Reading without Words

Too often, the purpose of reading in school is about grammar, vocabulary acquisition, organization, structure, mechanics, conventions, punctuation, figurative language, imagery, etc, etc, etc . . . There’s always a standard, a clear purpose, a takeaway for students when they read . . . but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

There is another important purpose for reading.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something on a page that tells our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something that can tell our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves. 

Some of our students haven’t discovered this yet, and the reason is often because of the accessibility and relevance of books. We’ve all struggled with finding texts that are age and level appropriate for some of our students — readers who struggle don’t want to read what they deem to be “baby books” for a variety of reasons that are fair and legitimate. They need books that they can read and books that they want to read.

Recently I’ve discovered that there are some beautiful, poignant, relevant illustrated books that are decidedly not perceived as baby books, and which take a lot of thinking and reading in order to understand. But they are wordless, or at least almost wordless.

While I’m not giving up on teaching words and all of their beauty, I also know that wordless stories have a place in my classroom.

The book I’ve recently fallen in love with is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It’s a wordless graphic novel, and it tells the story of a person who leaves his family behind in order to create a better life for them all. arrival cover

It’s the kind of story all sorts of people can relate to: Character endures separation, loneliness, and heartache because of hope, optimism, and desperation.

It’s beautifully complex and requires some attention to detail, some hard thinking, and some rereading in order to really understand and analyze it.

I’ve book talked it to several of my classes, and I’ve gotten some puzzled looks when students try to understand how a book can be both complex and wordless.

They struggle to understand how they could find fiction signposts, discover characterization, etc, in a wordless book, that is, until they get the book in their hands.

Students who don’t always have easy access to complex texts have found success with finding the Beers/Probst Notice and Note Fiction Signposts in this complex and detailed story.

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For example, this Again and Again signpost is an easy one to spot – the main character carries a picture of his family as he travels from his home country to his new land, and the photo pops up in many of the frames. It’s significant because students realize quickly that this man’s family is the most important thing to him, which is why he carries the photo everywhere.

Both boys and girls have read this book, and I’ve overheard conversations about what it might be about as they wonder and struggle through their thinking. This is the kind of talk I love to hear.

This morning, I discovered four boys reading choice books on a bench: one was reading this wordless graphic novel, another was reading one of the Harry Potter books for the first time, another was reading The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and the last one was reading a humorous graphic novel. All different forms of books, but all legitimate books that “count.”

The point is, all of these students had texts that were accessible to them. They were curious about their own reading, and were enjoying their books. Their brains were engaged, they were talking to each other about what they were reading, and most importantly, they were fostering a community of reading as well as their own healthy reading lives.

Graphic novels, with or without words, can be excellent bridges between teacher, student, and healthy reading habits. Students can learn valuable reading skills and strategies with all kinds of books – even the “extreme” examples that don’t have words. It’s not a place where I want my students to “live” — but I don’t want my students to “live” in any one genre or form anyway. They should build skills, stretch their brains and habits, find familiar and easier books, and then stretch some more. The wordless book have a place in their learning, and will always have a place in my secondary language arts classroom.

A few wordless/nearly wordless books that are complex and relevant to secondary students:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Marvels by David Selznick
  • Unspoken by Henry Cole

One final idea: It’s a bit like teaching reading strategies with the Pixar short films. My grade sevens practiced finding fiction signposts in the short film Partly Cloudy last week, and they were able to point out signposts even though the movie does not have dialogue.

Studying and reading wordless books and silent films can build confidence and skills in our readers who struggle with more complex texts, and while we can’t ignore their decoding skills, we can also allow them to grapple with the complexities of stories that are developmentally appropriate for their growing identities as readers and human beings.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

The Teacher, the Story-teller, the Writer: Guest Post by Milree Latimer

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by author-educator Milree Latimer

Teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck

To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of work on the basis of those inspirations.

Aldous Huxley

Some days when I reflect upon my years as teacher, then as an elementary school principal, a high school vice- principal, and a professor of education–I see a thread. As William Stafford writes in his poem The Way It Is “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change…/While you hold it you can’t get lost…/You never let go of the thread.”

