NCTE: A First-Timer’s Reflection


I feel like I overuse the word “mind-blown” in my everyday life, and people who know me well are unphased when I hand gesture and raise the volume of my voice to describe whatever happened that elicited such a response.

But trust me when I say, this time IT IS NOT A DRILL.

My first-ever experience with NCTE can only be described in one–though overused by me–word.  You guessed it.

MIND.  BLOWN.  Okay, wait.  Two words, with necessary periodic addition for dramatic effect.

In order to fully communicate this mind-blown state, I should tell you that my NCTE experience began with sitting in the airport and seeing Jason Reynolds walk right in front of me as I froze like a teenage girl.


Then, I redeemed myself by attending a panel with Jason Reynolds and getting a picture.  I also awkwardly told him, “Hey, I saw you yesterday, but I tripped on my way over to you and got embarrassed and then sat down.” Good story, Jess.  He said, “Oh, you should’ve said something!” He’s probably used to crazies.

Anyway, aside from my intense awkwardness and wondering whether or not I should walk up to people I know from Twitter and say “hello”–like the friends I feel we are–, attending NCTE for the first time was an invaluable experience for a few reasons.

First, it helped validate that I’m–we’re–fighting the good fight.  To be honest, our profession is so steeped in what Carol Jago calls “literacy activities,” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only teacher just letting her kids read and providing space for them to write.  Anyone else?  Feeling like The Lone Ranger can also cause me to question: If this is different than the way almost everyone is doing it, is there a chance I’m wrong?  That insecurity causes many issues, one of which results in the frequent depletion of my chocolate stash.  However, NCTE took all that wondering away, and reaffirmed the Workshop Crusade during every session:

Kelly Gallagher said, “I am a teacher of literaCY, not literaTURE.”

Jimmy Santiago Baca, “In working with students who hate education, we need to make it look a lot less like education.”

He also said, “Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.”  And I would argue, we need to do so in order to affirm the spirits of our kids, as well.

Second, as a result of an amazing session led by Tricia Ebarvia (who is my bestie, but doesn’t know it yet), Anna Osborn (who I want to be when I grow up), and Kate Flowers (who is not afraid to tell the truth of data), I obtained a litmus test that will challenge me for the rest of my teaching career.

Kate Flowers’ Rule of Assessment: Do no harm.

As I really let this three-word, doozy of a sentence sink in, I started running a list of what I would deem “assessments” from the past three months.  I teach three very different classes: On-level Seniors, AP Lang Juniors, and All-level Creative Writing.  I can honestly say the only class I can say I’ve “done no harm” in terms of assessment is Creative Writing.  Do I know where they are?  Absolutely.  Do I know their strengths?  Interests?  What they had for breakfast this morning?  What they dream about for their futures?  Absolutely.  Do they love and support each other as classmates?  To a fault.

So, the tough question is, why do I run my other classes any differently?  Truth: Because of assessments.  Because of administrative checkpoints.  Because I feel as though I have to justify community-building and students being seen to align with state and district standards.  Finally, because I have not completely let go of control.

Kate asked, “Is this about your need to control?  Or are you serving your students’ need to grow?”

This question also made me think: How many times do our educational practices do more to breed liars than learners?

Those questions should keep me busy for awhile.

Do no harm.

Finally, NCTE made me even more angry at the conversations that permeate the teacher work rooms, the hallways, the classrooms with doors closed and hands thrown up in the air.

I constantly hear, “My kids can’t do this, and they can’t do that.  Why have they not been taught this before?”


Cornelius Minor said, “Your lack of understanding is not a symptom of something wrong.  It just means you’re in the right place.”

I am a teacher.  I’m not an assigner.  I’m not an assessor.  I don’t throw something against a wall, hope it sticks, and then blame the wall for not having been told to grab onto it because it will be useful in the future.

As I said in my portion of our Three Teachers’ talk, maybe kids have been told, but they haven’t been taught.


