Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

Keeping Students’ Emotional States in Mind as We Recommend Books

I came to respect The Great Gatsby as a work of literature only after rereading it in college, but prior to that time, the feelings I associated with it could best be described as loathing and resentment. I can imagine the gasps as I type this. Gatsby is, after all, a beloved American novel which almost every American student has read, or “read,” by the time they graduate high school. Someone who reads this post will want to tell me all about how it’s his or her favorite book and that maybe I just don’t understand it or realize the literary genius it represents. Some of you will fondly remember the teacher who thoughtfully guided you through the text. I can only assure you that I fully understand it, and I liked my junior English teacher well enough.

So why didn’t I like one of the greatest American novels of all time? It comes down to two reasons, and a lot of us are already doing our best to address the first:

  1. The book was assigned to me to read. I had no choice – at a time in my life when I craved I read it because I was supposed to, but I resented the time it took me away from the books I really wanted to read. This website is a testament to the work that we’re doing to provide students with at least some choice. For more information on how to provide choice in a variety of classroom settings, I encourage you to peruse the wonderful posts on this site as well as the publications of Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller.
  2. Here’s the part that many of us are still developing: we talk with students and recommend books – often based on what they’ve enjoyed reading previously – and try to match students with their interests. We need to go further with our talks. Had my English III teacher spoken with me enough to understand even a little about my background, she would have known that being the poorest kid in the class and having another eviction notice on my apartment door made me reluctant (“angry” might be a better descriptor here) to spend my time hanging out with the likes of Daisy. I was surrounded by Daisies who worried about what seemed trivial to me. I worried about not eating; they worried about whether or not their nail polish would match their prom dress. I didn’t feel like maturely comparing my situation to the text; I wanted to escape via literature! I didn’t want or need to read a book at that point in time so fixated on money and superficiality. The assigned book caused me psychological distress that I still remember almost thirty years later. If this seems overly dramatic, imagine how texts were typically taught in the 1980s and still are in some classrooms today. We drudged through the book for at least a month, and I listened to conversations about wealth daily. Not cool.

Many of us get to know our students fairly well through book talks, conferences, class discussions, and casual conversations. A growing number of ELA teachers begin the course with writing assignments that shed light on a student’s favorites as well potential

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Mrs. Davenport’s class created picture frames that represent how they view the world.

emotional triggers, such as Mary Davenport’s frame activity, in which students decorate construction-paper “frames” and write brief, introspective pieces around the borders about the experiences that shape how they view the world. Davenport often gleans background information about her students that helps her recommend books to them, as social and emotional factors are every bit as important as reading (or dare I say it: Lexile) levels. Finding safe ways to learn about her students’ lives has allowed her to match readers with books they enjoy, and that is our mission: to expand our knowledge base about our students’ lives, without prying or making them feel vulnerable, so we can get the right books into their hands.

I would love to help teachers who are less experienced with conferring with students, and improve my own craft, so please share your strategies for getting to know your students’ emotional needs (as they relate to reading) in the comments.

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Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition, PSAT Team, English 4, and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

My Antiracist Reading List

Many years ago in my teaching career, I acknowledged a gaping hole in my pedagogical knowledge that’s rooted in an unchangeable part of my teacher identity: being a white woman.

The implications of this were both large and small. I realized that the students in my classroom who were most successful were the white females. I realized that the students I had the most trouble suggesting books for were the students who were not white females. I realized that my family phone call log was full of communication with male students and students of color.

I knew I needed to make a change. And I realized that the one and only variable of my classroom that I could ever control or change was myself.

It was then that I began to look critically at the systems and norms and institutions I had in place or held in place. I examined my curriculum critically and saw a slew of white authors. I found a canon of classics that were long and uninteresting and irrelevant to my students. I found a syllabus, a classroom contract, and a school handbook of rules that privileged a definition of behavior and compliance defined by white people.

So, I did what I considered an extension of my education program: I read theory, reflected, put it into practice, reflected some more; read more theory, reflected, practiced, repeat.

And I got better. My curriculum became more diverse (adios, dead white guys; hello, @diversebooks), my methods became more student-centered (goodbye, long tests; hello, conferring), my critical reflection became more astute (sayonara, mindless grading; hello, assessment for learning). And my students experienced more successes in reading and writing because I was addressing some of the inequities and inadequacies in my teaching.

Here we are, ten years after that realization, and I’m optimistically hoping antiracist teaching has become an educational aspiration that is normative. And, three states and four schools later, I’m still working to grow and improve.

So this summer, thanks to #cleartheair, #educolor, #disrupttexts, and #thebookchat friends on Twitter, my TBR list has been filled with books about antiracist, equity, and inclusive teaching. It’s been hard to find those books alone, and it’s been especially difficult to find voices of color in books specifically tailored to secondary English pedagogies and methods:

After that conversation, I was left with two things: an impressively wide to-read list filled with BIPOC authors discussing equity, and a distressingly narrow slice of books by BIPOC authors who were writing about literacy methods in high school classrooms. Here’s a short list of titles:

  • Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay
  • Fearless Voices by Alfred Tatum
  • Writing Instruction in the Culturally Relevant Classroom by Maisha T. Winn and Latrise Johnson
  • Total Literacy Techniques by Persida Himmele
  • The Write Thing by Kwame Alexander
  • Linking Literacy and Popular Culture by Ernest Morrell

I wondered why there weren’t more books like this out there, so I did some broader reading, too: Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Baldwin. At Cornelius Minor’s suggestion, I read Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers.” At my entire Twitter timeline’s suggestion, I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and ordered Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist.

These readings stirred my thinking in hundreds of ways, but it really boiled down to one change I wanted to make: elevating voices that have historically been silenced.

I specifically want to find and read texts by authors whose perspectives have been marginalized, to amplify those voices and others’ whose have been oppressed, and to help students tell stories they’ve not been able to tell before (but that’s another blog post). This cycle, to me, involves considerable struggle, but it is worth it to help change the narrative of who and what matters in classrooms. This is our tireless work, and my goal this year is to keep at it unflaggingly, with boundless energy, because it matters.

I hope you, too, have dug deep this summer into the changes you hope to make in your students, your teaching, and yourself. I wish you strength this school year as you internalize Baldwin’s words in his talk to teachers: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it.”


Please share your thinking in the comments: who might you add to this reading list? What changes are you hoping to make this school year? Please also consider joining our writing team!

Shana Karnes lives, learns, and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and babies. This year she’s working with the Greater Madison Writing Project at the University of Wisconsin. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Hope Thrives in Courage

Today is the third Friday with my senior English students. Yep, I did it. I’m back in the classroom, learning alongside some amazing young people.

I have a billion goals for myself — enough to weigh me down, certainly — but one that keeps floating to the top is this:  Thrive in hope. (Yeah, I don’t really know if that’s a goal, but stay with me here.)

When I left the classroom two years ago, I’d lost a lot of it. Personal struggles. Professional struggles. The state of the world struggles. All of it. But lots of self-reflection, rest, writing, paint, dirt, good friends, family, and growing things –probably most of all growing things — changed me. My hope is back. It’s thriving, just like the plants that add energy and life to my home and my new classroom.

And while I teach literacy skills to seniors in high school, what I really want to teach is hope. Hope in humanity and our ability to thrive — together and as individuals.

So, like you, I’ve started with relationships. Every text we’ve read together, every task WritingBesideDwyaneWadeI’ve asked students to complete, every book I’ve matched to a reader’s interest has given me insight into who these young people are as individuals with backgrounds, cultures, fears, failures, dreams and desires. Just like me, they cling and pounce and clamor after hope.

A few years ago, after a sniper killed five police officers in downtown Dallas, I read this commentary by Chequan Lewis. The last line still resonates: “My sights are simply set on what is possible when we are courageously human.”

Courageously human. That’s what I want for myself and for my students — to practice courage as a means of becoming better than we were when we walked in the door. So moving forward into senior English plans, I’ll invite students to step into the vulnerable spaces that require courage: reading texts that challenge the status quo, writing honestly about ourselves, our learning, controversies, and convictions; and communicating in ways that validate, clarify, empathize, and challenge.

I’ll step there, too, because the more I think about it:  Hope thrives in courage.

Here’s a few of the texts we’ve used thus far to write beside and spark our thinking on this journey. Perhaps you’ll find them useful as you begin your own.

My Honest Poem by Rudy Francisco

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye; the poem here

“This Bud’s for 3” — Dwyane Wade

If you have ideas for more resources that fit our theme, please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches seniors at a large high school in North Texas. She’s a #houseplantcollector, writer, reader, gardener, watercolor-artist wannabe, bicyclist, and grandmother to eight courageous little people, the newest little man born today! Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

Scaffolding an Authentic Reading Community with Multiple Copies in our Classroom Libraries

As the school year gets off to a great start, I am thinking about how I am going to build an authentic community of readers. My goal is that my students will be as independent and engaged as possible, which means I have to step out of the way and make room for them to do their thing. I’ll scaffold along the way, but I am hoping that they take ownership and come up with their own ideas.