There has been a thread throughout my teaching days, one that has manifested itself in my life now as a writer and published author. It’s been there all the time. A long gaze back reveals how I have grounded myself, the children and the teachers with whom I’ve worked, in the flow of story. There is a natural quality in the life of teaching that feeds the story-teller.

The narratives and chronicles of the educator’s life fed my yearning to write.

•••••

“Come, tell me your stories.” I said. The children in my kindergarten class and I gathered on the carpet. We told stories to one another: made-up tales of adventure, show-and tell chronicles of the life of a five year old, once-upon-a-time boldness.  It was 1963.

“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

~John Green

••••

“Let’s find a story together, draw it, write it, tell it.” I said.  I set my over-sized journal on the classroom easel. One by one they talked about what their story might be that morning – there’d been a snowstorm, white drifts were accumulating at the windows. Together we thought aloud. “A weather report for school announcements!”  They wrote, they drew, they told their stories. It was 1967. It was first grade.

••••

“You had the ball in your hands, Mark with few seconds on the clock–Tell us what that was like” I said.  It was 1974. Mark was an eighth grader.

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
~May Sarton

••••

“Tell me what you hope for. Tell me what happens in your classroom that astonishes you. Tell me how you came to this, to be a teacher. Begin your educator’s biography this morning, write the last chapter when you retire.” A class of soon-to-be teachers at a Faculty of Education. September 1990.

•••••

The Graduate class was entitled “Reflective Practice.” The assignment: “What do you do; why do you do it the way you do; what do you hope for? A philosophical and personal portrait.”

A student’s response moved me. He wrote from a deep place within himself.  His was a narrative revealing his journey, his was a reflective piece of writing that inspired.

What truly set the path to my personal exploration was a question asked of me in one of my first courses taken at the Master’s level. When asked ‘who are you,’ my immediate response was ‘a wandering soul searching for answers.’ That answer came from somewhere deep inside…. I realize that there are many aspects of my life that I need to connect…I have to reflect on what it is that I actually do and the reasons surrounding that. (Tyrone Perreira, June 2004)

••••41n7v0p5fxl

Four characters in my novel THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, are a composite of graduate education students with whom I worked from 1996 till 2004.

I held the images of those students as I wrote the story of Casey MacMillan, Professor of Education. The conversations that wove throughout the chapters represented some I may have had with my Master of Education students.

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse, ill-considered questions.

 As the author of Casey’s story, I discovered my experiences engendered a quality of truth within the story.

Professor Casey, the main protagonist taught about love, loss and the human condition. Even though she locked away her emotions within her life, her teaching bore a wisdom that connected her with her students.

When I wrote Casey’s story there was a direct line between myself as teacher and myself as author. A conversation between Professor MacMillan and her doctoral student Rob exemplifies this link:

Rob opened his briefcase reached in and pulled out a manuscript–his thesis. Her hope for all her advisees and her grad students was that they discover their own energy of possibility.

“Here’s what I really want you to see.” Rob said. He leaned forward and slid a page across the smooth mahogany table.

When she finished reading the page, she placed it on the table slowly, carefully–Resting her chin on her hand she began: “It’s a radical approach to tell your own story as your thesis. Saying that, it’s not impossible…difficult yes. (P. 99 Those We Left Behind)

••••

“Capturing shards of memory, writing specific scenes, I began to discover…” (Floyd Skoot, 2008).

There is a thread that I hold. Writing is my inner life moving me into the open a passage to the page where I am exploring, imagining, and remembering. I connect to my experiences, I hold the thread, I never let go.

Writing is a coming home. Like Toko-pa Turner (2017), I remember myself home.

Resources:

Skoot, Floyd, (2017). The Wink of the Zenith. The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. University of Nebraska Press.

Turner, Toko-pa, ( 2017). Belonging. Remembering Ourselves Home.

Her Own Room Press. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

Milree Latimer is a writer who spent most of her life as an educator and professor. She has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University, a Masters of Education from The Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and a Doctoral degree in Education from Penn State University. An expat Canadian, she lives among the mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband Jerry and their three cats. She is currently at work on her next novel.