So, my current plight is trudging through the constant overwhelm of asking people to be open to change, trying something new, doing things differently.  My volleyball coach ALWAYS reminded us of the definition of insanity–but he called it “stupid,” instead.  Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  So I will continue to toss up the idea that we should let students show us who they are, and then plan a learning experience around that.  We might even set some learning in place that might help them discover a piece of themselves they didn’t know existed, or a person they were blind to before they knew their struggles were the same.

I remember what Tom Newkirk said, “Story is compelled by trouble.”  So maybe this is part of my story, maybe this is my trouble.  Maybe I was meant to push through the difficulty and the seemingly impossible–at least without a steady stream of caffeine and sarcasm–to get to what truly might save our world, beautiful words and the connections they fuse when we encounter them.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is overjoyed to be in a graduate program because that means she has access to a better library.  She is currently twiddling her thumbs as she waits for the next books from Sabaa Tahir, Sandhya Menon, and Jason Reynolds.  Also, you can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans.


#NCTE17 – A Story I’m Thankful For

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

In it, you will find:

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

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

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

#NCTE17 — So Much to Remember, So Much to Do

Confession:  I do not have the energy to write this post.

NCTEStLouisI had an amazing learning experience at NCTE in St. Louis. I met Twitter friends for the first time face-to-face. I got to present with my amazing and faithful blogging buddies — and Tom Newkirk! I loaded my shoulder bag with loads of new books for my classroom library complements of the book vendors in the exhibit hall. I talked with some fascinating educators and attended fantastic sessions — all tattooed my heart with meaningful messages. I saw Linda Rief talk about her heart books and Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle advocate for choice reading and more talk and more diverse books and more time to read and write with students. I attended CEL and presented with my newfound friend, Sarah Zerwin, who is writing a book on going gradeless, my newest quest. I did not sleep much. Does anyone sleep much at NCTE?

You’d think that after a week-long break I’d have caught up. Not so. Remember how I wrote about my family coming for Thanksgiving? They did. We laughed and ate and camped and ate.

And. It. Was. Awesome.


My newly weds. Two daughters and two new son-in-laws.


Hyrum, my soldier, and his twin, Zach


On the 3rd day of camping, we are a motley crew but somehow still smiling.

But I am tired.

Yesterday I returned to school like I assume most every teacher in America did. The stack of papers needing grading shouted at me as I flipped on the lights. 111 emails flash danced in my inbox. One plant gave up its withered ghost, and four of my bookcases must have wrestled with the devil. Before the first bell, I sat at a table and breathed. Amazing what a few deep breaths will do.

So, yes, I have a lot to remember about NCTE. My notebook begs to be revisited, and when I get a minute or two, I will write a post that showcases the best of my learning at this inspiring convention.  In the meantime, since I did not preview my part of our presentation at NCTE like my writing partners did, I include it here. Most of my notes are in the slides, so maybe my message will make a little sense without my commentary. At least I hope so. Personally, I think our 3TT presentation was awesome! I learned so much from our journey into doing more with narrative. If you were not there, I wish you could’ve been!

Happy almost December, my friends. May your days be merry and bright right on up to the December holidays. Maybe then we will get some sleep.


Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP Language at a large and spirit-filled high school just north of Dallas. She is the mother of six adult children and grandmother to five. She loves to read and write and share her love of reading and writing with anyone who will listen. She also loves to sleep and believes that good pillows make the best of friends. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

Part II. Continuing the Crusade for my Readers — Guest Post by Charles Moore

If you read my post from three weeks ago you understand my plight. I’m fighting an important battle, and it’s a battle I can’t bear to lose. I strive desperately to move each one of my students towards a love of reading. Reading comes easy to some of them; it’s so hard for others.

It’s working. I’m seeing momentum build with my readers. Several of them came back from this weekend having read on their own!!!


Our Rooted in Reading tree is growing!!!

So what, exactly, have I been doing?

