disorienting, numbing, paralyzing.

My own daughter starts kindergarten next year. While a completely idealized reflection of my personal experience would only be partially true, I know for certain my teachers and parents did not need to explain to me what I should do, at the tender age of five (or ten, or eighteen), if someone should enter our place of learning, intent on carrying out an act of chaos that would put my life in danger.

That I might not come home from school because of the actions of someone with a gun, was not my reality.

It is now the reality of our students, our colleagues, and our own children.

To say I am disappointed by inaction is an understatement. Pointedly, I’m terrified to imagine the scale of an event it will take for change to occur. I’m disheartened by the unending cycle of condolences, followed by outrage, followed by a seemingly patient and quiet resignation to our circumstances as we wait for the next special report to interrupt our regularly scheduled hand-wringing and begin the cycle all over again.

Our students, sadly,  have little choice but to see these events as a part of their education. While the events at Columbine, an event we could not know and would shutter to imagine as a prelude to so many more school shootings, were a deeply disturbing occurrence in only the last two months of my own high school experience, our students already count this most recent tragedy as one among many.

As educators, we have little choice but to wish fervently, speak passionately, and push daily against such vile intrusion into our schools, all the while preparing solemnly for the possibility that our communities could see just such a tragedy.

So what do we do today?

The normalcy of routine can be reassuring to some. I could go about my way of logical fallacy presentations and book club discussions on modern nonfiction texts today. And most likely we will. But I feel like we all might need something more.

In reading Tricia Ebarvia’s post on Moving Writers this morning, I felt her searching in much the same way I am. Her initial list of possibilities is recognizable to many of us and a place to start:  “hug your kids a little tighter, tell them they’re valued, be a little kinder, read to them, remind them that they’re safe but to look out for one another, urge them to reach out to adults, and so on.”

Her beautiful post goes on to suggest a variety of approaches from classroom discussion, to the analysis of political cartoons, to reflecting on the words of our nation’s leaders in the wake of yesterday’s events.

A few months back, in the days after another mass shooting, this time in a church, Shana reflected on Kylene Beers’ piece “Once Again,” suggesting we really consider the purpose for which we teach in order to best move ourselves and our students forward with purpose and passion. I love Shana’s heart in this piece and her wrestling with the raw emotion of such events by asking teachers to reflect on whether making meaning or making life meaningful should be our goal. 

So with a lot of options, I think today, I am going to write with my students. The thrust of Ebarvia’s post today is the avenue we can take that will most likely feel familiar, as both embedded workshop practice and proven activity to handle stress. I am going to give my students space to write.

A few minutes. An extended session. Whatever the class needs.

The writing can be open response. It can be prompt related if we think our students need it. It can also be response to beautiful words. Poetry saves souls, I am convinced, and Ebarvia must have been thinking along the same lines. Several of the poems Tricia shares are powerful reminders of the depth of the human spirit, how we cope with tragedy, and what it means to be human. Student reflection on these will bring wondering, questions, hope, fear, pain, and maybe unexpected release.

I’ll humbly add the following piece. I think this is what my classes will reflect on today : hope2

We are going to use our writer’s notebooks to pour out some emotion and let it linger on the page. Coping and healing can begin in our classrooms. We need not be counselors, but we can do what we’ve always done…provide the safest emotional space possible for all of us to deal with the increasing lack of safety that surrounds us.

As educators, we share common challenges, but thankfully we also share a common purpose. Together we can move our students and thereby the world to a better place. I’m glad to be wrestling with all that it means to be human with you.

Be well today, friends.

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


Trigger Warning – Whole Class Novels

Ideas don’t sneak up on me. They hit me from just beyond my peripheral vision like a swift backhand to the kneecap. I can’t possibly go on as I had been only moments before. The ideas explode onto my consciousness, and then my to-do list, and then leap onto my calendar, and then to most of my waking moments until I actually do something about them, or surgically remove them somehow from my obsessive brain.

Translation: I had been happily proceeding about my merry workshop way with the start of the second semester, until this weekend when I met Kate Roberts from The Educator Collaborative via her recent blog post “The Healthy Skeptic.”

And now I can’t stop thinking about whole class novels. Or the brilliance of Kate Roberts. Or whole class novels. Or nostalgically gazing in the rearview mirror of my career at some whole class novels.