Groundhog Day and Writing Conferences

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3TT writers have shed a lot of (digital) ink about the benefits of conferencing with students about their writing – you can read about here and here. We love the conference.  And, I imagine that if you’re reading this, you love the conference too – or at least, you’re starting to love conferencing… or at the very least, you’re starting to love the idea of loving conferencing.

This is my first year really making the conference a centerpiece of my instruction, and I’m really starting to see the benefit in letting those conferences drive instruction. In the past, I would teach an essay and already know what follow-up instruction I would offer after the essay was over. I had November planned in June and felt so proud of myself for being so prepared. And I was, in a limited kind of way. I was prepared to talk about what I wanted to talk about, not prepared to meet my students where they were.

With conferencing, though, I find that I need to be prepared in a completely different way. I need to be able  to deliver all kinds of writing and craft instruction at the drop of a hat; I need a series of quick mini-lessons and questions that I can go to again and again . Some days, I find myself giving the same kind of feedback like I’m stuck in some Groundhog Day style purgatory. Others, I have to go deep into the well and pull out information I haven’t had occasion to use in years. Other-other days, I just have to admit that I need a night or two to think of a response to a question and agree to meet again later that week.

I take that Groundhog Day style feedback to heart – sure, it’s maddening in the moment to explain an idea again and again to a new student with a new piece of writing, but I VERY easily recognize what I need to reteach. This last week has been one of those weeks. I’m realizing that a majority of my students could all use more time and practice with adding warrant to their body paragraphs. Here are four methods I use to teach warrant:

  1. Slip or Trip – This clever little cartoon and accompanying activity created by George Hillocks is great for understanding the assumption/values part of warrant. I’ve seen it work in 8th grade classrooms and with juniors. I’ve seen it work with juniors who remembered working with it from their 8th grade years. It’s powerful in its simplicity. The premise is just to determine whether Queenie’s husband Arthur fell down the stairs or was pushed down the stairs. The instruction comes in helping students explain why their evidence supports their claims, in explaining the assumptions they are making.
  2. Toddlers and Teenagers – This is more of an analogy to help students understand the two parts of warrant
    1. The toddler – warrant addresses the question WHY – Why does this evidence prove this claim? Why did I chose this evidence? – Students ask WHY until they run out of answers – like little toddlers who just learned the magic of asking why.
    2. The teenager – warrant also address the question SO WHAT or what’s the IMPACT of this argument – So like an eighth grader decked out in blue eyeshadow and posted up by the Claire’s in a local mall, students ask the SO WHAT question for each of their WHY answers until they can’t think of any more responses. For some students, the SO WHAT question is enough. Others need the guidance of two more questions to really land the SO WHAT: Who is harmed and who is benefitted? Why should we care? What are the effects of this harm? You can further specify this harm/benefit question set to emotional/physical/economic/social/moral harm/benefit to help the students who still need a nudge in the right direction.
  3. The IF/THEN strategy – Full confession: I stole this idea from a blog post or a class website somewhere on the internet. So, unfortunately,  I can’t give appropriate attribution, but this teacher is an English goddess. She encourages her students to create IF/THEN statements working backwards from the warrant to the claim using a fill in the blank sentence. Here’s that sentence: If we assume (general rule, idea, belief, stance, assumption – WARRANT) and this matters because (IMPACT/SO WHAT), then [EVIDENCE] proves that [CLAIM]. Simple, quick, to the point. A clear way to look at a complex idea.
  4. 5 whys – Another full confession, I’m not sure why I call this the 5 whys, and the name is a little misleading for students – they don’t actually have to create 5 whys; 2-3 works just fine. (I think the name was actually a really bad joke: something about 5 Whys for 5 Guys, Cheeseburgers and Fries. Sometimes weird things just happen in the classroom.) This is an argument structure that helps students evaluate claims and allow their body paragraphs to be reason/warrant focused NOT evidence focused. So students start with a claim – their thesis- and ask why. The answer for that first why question becomes the topic sentence for the first body paragraph. From that first answer, students again ask why creating a second answer which becomes the topic sentence for their next body paragraph. This movement of asking why and answering creates an outline of reasons that often moves from a pretty specific start to a philosophical ending, allowing students to move away from the five paragraph essay which just repeats the same idea ad nauseum. Another benefit to the structure is that the questioning of their claims allows them to see when/where their claims are weak and they can revise accordingly.
    1. Here’s an example for a prompt about the value of civil disobedience
  • Thesis: Disobedience is necessary to advance society
    • Why? Because →  society tends to resist change,
      • it’s a large machine that is slow to stop and slow to start *so* we have to start it, nudge it, guide it
      • “Civil disobedience”
      • Objects in motion tend to stay in motion
    • Why? Because →  change is hard work – it can be violent or long or messy or complicated – *but* we have to keep working at it anyways
      • Length of struggles – I might trace the history of several different movements using disobedience as a motivating factor
        • American Revolution
        • Women’s Suffrage Movement
        • Civil Rights Movement
        • Black Lives Matter
    • Why? Because → humans as a species are discontent with being content – we crave betterment
      • Where do we see ourselves craving betterment?
      • WHY do we crave betterment?
      • Can I trace this historically or chronologically?
    • Therefore….conclusion stuff