As previously mentioned, I had to find out where all my students were as readers. That took Conference Logsseveral weeks of tracking movement. I recorded their progress as often as possible and, most of the time, checked with them every day. Our gradebook software makes creating rosters super easy, and I made a page for each class that I use to take notes. For some kids, it’s just their page numbers and notes about how they feel about their current books. For others, my substantial readers, it’s a record of our conferences and their answers to thoughtful questions about themselves as readers. My goal is to have more of these types of conferences. Either way, it’s a daily map of the reading lives of each student.

One thing I am not scared to do is move a kid out of a book that I put them in the day Book Nookbefore; even if that student was in a different book the day before that and another the day before that. The key to that whole process, thought, is my classroom library. It’s beautiful and I love it. I know it from top to bottom. It holds many books that I’ve read and so many books I haven’t read…yet. It’s crucial that I can take a book out of a student’s hand and hand them a new book on the spot. 

For instance, a baseball player, in my second period class, finished Scythe a week or two ago. He even buddied up with one of our Assistant Principals, and they talked almost daily about it. He moved into The Book Thief last week but didn’t connect with it and read 80 pages in 10 days. Friday, he “punted” that book and took home The House of the Scorpion and finished almost half of it this weekend. This story repeats itself over and over in my classroom.

We have to work to get students in the right book and just like with us, sometimes so much depends on what is going on in their lives and where they are emotionally.

I mentioned before how I’m talking books every day. Book talks allow them to plan for the next book and the one after that. I think it’s important that they have a list of books to read next, and the more they internalize this process, the closer they are to being a life-long reader. Of course, I’m here to guide them, but I want to see them seeking the books themselves.

Encouraging and supporting readers with my dedication to their reading lives is probably the most important part of this. Sharing my life as a reader with my students is crucial. They know how I loved Red Queen, and how I struggled with The Hate You Give.

I write poems on the board from Rupi Kaur, r.h. sin, and my own.

I show them the books I buy, and we conspire to keep it a secret from my wife.

Last week one of my students gave me We Should all be Feminists. She knows I have a daughter and I should take this kind of thinking into account in my life with her. I spent the next several days engaging with this student and her table group around the thoughts I took from the book. They know I read it, and that connection is authentic.

We spend too much class time each week on our independent reading for us to not be “readers.”

It’s my mission to guide them to the life of a reader, and I have to live it as much as I expect them to.

Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)

Charles Moore is the chauffeur to a 7 year old diva and loves coaching linebackers and teaching Senior English in League City, Tx. He can never finish a book because his students steal them. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Combating The Same – Narrative Deserves Better

Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices_ Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves

Once upon a time, in the chilly great North, a teacher needed to learn some new lessons.

Though far more skilled and confident than she had been at the start of her career, this educator was suffering from a well-known malady – The Same.

The Same is something that creeps up on us. In some cases, it’s welcome and even necessary for survival. In other cases, though the symptoms may seem innocuous, the lasting impact The Same can have in our classrooms makes it a chronic condition worth treating.

In this case, though The Same takes many forms, what was in need of attention was this teacher’s treatment of Narrative.

A well-intentioned sort, this young lady dutifully taught narrative once per year, as was the want of her friend The Common Core. CC suggested that students needed to know how to write a hook, how to transition between ideas, how to incorporate dialogue, and how to conclude the piece in a “meaningful” way. And so, this young educator went about her business. The business of “teaching” students how to tell stories.

But something was missing. Something was very wrong. Her students were…terrible at it. Their stories dry and lifeless – unbending retellings of birthday parties, first boyfriends (who were mean, mean, mean), and middle school drama involving lockers that don’t open and the mortification that comes with being separated from one’s bestie (boring, boring, boring).

I was not ok with what was happening.
“You should not do that,” I said. 

“Do, what?” she said. 
“That,”I said. 
Suddenly, the bell rang and we were more scared than before. We would never get out of here if Mr. Sanders saw us. We’d be in big trouble. The biggest trouble ever!

The Same had relegated her students’ stories to a checklist, and the results were simply awful. To write. To read. To teach.

