Tag Archives: NCTE

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.

5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction


First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.


The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

We Learn Facts from Fiction

NCTE is always so magical, isn’t it?  It’s a five-day frenzy of learning and teaching and connecting and wondering and writing, which should be exhausting.  But it’s not.  Somehow, I come back to school every year with so much energy, revitalized by the conference and its plethora of ideas and inspiration.

This year at NCTE, as the words and wisdom of my teacher heroes washed over me, I was drawn in by one theme that kept recurring–the role of narrative in informational text.  Given that the theme of the conference was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” this wasn’t surprising.  What did surprise me, though, was that almost everyone I heard speak discussed how narrative helped learners in the context of nonfiction.  I began to wonder–what about narrative in its most accepted place–fiction?  What information do readers learn from reading fiction?

ptiIn addition to hearing from many teacher-researchers, I also got to hear from many authors.  David Levithan, e. lockhart, Libba Bray, Lester Laminack, Paul Janeczko, Georgia Heard, and more spoke about their writing processes.  Every one of them mentioned research at length, and I jotted a note–“research processes are as multigenre as its products.”  All of those writers had a unique research process, but they were all strong.  These authors put work into making their fiction as fact-based as possible.  Others discussed putting their own lives into their fictional works–Sherman Alexie has too many parallels with the narrator of Part-Time Indian for it to be a coincidence.  What’s more authentic and research-based than a lived experience?

bsogMy brain was whirling.  How many fictional novels have helped me fill gaps in my understanding?  Between Shades of Gray enlightened me to the fact that there was a Baltic genocide.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian taught me about culture on a reservation.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close brought 9/11 to life for me.  Peak showed me the world of Mt. Everest in a new light.

Fiction transports us to other worlds…it lets us know we’re not alone…and it saves our lives.  But it also teaches us a great many facts.  We don’t ask our students to read in order to just make them better readers.  We ask them to read because we know it will improve their lives…help them attack the “idea poverty” they suffer from, in Kelly Gallagher’s words.  Fiction, especially the YA fiction that is so popular in my classroom, is educational at an informational level.  Readers acquire knowledge of topics they had limited prior knowledge about by reading fiction.  They also gain understandings of universal themes and grand ideas, but they also learn facts.

Forgetting this is a grave oversight, and perhaps is at the root of why YA lit isn’t always considered “serious” literature.  Kelly Gallagher also said that “there is wisdom in Hamlet that is not found in Gone Girl,” and he’s right.  But there’s also factual information in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series about Egypt and archaeology that I did not get out of Antony and Cleopatra.  We do a disservice to authors when we discount their research processes just because they write in a genre called fiction.

All that we learn, and that our students learn, may best be processed in narrative form…but information doesn’t just have to come from nonfiction.  This is an important lesson–it’s why reading needs to be a schoolwide, nationwide, worldwide focus–not just the job of English teachers.  Reading EVERYTHING helps us acquire knowledge, expand our schema, make sense of the world, and become productive, intelligent, informed, democratic citizens.  And it also makes us pretty damn happy.

What fiction are you and your students reading that helps you acquire knowledge?

#NCTE14 J.44 Nonnegotiables Across the Landscape of Workshop

Jackie, Erika, Amy and I are excited to present at NCTE in Washington, D.C. on Saturday at 2:45 pm. Penny Kittle is our Chair. We are session J.44. Join us!

“I am the sum of my mentors,” writes Meenoo Rami in Thrive.  As a student at Miami University in 2005, I had no idea how fortunate I was to have Tom Romano as one of my mentors.  As a leader in educational writing, a teacher with his thumb on the pulse of research, and the giant who first introduced me to NCTE, Romano has always been my single biggest mentor.

As I thought for months about what I wanted to share with teachers regarding the readers-writers workshop at NCTE, I was reminded of an assignment I’d done in Romano’s class–to find the “red thread” of my teaching…my nonnegotiables regarding our profession.  I dug for it in the depths of my hard drive.

Re-reading it, I laughed as I always do at my older writing, but then I smiled.  Many of my nonnegotiables remain unchanged: sustained silent reading.  Craft informed by research.  Authenticity.  Engagement is central.  Model, model, model.

Tom Romano obviously did a damn good job as a mentor.

IMG_5031Those simple principles–plus my genuine passion for reading, and writing, and the joy I believe they can bring everyone–inform my practice day in and day out.  They are supported by the research of Penny Kittle, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Linda Rief, and more.  I am the sum of those mentors, and in this season of giving thanks, I’m so grateful that I am.  My students have found incredible success because I stand on the shoulders of those giants, and I can’t wait to share their stories at our session in Washington, D.C.

Reflections of an Arrogant Teacher

I was only in the classroom one day this week. I spent two days in training learning how to be an instructional coach, and then I skipped town and headed to Las Vegas to the National Council of English Teachers Conference.

I learned in training that when I go into other teachers’ classrooms to observe, and I become judgmental and critical with thoughts like: “Oh, honey, what were you thinking when you decided to become a teacher?” I am arrogant. I should presume positive intent and ask questions that will lead that teacher to find her way into better pedagogy. Okay. I can do that. Maybe.

But what about the children? Sitting there. Unengaged. Not thinking. Not trying. Not learning.

I learned at the opening session of NCTE that “kids are naturally creative; teaching is an art form; education is the single most important thing in many people’s lives.” Sir Ken Robinson spoke about imagination and how it is the heart of human life: “Imagination is the well-spring of everything it means to be human…and creativity is applying imagination, putting it to work.”

So much of what I’ve seen in classrooms is (sigh) nothing close to creativity. And, I am guilty, too. So much of what I have kids do in my own classroom lacks the application that beats within the heart.

Robinson said: “Teaching is an art form. It is not a delivery system. We must engage people imaginatively in the creative process.” Drop out rates are high, 30-40%; 60% in some areas.

“We cannot blame the kids!”

If kids cannot feel important, like their ideas matter, like their voices will be heard, why should they try to learn? If kids feel like they cannot color rainbows like zebras and peacocks like penguins, how can we expect them to write verse like Shakespeare or turn a marble slab into a David?

How can we expect them to write an essay that has “engaging characters and an interesting plot”?


Robinson reminded me: “If you love something you work at, you never have to work again.”

Now, I am thinking: How does this apply to me as a coach? How can I help my teachers love teaching? How can I get them to stop blaming the kids and start championing creativity?

How does this apply to me as a teacher? “Teaching is more like agriculture than engineering,” Robinson said. How am I adjusting my climate control? How am I continually creating a climate of growth?

So I learned this week that I am arrogant. I am judgmental. I am critical. I don’t mean to be, and I will do a better job of changing my thinking so I can help others change.

But they better hurry.

What about the children?

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.
~Anais Nin

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