Conferencing has made my students better writers individually through one conference at a time. However, it’s also improved my whole class instruction as well – allowing me to provide better guidance for my students as they need it. What insights are you gaining in your classroom through your conferencing practice?

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is rewatching Brooklyn Nine-Nine for about the third time. Nine! Nine! She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

Salvaging the Threads

3TT writers have employed a variety of useful analogies to our experience in reading-writing workshop — from little league baseball to a trip to the dentist! To me, these analogies collectively speak to our constant, evolving understanding of our own work (let alone refining our attempts to explain it to others). Allow me to “weave” mine into the mix.

Venom-Marvel-Comics-Spider-Man-Eddie-BrockI bet I’m not alone (at least I desperately hope not) in that I still haven’t even had a chance to process everything I took away from NCTE, what with reconciling my sub plans with what actually occurred, catching up on all the grading time I missed, and coping with the energy sap of the holidays. The chapter covering Saturday evening in my world is the one that features A Lengthy Car Ride through Rural Iowa (read: Without Internet Service) in Which a Teacher Becomes Increasingly Anxious About Aforementioned Concerns and Impending Week of Classes and in Which Teacher’s Husband’s Attempts at Assuagement are Rebuffed with Increasing Venom. So, because in these moments of anxiety and dread it can be so helpful to resurrect and dwell upon our failures, upon returning home I took out my knitting.

As I get older, any amateur attempts at fox-like knowledge are totally overwhelmed by my fully-developed hedgehog sensibility (note: Quick-Write prompt?). I’m really good at a narrow few utterly arcane knitting disastersskills, like paring down 1000+-word college essays to below 650 and breaking down a mentor text like nobody’s business. I’m a decent cook and a better seamstress (nonsexist “seamster”?), but I’m notorious for my “SnickerPuck” cinnamon cookies and knitted hats with signature random and inexplicable holes. I’ve given up the baking, but for some reason I can’t let go the knitting. These three piles of SnickerPuck were supposed to be a hat each. That night my husband hesitated but was brave: Why I was taking a photo of this trifecta of failure? “I think it might figure into my blog post,” I obliged. “I’m just not sure yet how.” He obliged by offering vague encouragement and vacating the premises. (Note: guest-blog about living with a RWW teacher?)

The physical presence of these knit squid-carapace non-hats helped me begin to see: I have to tether these loose pedagogical tentacles to some greater purpose for the rest of the quarter. I decided to make use of this textile and cephalapodian imagery to look forward in concrete ways.