Building an authentic reading community is our goal. I had a few students last year who decided to read books in a partnership, and they ended up having a great time. They read, talked, laughed, and ended up enjoying their books, I think more than if they had been reading alone. It’s always more fun with a friend.

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This memory of last year got me thinking about how to encourage this type of partnership without requiring it.

I realized that I purchased lots of multiple copies of the same titles for my classroom library, and I can simply make the suggestion. Students have asked for multiple copies of the same book before, so if I place them in my classroom library strategically, maybe they will take the bait…

So I rearranged a few books and remain hopeful…

 

I reorganized a few of the books in our contemporary fiction section and went from there…


 

Many of the doubles (and triples, etc) that are in the classroom library have already been checked out, but the ones that are left I shelved together with the suggestion that students might pick them up with a friend.

 

Last week our department invited all students to tour each others’ libraries, and as a result of that activity, three of my students decided to read Butter together. These books were all in different classrooms, but these students decided to read the same book anyway. It gives me hope that when I intentionally place books next to the suggestion of reading with a friend, they will start to read together.

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I’m looking forward to seeing how my students decide to move forward with this suggestion, and I’m hopeful because I’ve seen it happen before.

How do you encourage your readers to read together?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

Guest Post: Dear New Teacher by Amy Menzel

My back-to-school rituals include: setting up my writer’s notebook, organizing a snazzy course calendar I’ll inevitably abandon, watching School of Rock, and feeling guilty that I haven’t checked in more with new teachers once the year is underway. Back in the day, I started my career mid-year and was briefly mentored by a well-intentioned educator who solemnly said, “Teaching is a very lonely profession.” Welcome!

Luckily, she was wrong. I worked with some wonderful and wonderfully supportive colleagues those first six years at Cudahy High School (shout out to my Packer peeps!) and throughout my career I have come to realize that teachers are some of my absolute favorite people. Still, teaching can feel lonely at times. And I don’t always think I do enough to ensure my colleagues feel supported in the same ways I have. I want to remedy that and I’m starting now with a brief (I know your time is valuable) letter to new teachers.

Eh hem…

Dear New Teacher,

Welcome! Isn’t this exciting? And slightly terrifying? Yeah, it’s the best.

Now, I know you’re busy, so I’m going to keep this brief. I just want to reach out and provide some insight and initial support. I’ve narrowed down my advice to four main points. Hopefully this helps. Feel free to reference back as necessary throughout the year–and, just maybe, throughout your career.

  • Brace yourself. Kidding! (Not kidding.) Teaching in hard. It will get easier, but it will always be hard. There are just too many variables beyond your control to ever make it even seem easy. But, whether you realize it or not, you already know this. In fact, it’s one of the reasons you chose this profession. You like–no, you love a challenge. So, in the words of Jeff Probst…

Again, I kid. (Sorta.) Know this: teaching is hard for all teachers. Don’t let the cool demeanor of veteran educators fool you. Some of them have spent years perfecting their duck faces.

No, not this duck face:

This duck face:

  • Find your people. NOTE: Your people should genuinely enjoy teaching. None of this, “Don’t smile until Christmas stuff.” (Or maybe that’s just me…)

These should be colleagues you feel you can turn to for feedback, advice, and/or to help you fix the copier when it’s broken (again). Do keep in mind that even the best of colleagues may seem frazzled at times, but we’re all in the business of helping people. So, if you have a question or few, ask away! If they’re “your people,” you generally won’t feel like you’re bothering them. 

  • Figure out what’s really important. Remember how I said teaching is hard? Well, the hardest part is that there will always be a bajillion things to do and they will all be important. Or, rather, deemed important. Of the utmost importance, really, because, in the field of education, there is no prioritizing. Everything is important and it all deserves your immediate and undivided attention. Good luck!

Just kidding. In all seriousness, determining what’s really important and prioritizing accordingly is the single most important teacher skill you can and should develop. It’s a survival skill, really. Trusted colleagues (i.e. “your people;” see #2) may be able to help you in this regard. Otherwise, and/or in addition, allow #4 to be your guide.

  • Remember that the individuals seated in front of you every period of every day are the most important. If what you’re doing doesn’t directly and positively affect their lives and their learning, it’s not all that important. Full stop.

Maybe I should have led with that last one. As another year starts, I’m definitely going to lead with it.

Have a great year, Teach! You’re going to do great things.

Sincerely,

An admiring and supportive colleague


Amy Menzel is excited to join her students and colleagues at Waukesha West (WI) for her 3,007 day of high school in just a couple of days. Until then, it’s more reading and writing on the back patio. Ahhh, summer…

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