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Preparing Our Students to Be Better Citizens, More Thoughtful Scholars, More Empathetic Neighbors

By Matthew Kay

Over the past half-decade, our students have been bombarded with high-profile race conflicts; the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner decisions, the riots in Baltimore, the mass-shooting in Charleston, supremacist marches and murder in Charlottesville, a tangible spike in hate speech and a sharp decline in civility. The same media that delivers these issues to students tends to serve as a terrible model for how to discuss them. Fully siloed, 24-hour news networks turn important race conversations into macabre theatre.  Hosts ask unsubstantial questions, which split-screen “experts” answer with bloviation and shouted accusations – each segment an attempt to inspire a viral YouTube clip. It’s just as difficult for our students to find meaningful race conversation modeled over social media, with its equally siloed Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Here, meaningful discourse is often twisted into a competition for likes and retweets, one that ultimately rewards rapidity over introspection, snark over humility. Too often, our students’ conversational habits are only made worse by engaging this social media exchange. These habits don’t fix themselves. If we, as educators, do not provide a counter vision, show another way to engage race thoughtfully, energetically, and empathetically, many of our students will never see one. Furthermore, if we do not provide opportunities for our students to practice habits that lead to quality race conversations, any nascent skills will atrophy, especially with so many bad examples out there.


We know this. As educators, we know just how many people are invested in our students’ destructive conversational habits. When White, Black, Latino, and Asian students remain strangers to each other, so many walls remain intact. If our students do not seek complexity, leaving both Conservative and Liberal orthodoxies to go unchallenged, our political parties can settle into a deleterious status quo. Most importantly, if our students are not encouraged to engage race issues with empathy, so many unethical power structures can continue to thrive. Kindness in conversations, so often spoken about as a foundational American quality, has always been more elusive than we admit. While America’s current political discourse has aggressively devalued kindness, we have never, in history, been particularly good at being compassionate to “the other side” when talking race. It’s just so much easier to tease and belittle, to attack with the intention to destroy, to bury, to end each other. It seems so much more fun to be a troll, so much more entertaining to be a troll’s audience, so satisfying to see an “enemy” bewildered and publicly embarrassed. Many have grown so attached to this congenital meanness (in conversation) that it has become a key part of their cultural identity. So key, in fact, that many are invested in passing it to the next generation. They mislabel it “toughness.” They praise an ability to “keep it real.” They roll their eyes at “political correctness.” To them, any teacher who closely examines any of these terms has chosen to challenge entrenched value systems, which leaves us open to accusations of overreach.

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Tools of the Trade: Poetry (Reading) Out Loud

by Kelly Virgin

This week my students and I are celebrating National Poetry Month by reading poetry the way I believe it is meant to be read – out loud. Using the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition for inspiration, we are enjoying our own poetry reading competition (I removed the added pressure of memorizing the poems).

Our week started by finding inspiration in poetry recitations. We spent a class period watching, noticing, and discussing past Poetry Out Loud winners and finalists. Presenters such as John Uzodinma  and Cennemi Diaz showed us how to alter our voices, change our expressions, and use our gestures to communicate the deep and varied emotions found in poems such as “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “Cartoon Physics, part 1” by Nick Flynn.


Next, we spent time sifting through some of the resources available on the Poetry Out Loud website. After investigating in pairs, students reported out on the resources they found most helpful: the online anthlogy of poems, the tips on physical presence, voice, and articulation, and the collection of recordings of actors and poets discussing and reading poetry were mentioned several times. Read more

Teacher to Teacher: A Summer Writing Institute and Endless Possibilities

By Lynne R. Dorfman

There are lots of things that are right about education today. Teachers and students are reading more and interacting more with parents, students and fellow teachers. One way to interact with colleagues in your own school and with colleagues from across the country is to participate in professional development opportunities such as ILA and NCTE.  A few years ago, Stacey Shubitz, Rose Cappelli, and I attended a workshop offered by Highlights Foundation. Highlights offers workshops for writers year round. But there are many stellar conferences in our own backyards. For me, PCTELA and KSRA in October and our PAWLPday in March promise to offer incredible venues that cannot be overlooked or dismissed. On May 12th, the Philadelphia Reading Council of KSRA and the Alpha Upsilon Alpha Chapter of Saint Joseph’s University offer their spring literacy conference: And Joy for All: Using Poetry to Bring Happiness to Your Daily Teaching. Janet Wong is the keynote speaker.  I will make time to attend all these events.  Last week, I facilitated two sessions at a Best Practice Summit in Boyertown Area School District. So many Boyertown teachers K-12 were facilitating sessions, and there was an air of excitement and commitment throughout the day. Good things are happening.  Read more