1. Infusing revision strategies across writing “laps”: My sophomores have two working drafts right now, not by design but rather by my inability to return either assignment in a timely way with any meaningful feedback. So, the “loose threads” of the skills they need to move these pieces forward — engaging leads, arguable claims, effective discourse markers to signal arrangement — will the the focus of mini-lessons next week, which they will then apply to both pieces of writing (a multi-paragraph media review based on a mentor text a la Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell and a focused one-page mini-essay supporting an arguable claim). The hope is to reinforce the value of these writing attributes across the singular tentacles of “assignments.”

2. Revitalizing independent reading: Last year I tried Amy’s personal reading challenges, which she writes about here. In true late-to-the-party form, last year I finally got around to it in the middle of quarter 3. But with love to my student Nasade and gratitude for providing confirmation of its value beyond my poor planning in the 11th-reading-hour of sophomore English, she so politely suggested, “Ms. Maguire, maybe we should have done this earlier in the year.”

3. Thus, weaving the threads of our RWW community: I’ve come to live with the reality that RWW workshop courses tend not to coalesce or liven up until second quarter (even though I totally forgot about that and beat myself up about it for all of first quarter). Nevertheless, it’s happening now with my sophomores. With of course a few exceptions, they are sharing book recommendations and writing challenges at their tables as a matter of course. Rather than follow my tendency to focus on the outliers — knit 2who (at the risk of abusing the metaphor) may need a new color/texture of yarn or needles of a different size — students will be invited to channel their writing conversations into more focused workshop experiences (for quarter 2, based on skills outlined above), to make their impromptu book talks more public (in place of my [ir]regular book talks), and to continually share titles via their reading experiences and their personal reading challenge cards.

The knitting analogy only goes so far — after all, those tangled shrouds need to be torn out and started over, which isn’t the most productive option in RWW if students are producing any writing at all. And thicker, fuzzier yarn may only serve to better conceal those gaping holes. But as it turns out, the fresh eyes that come with a brand new project out of class can renew the perspective from within.

 

 

The Role of Play: Discovering a Structure for Writing

Having grown up in the home of a preschool teacher who has always taught in a play-centered classroom, I’ve witnessed the importance of play in the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of a young person. Mom and I speak frequently about our concern for the lack of play at all levels of education. Kenneth Ginsburg, in an article for Pediatrics, reinforces that highly-scheduled children (which so many of our students are!) have had less time for free, creative play and therefore have built fewer coping mechanisms for managing the effects of pressure and stress. Of course, I can not wholly mitigate this; but I can help students harness (thanks Amber!) their creative potential to not only foster cognitive growth but also social-emotional well-being. I can help them use play as a means for creation.

Compelled to prioritize play as a creative force, inspired by Angela Stockman’s Make Writing, driven to help students find intuitive ways to structure their argument research writing, I use this lesson to help students move beyond the perceived rigidity of the research paper.

Objectives:

  1. Understand the roles of tools and of play in the act of creating;
  2. Discover a possible structure for the argument research paper that serves both purpose and audience;
  3. Inspire confidence in students’ own decision-making skills as writers.

Lesson:

Step 1: For my AP Language and Composition students, many of whom are used to the highly analytical, “academic” environment (indeed, the one I–along with others–foster), I begin by positioning the learning opportunity. I show them pictures of my own children: in one, they play with cardboard boxes, making their own spaceships, dressed in costume for the occasion; in the other, swirling words and designs into shaving cream, using fingers and forks and Duplos. This is critical! These pictures evoke memories of their own childhood, priming my students’ imaginations. Then I share words from Kenneth Ginsburg: “play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. …When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”

Step 2: Purpose articulated, I give the a tour of the “Play Stations”:

    1. Imagineering: Disney Imagineers cut out a collection of images they find interesting and then they start to arrange them to see if they can blend ideas. At this station, students find old books and magazines, paper, scissors, and glue so they can imagine away.
    2. LEGOS and Duplos: At this station, students find these toys for building; considering the size, shape, and color of the LEGOS/Duplos, students experiment with the structure of their piece.
    3. Pipe Cleaners and Beads: At this station, students are encouraged to consider the size, shape, and color of the beads and to talk through their ideas as they string the beads. When they finish, they look for patterns.
    4. Comic Book Templates, Receipt Roll Paper, and Craft Paper: At this station, students use the comic book templates provided to craft the “story” of their argument. They may also choose some receipt roll paper to work with the “story” in more linear ways or craft roll paper to make “cave drawings” or other illustrations of their ideas.
    5. Painting:  At this station, students use watercolor paints or paint pens along with paper plates (this offers a different constraint) or paper to paint their arguments.
    6. Play dough: At this station, students use play dough (homemade is the best) to mold and shape their argument. Sometimes I encourage multiple buildings since the joy of play dough is how easy it is to build, destroy, re-build.

Step 3: Before freeing my students to play, I ask them to consider this question: “What can you build that will meet the needs of your audience and purpose?”. I also direct them to review their work plan, their issue, claim, and a list of topics they’ll address in their papers.

Step 4: Play. “Confer” (I ask students to tell me about what they are making. I offer observations about their creations. I exclaim over the cool things they invent.).

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Step 5: Reflect. On post-its, students describe what they made, what they discovered, and what they may do as a result.

Follow-Up:

Following this lesson, I share other ways to arrange or format an argument paper, including Persuasive, Rogerian, Pro Con, Problem Solution, Problem-Cause-Solution, Top 5, Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, and others. When my students ask if it’s okay if they use the structure they invented or if it’s okay to combine what they invented with one of these structures or even if they can combine these new structures, I see the value of play. I see my students combining, adapting, modifying, synthesizing, and harnessing their own potential to discover–for themselves!–how to shape their writing.  

Kristin Jeschke helps her students–in AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School–harness their intuition through play. She doesn’t even mind the chaos and inevitable mess that follows (as long as it leads to creation). She thanks her parents for free time to play in the dirt and the sand. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

What are we going to do?

Attending any professional conference always leaves my brain buzzing with new ideas and a Christmas-morning-esqe excitement about delivering my learning to students.  NCTE was no different–it is a convention of crusaders that feels like the best (only?) staff meeting you never want to end.

And I needed it this year.

This year has been different, difficult at times, as I navigate a new school and new expectations, balancing between very traditional American Literature and AP Literature curriculums with the workshop work I know is impactful for students. Truth be told, I have been more of a good employee than an inspiring educator.  I have made choices that didn’t rock the boat and those choices often cut student voices. When I wrote about not being there, in retrospect, it is because I haven’t been fully committed to workshop this year.  Thus, students haven’t been fully committed to it either.

Chris Emdin, spoken word-educator-scientist,  asked, “Are you a good employee or an educator?

Penny Kittle, workshop Goddess, asked, “What are we going to do?

“Balance” won’t work any more. There is urgency to the work we are doing.  I have to make choices between what builds authentic literacy and what makes me a good employee.

My juniors are leaving for their post-secondary endeavors, majority of them to four years institutions, soon.  The end of their adolescent education is upon them and they face down daunting tasks. During her presentation, Penny shared a graphic featured in 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (Heinemann 2018) which showcases the urgency of student literacy.

From a survey of college syllabi for freshmen English done by reDesign (2014) shows first year students will encounter:

  • 5,000 pages of reading
  • 75 text-based discussions
  • 20 argumentative or research essays
  • And 90-100 polished essay pages

A semi-stunned “Wow” is what I thought to myself as the sweet sophomore teacher from Texas audibly gasped as the data was shown, then unpacked through Kittle’s high school to college transition.

What am I going to do in relation to how much students read and write in my classroom versus how much they need to read and write to be prepared for the rigors of post-secondary school?  Am I going to be a good employee and assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before The Great Gatsby because that is what the curriculum guide says? Am I going to educate or follow?    

As Ms. Kittle discussed, we have to shift our thinking from one of victimization to one of urgent empowerment, from “Welp, what are we going to do?” to “What are we going to do?  What CAN we do?”

So much.

It is not too late to save the year.