However, it would be disingenuous of me to paint my work with whole class novels, even The Scarlet Letter, with rose-colored glasses (Sorry. Hester has enough to deal with. I shouldn’t try to make this punny). Self-reflection and engaging students in honest dialogue, often reveals that my students, like most students, were experts in the art of fake reading. We were experiencing texts together, in many cases for far too many weeks at a stretch, but few were reading.

So while the merit of the texts in and of themselves might be harder to shake, it was easy to admit that the value to my students was relatively low in comparison to the amount of time we took, form writing we constructed, and smiling/nodding (on a good day) that was had.

I wasn’t teaching the readers, that’s for certain. And if students aren’t reading, I’m not really teaching reading either. We’re unnaturally drawing out the process for avid readers at best, turning young people off to or supporting preexisting negative feelings about reading at worst, and going through the motions far more often than our nation’s tenuous relationship with literacy can afford.

Yesterday, I found myself in a nearby district sitting around a huge conference table with two administrators, one reading specialist, and a dozen or so high school English teachers. I had been asked to come in and talk about Franklin’s experiences with high school workshop as this department weighs their options in moving forward with balanced literacy, daily practice, and all the options to start parting ways with traditional, and explore the unknown. This group of educators had incredible questions, a healthy amount of skepticism I think, and most importantly, a sincere desire to do right by their students.

We talked a lot about the nonnegotiables of workshop, considerations when structuring daily lessons, the difference between engagement and compliance, fake reading, assessment, classroom libraries, and the notion that teaching students to be English teachers leaves far too many students on the sidelines, nodding along or possibly disengaging from reading once and for all.

Mostly we talked about control. How hard it is to let go. How necessary it is to work to balance the power in your classroom. How creating a “reading love fest” as one cross-armed gentleman yesterday suggested, really is the best way I have found to get kids seriously, joyously, consistently reading. Is it a personal savior for every single kid? Sadly, no. Does it solve some problems and create countless more, absolutely. But here is the bottom line in my book: Letting go of some control to hand it over responsibly to the students whose education we are entrusted to support is one giant step toward getting our students to value that education that so many take for granted, can’t afford to really embrace, or think they don’t need for one societal reason or another.

Letting go of some control and embracing the very specific needs of the students can come in many forms. Right now, I’m thinking about how it might impact the selection of a whole class novel.


This needs to look different and it must be intentional in every class, and my estimation of what my students need is only going to take me so far. Selection of a whole class text must serve the purposes of addressing the specific needs of the students in front of me.

My ninth grade teachers know, from speaking directly with their students, that most read, but don’t necessarily challenge themselves. Additionally, many have had longer texts read to them (excellent!) but have rarely finished a longer piece independently (not good!). In this case, the team feels that starting the year with a pointedly chosen whole class text is needed to really help students see what they can be looking for, thinking toward, and discovering when they read on their own. Many simply don’t have that skill developed deeply enough yet, to really do the type of critical thinking we’re asking them to do. And if that’s the case, the changes that their skills will develop independently are markedly lessened.

At the upper levels, I now have students who have been working in the workshop for over a year. As evidenced by students with books across campus, there is more reading happening now than in years past. However, the push toward challenge is spotty and in some cases, the real depth of understanding when challenge is pursued seems even spottier. In this case, our AP Language classes are considering using Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates to not only tackle some recent unrest in our own school community but to work carefully together to analyze author craft across the main ideas of this dynamic text.

The key is to choose with purpose. To invite student input into that choice. To spend a reasonable amount of time working with the text (3-4 weeks is a general recommendation based on my recent experience and the advice of those far more seasoned than I). To have student-centered goals in mind. To celebrate the text without covering every inch of it, and possibly killing the book AND a student’s hope of becoming a reader in the process.

Our students deserve what our careful analysis of their needs would suggest we best use our limited class time for. The unifying study of a text can be just such an activity. Your professionalism, the unique make-up of your classroom, and the social events/factors that should drive national discourse – these are some of the most important factors in selecting any curriculum; however, the goal should always be the same. We want our students to value the power that comes with better understanding the human experience. Powerful books can take us there. Let’s read them together.

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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


#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.


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:

    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 



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