Periods. From the Writer’s Point of View

by Elizabeth Hale

Ever since I can remember, teachers have lamented about their students’ use of periods, or rather, the lack thereof, especially teachers beyond the primary grades.  After all, their students have been hearing about using periods for almost half their life! These teachers certainly talked about periods and taught lessons about them, but the reminders of “Don’t forget to end your sentences with periods!” just never seemed to stick.

One reason is that we were all giving the same advice we got in elementary school of why we should use periods: “The reader needs to know when to stop and take a breath.” But this advice is from the reader’s perspective, not the writer’s. And the truth is, unless someone is reading writing out loud, “the reader” doesn’t need to take a breath! When I put myself in the shoes of a fourth or fifth grader, I saw this generations old advice was just not that convincing.

So how do periods benefit the writer?  Once I slowed down the thought process of constructing a sentence—raising my pencil or finger on a keyboard to make a little dot—it came to me:  periods help writers take a pause before writing their next sentence.  This pause is a gift because it can be a vehicle for attending to the writerly advice teachers give all the time, “Don’t forget to add details and description!”  With Memoir, students already have rich details of sound, color, shape, and texture in their minds: it’s just a matter of taking the time to pause and “see” them again in their mind so they can put them in their writing. So rather than just remind students to add details, we can show them the thought process, guided by those periods, of bringing details into writing.

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From the Classroom: Personalized Mentor Texts to Inspire and Elevate Student Writing with Independent Reading Books

This month’s From the Classroom post comes from Lauren Heimlich Foley, a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Holicong Middle School in Central Bucks School District. If you feel inspired after reading Lauren’s post on mentor texts, please comment below and also consider sharing your own favorite lesson here on the blog. Click here to learn more.


7th Grade English Language Arts


Approximately 20-25 minutes occurring throughout the school year


Last year, I devoured The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini: his books became a constant source of inspiration—fueling my writing, providing minilesson examples, and driving book talks. When I shared Paolini’s ideas, style, conventions, and craft with my students, I modeled how to “read like a writer,” and in turn, my seventh graders began noticing and emulating the way the authors of their Independent Reading Books wrote.

During one writing conference, Caleb declared, “I want to experiment with one-word sentences like in Hatchet.” Skimming the book’s pages, he pointed out “Divorce” and “Secrets” and explained, “Gary Paulsen uses these words to build questions, mystery, and suspense for readers.” The next day he shared his mentor text and revisions with the class as our minilesson. Caleb’s final poem highlighted five words: “Victory. Freedom. Peace. Unity. Hope.” In his reflection, he stated, “The best part about [Paulsen’s] writing is the one-word sentences he adds in. It creates emphasis on the words. I [accentuated] the words of what the [Allied] soldiers [on D-Day] are fighting for because to them these words are really important.”

Intrigued by the power of personalized mentor texts, I considered ways to foster independent reading as a writing tool and dedicate instructional time to observing word choice, voice, sentence fluency, and other stylistic decisions in students’ individual books. Additionally, I wanted to create more opportunities for students to teach one another, take charge of their learning, play with writing, consider risks, and become stronger readers and writers.

NOTE: This lesson can be adapted to use with any text:

  • Fiction, nonfiction, or poetry
  • Whole-class, book club, or independent reading
  • Any age and reading level (picture book, YA novel, or adult book)

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Tools of the Trade: March Madness

By Rita Sorrentino

I always enjoy the transition from one month to another. I delight in turning the pages on my wall calendar with a feeling of newness, encouragement and opportunity. Even now, while I do value the convenience of managing time and productivity with digital devices and tools, I still hang on to a yearly calendar. Its lovely colorful images beautify the wall space and my preference to keep it unmarked reminds me to take a long view of what matters.

When March arrived a few days ago I remembered a verse from a poem I learned in my elementary school days, “March brings breezes, loud and shrill, to stir the dancing daffodil” (The Garden Year by Sara Coleridge). It’s similar to the familiar “lion and lamb” predictions for unpredictable March. Both shed light on our yearning for longer warmer days and colorful surroundings.

My gran Read more