Category Archives: Lisa Dennis

March Madness – A Book Bracket that Breaks a Few Rules

As I write this post, I can’t help imagining what it will feel like at this time Thursday night when I am up to my eyeballs (finally) in all things Spring Break. I’m envisioning an episode of This is Us, an adult beverage, and perhaps some Easter candy the bunny just won’t get a chance to deliver. Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and rent a movie, stay awake for the entire thing, and put extra butter on my popcorn. Don’t try and hold me back, friends – I’m going to let ‘er rip. This girl is going to calorically navigate every day of this vacation.

Because let’s face it, sometimes we need to break the rules and revel in what feels good. Sometimes we need to abandon the stress, irritation, and seemingly endless march of…March.

Sometimes we need to break the rules.

Now I know, if I were you, I would be reading on in great anticipation of a reflective post that smacks at the very heart of pushing aside what’s prescribed and going instead with the deeply personal, life-altering, philosophy-bending, workshop work that fuels lives rich in reading, writing, and empathetic connections across our school communities.

Well…did I mention I am only four class periods away from vacation? 344 total class minutes. 18 total hours on the clock. 27 miles there and back to my nice warm bed. Dozens of warm smiles and well wishes for a well-deserved break to all my lovely students and colleagues.

Some will voyage to lands far and wide. Some will go on great adventures.

I will gladly go to my couch. My brain is fried.

 

As such, I wanted to share with you my experience with a March Madness Book Bracket, in the hopes that if you haven’t tried this yet, you’ll consider it for next year, or even better, you will ditch the March Madness component and just create your own Book Battle for April or May of this year to stir up passions around the current favorite titles in your classroom.

Personally, this idea came from two places:

  1. A random picture I saw on Twitter at some point that highlighted the excitement around a classroom book battle.
  2. March Madness Hoopla (punny is as punny does) here at Franklin High School.

Our school is blessed with a great number of hugely passionate, committed, and just all around awesome teachers and administrators across the building. This past month, Franklin saw the advent of our annual March Madness school-wide event. The incomparable Pat Gain, AP Environmental Science teacher to the stars, organizes an extravaganza the brings the whole school together in excitement, friendly competition, and support of Franklin’s Relay for Life and Best Buddies. Students earn raffle tickets for possible school spirit, teams organize to battle it out on the court, and the entire school gathers for a pep rally to watch the championship games and other fun at week’s end. This year, it inspired me to jump on the bandwagon and create a book bracket in my room.

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After the fact, I found this awesome March Madness Book Bracket that includes book trailers, printable brackets, a bracket reveal video, and the wherewithal to organize it all way ahead of time and share it so classes across the world can vote. You can vote in their championship matchup between The Hate You Give and Scythe right now! These people have t-shirts. It’s legit.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my humble pie and share with you what I did and what I want to try to do for next year.

First, a disclaimer. I said I broke rules. I did. But it still worked.

  • There was no actual bracket to fill out.
  • I don’t know a lot (enough, much, anything) about basketball.
  • My bracket had no actual lines.

But it all worked out. Check it out below.

Mrs. Dennis March Madness Book Bracket 2018…

  1. Each of my classes did a quick write on their favorite read so far this year. We chatted after writing, reminisced about great books, added to our “I Want to Read” lists, and then put some titles up on the board. Over the course of a few days, the suggestions for awesome books grew, and I picked 16 that represented the most consistently raved about and most passionately advocated for in each class.
  2. I matched up the books somewhat appropriately in logical pairings. Two classics up against one another. Two historical fiction texts. Two books in verse. Etc.
  3. I printed images of the book covers for each title and set up a rudimentary book bracket on the back wall.
  4. A Google Form shared on Google Classroom gave my students the opportunity to vote in any/all of the matchups they felt compelled to vote for. I also shared this Google Form with other members of the English Department and encouraged them to share the link with their students and to vote for their own favorites.
  5. After the initial matchups, I was left with eight books in illogical pairings, so I had students vote for their top four choices one week, their top two the next, and now we’ve arrived at Championship Week.
  6. Before voting each round, students lobbied for the books they felt should move on to the next round. Which were the most worthy of advancing? Which changed student thinking? Which were the page-turners? It was awesome to hear kids going to the mat for their choices, and even when their favorites lost, they continued to try and sway people to still give the book a try. It did make it to the Big Dance after all.

Franklin March Madness Book Bracket Every Year From Now On…

  1. Start the whole process earlier. Give students a chance to pick up a book or two from the bracket and add fuel to the fire of how many kids have a book in the race.
  2. Complete actual brackets for some random and cheap prizes from my Kelly Gallagher-inspired Bag of Fun Crap.
  3. Random pairings. I love the idea from the link above to let the chips fall where they may and let books battle au natural. This eliminates my perceived issue of illogical matchups. Brackets are made to be busted!
  4. Measure twice, cut once. My book covers were almost too big. I had to move furniture! The hallway may be a more appropriate space and would promote the matchups to a wider audience as well.
  5. My pithy neighbor Brandon suggested that tape between the matchups would make it look a lot more like an actual bracket. Touché.
  6. Expand the empire and work to involve more students, more grade levels, more opinions, more passionate pleas for books to advance. More. Madness.

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My March needed a bit of madness and I look forward to doing it again next year. Though we didn’t have any actual brackets to fill out ahead of time, or league sanctioned seeding, or even actual matchups past the first round, the results involved a whole lot of passionate talk and writing around books.

When students hustle in the room to see which books are winners, as opposed to hurridly taking one last glance at their phones before the bell rings, I consider it a slam dunk.

(He he…told you I needed a vacation).

Our bracket is down to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Which one would be your winner? Which books could go the distance with your classes this year? Please leave your comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her knowledge of basketball is limited, but her support of underdogs is fierce. Let’s Go, Loyola! Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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. 

#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 

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