I will say no (politely).  I will return to what works, listen to what students want, and make time for what kids need.  I will read with students and write alongside them.  I will use my voice and research to justify what many perceive as an “alternative path” to personalized literacy.  My duty is to get students on the road to being successful after K-12 by giving them the tools, stamina, and skills to navigate 5,000 pages of reading, text-based discussions, and various writing demands.

Chris Emdin defined teaching as being “the art of the remix.”  So come Monday, I am going to remix my approach and re-define literacy in my classroom, and be, first and foremost, an educator.

Maggie Lopez is currently hiking through the arches and right to the edge of cliffs in beautiful Moab, Utah while re-reading 180 Days. She is always grateful for the educators in her life, including the Three Teachers Talk community. You can find her @meg_lopez0.

NCTE: Sparking Hope, Equity, and Voice

Like so many educators who attended the 2018 NCTE conference, I am still reeling from the wealth of information and inspiration provided by some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. I listened with awe and determination as strong speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Acevedo stressed the importance of what we do as ELA teachers, and I carry with me a renewed sense of urgency about literacy instruction that empowers all students. No – not “empowers” – even that word has been transformed, as I now understand that it’s not my place to give them power; rather, it is my job to help students recognize and harness the power they already possess.1

The universal message of the conference did not so much present new ideas as it did combine them and clarify that we cannot wait any longer to act. We must reach each of our students where they are, provide them with the representation they need and deserve, and encourage them to add their own voices to the world. We have embraced diversity, equity, and representation in a variety of ways, but the time for the best practices to coalesce into purposeful change across schools is at hand.

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My book haul from NCTE 2018 – I can’t wait for my students to read these!

As I walked through the exhibit hall, admittedly searching for free books to take back to my students, I heard two main ideas – to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – “again and again.” By absorbing the voices around me over the four days of the conference, I was able to discern what teachers, who attended a wide variety of sessions, thought. One of the most common ideas expressed was that NCTE presenters were “preaching to the choir.” Of course, this is true to a great extent. Teachers who love learning, who support choice, who engage their students in meaningful instruction, who believe in the power of writing workshop: these are the teachers most likely to attend the conference, and, more specifically, the sessions that explore these ideas. Teachers who believe in the humanities love the young humans we teach, and we will always seek to improve for their benefit and the benefits to society. This is no way diminishes the power of these workshops or their presenters, for they offer the keenest insight and carefully collected research to support best practices in teaching, and though I admittedly enter sessions predisposed to agree with much of what I hear, I always leave with new ideas scrawled in the margins of my notes. Like many others, I always leave feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and inspired, and I wish every ELA teacher could feel this way.

This brings us to the second most common idea expressed throughout the exhibit hall lines: how do we take these ideas back to our schools and inspire those who weren’t at the conference? I heard several teachers – both in sessions and while milling about – who said things like “I wish [so-and-so] from our department could hear this.” The truth is: we all know teachers who need to hear the messages from the conference, and the difficulty lies in how to offer the essence of what we have gleaned in a palatable manner. Some ideas are not well-received by teachers entrenched in established practices, and we must balance the urgency with which shifts need to occur with the tact and professionalism that our well-meaning colleagues deserve. I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Rasmussen about The College Board’s stance on shifting away from a focus on the canon to include more contemporary and diverse texts, and she offered an analogy that I wish all could hear: we don’t expect doctors to ignore research in favor of the practices they personally prefer, and when one of their primary research-based organizations like the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine offers guidelines, those are adopted as best practices. Can you imagine if they didn’t? We’d still have doctors bleeding us for pneumonia.

So, as I continue to synthesize all I learned at the conference and develop my own lines of inquiry, I leave you with these questions: why don’t we expect all ELA teachers to follow the research and vision of NCTE? Why can’t we confidently return to our campuses as ambassadors of ELA and NCTE and share what we’ve learned with our peers? Will we let the established system and soft bigotry continue to deny true equity to our students, or will we carry the spark of progress back to our campuses? I, for one, plan to stoke the fire.

1 I would love to offer due credit to the speaker who discussed the problematic idea of “empowerment,” but I cannot find the connection in my notes. If you can offer proper attribution, please add it in the comments.

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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