What The Same had done was limit narrative. Put it in a box as something to bring out, take care of, and return neatly for the next year. Tell a story, was the charge, but nowhere in that charge was- Share yourself. Explore who you really and maybe how you got that way. Tell me something profoundly true and deeply felt. 

It was time to seek out The Change.

As Tom Newkirk suggests, we must  “rethink the way we position [narrative] in our curriculum.” Narrative, done well and valued for the deeply personal composition it can be, deserves to be more than an assignment. If we want students’ writing to soar, we need to see the value of their stories and the value in highlighting those stories throughout their work, regardless of the type of assignment they might face.

Narrative lets us play.

Narrative lets us peek into hearts and minds.

Narrative lets us shine a light on what’s only ever been private.

Yet, narrative teeters at the edge of the curricular abyss in countless high school ELA classrooms. And why not? We’ve got other fish to fry. Data-driven, framework-aligned, standardized fish. In an era where argument is king and expository is queen, narrative is often relegated to the position of traveling jester – cute to entertain for awhile, but far beneath us.

However, narrative speaks to what we have to say, where we find our roots, and how we are connected.

Narrative is who we are.

If we aren’t letting students explore who they are through their writing, both the low stakes quick writes and the behemoth argument research papers, then we are missing a great opportunity to support our students to in becoming better writers AND better people.

Reclaiming narrative means joining the conversation. Amplifying our voices means joining the conversation. And I can’t wait to extend the conversation on the power of narrative.

Meet me in St. Louis! Three Teacher Talk, with the amazing Tom Newkirk as our chair, will share our thoughts on the power of narrative and how it can transform the lives of our student writers. See you at #NCTE17 – Session C26 on Friday in room 274 at 12:30.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She sincerely hopes that her layover in Detroit today doesn’t foil her NCTE dreams. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Learning Matters When Students Matter

Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices_ Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves

It’s 8 months later, and I still think about Amy’s post regarding mirrors, windows, and doors.  In fact, it permeates most of my conversations about education with colleagues, in graduate school, at the coffee shop–okay, kind of kidding on that last one.

But it’s the question at the end of her post that gets me:

How are we making learning matter to our students?

Learning doesn’t matter until students see themselves in the process.  The process of learning is transactional, much like the process of making meaning in general, according to Jerome Bruner.  This concept of transaction means that students need to be involved.  They have to act, rather than simply absorb.

Oscar Wilde

Students must have choice.  They must see themselves in other people’s stories.  They must tell their own stories, not only for the sake of the “personal narrative,” but because good story is woven through all great writing.

We are heading to NCTE tomorrow.  What?!  Tomorrow?!  While it seems like it’s been the quickest semester on the face of the planet, I’m so glad our presentation regarding narrative has been in the back of my mind.  It has made me a better teacher, and caused me to consider how I’m allowing students to tell their stories, or craft a new one, in just about everything we do.

People often say, “For it is in giving that we receive.”  I find this to be increasingly true in writing for Three Teachers Talk.  It challenges my practice and encourages me to think of my classroom in a way that the progress we make can be transferred to other teachers’ classrooms and communities.

My story for this week includes a whole lot of writing, crossing out, scribbling, Googling, then writing again.  In my third year of teaching, I thought I would have fewer firsts.  But, alas, in this month alone, it is my first time speaking in front of non-teenagers, first time meeting my literacy idols, first time going to a conference that will hopefully change my life and my practice–or at least bolster the ideals I already hold.  I am beyond excited to learn alongside the community of literacy advocates whom I have grown to love over the past year.  Will we see you there?!

Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

I’ll be wearing a blue dress, and probably a flushed face accompanied by some armpit stains.  Don’t worry, I’ll cover them up with a blazer.

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration.  Her husband keeps her sane with his good looks and even-keeled  nature.  She is currently coming off the high that is the Ember in the Ashes series, writing about real life and all it’s messiness (Jessica Jordana), and attempting to inspire students to be the best version of themselves.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jessjordana to follow along with her many adventures!

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

AmEstudent notebook

Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  


%d bloggers like this: