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NCTE: Diversifying Who I Hear & Read

While I want to learn and I want to personally change, my wanting to contribute to universal changes in equity, social justice, and anti-racist structures and policies in education might also mean not thrusting my whiteness into conference sessions.

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From the Classroom: Authentic Audiences

Lauren Heimlich Foley

For some of my students, an authentic audience equals a writing competition or online publishing site. Yet, for most of my middle schoolers, writing for their own personal enjoyment or to someone in their life—a classmate, friend, family member, or teacher—creates the rewarding and exciting real-life writing opportunities they seek.

Nancie Atwell’s letter-essays, discussed in The Reading Zone and In the Middle, offer a great starting place. Students write to a classmate about a book they have read and receive a response back. I have been adapting this letter-essay assignment for my English class. In their October letter-essays, students recommended their Independent Reading Books and analyzed their texts for the interaction between elements of fiction, literary devices, and/or conventions. When launching the letter, I invited my students to write to anyone. I wanted my eighth graders to think about their recommendations as a piece of writing that could reach beyond the four walls of our room. Students’ letters became more than an assignment for school; their authentic audiences drove their writing and their focus.

While they shared their work with their tablemates, some students also addressed their letters to parents and siblings. Other students wrote to friends on different teams or in different schools. One student reached out to her cousin in Scotland. Another student recommended Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie to a family friend dealing with a similar life situation. He wrote, “I thought that you would enjoy this book [because] it really shows how siblings are there for each other and how Steven helped his younger brother in times of need.” Two students recommended books to me, and one student recommended her book to our technology teacher. She reported, “Mr. H. already responded to my email. He says he’ll check out the book.”

In addition to writing about books, my students find authentic audiences for their genre studies and Self-Selected Writing Pieces. With weekly student writing conferences and small-group, teacher conferences (based on a recommendation from Dr. Mary Buckelew), students have been writing more for one another. Classmates become invested in their peers’ work and want to see how the final pieces turn out. To foster this collaboration, I might say to Evan, “Make sure to read Dave your ending; see what he thinks. And, Dave, you need to finish your story for Evan.” Their dedication to finishing the piece and sharing their work with someone fosters their writing process and progress. When Meg asked me to read her short story—which brought me to tears—I asked if everyone at her table had read the piece. They already had and revealed that they too had become teary-eyed.

Sharing and celebrating creative and original writing within our class has become a staple, and this mindset has propelled me to add a new question during my conferences: “Who are you writing this for?” For example, when a student began developing ideas for a picture book, we discussed who she might read it to when she was all done; her little cousin was on the top of her list. Another student, inspired by her Social Studies Research Project on Jesse Owens, created a short story about his life and his ability to overcome the hardships he faced. I encouraged her to share the writing with her Social Studies teacher. Last week, students, inspired by an astronomy lesson, decided to create a multiple perspective story, exploring if the sun died. Although still in the planning and developing phase, they are already excited to share their finished piece with their science teacher.

Next Steps

In December, the letter-essay will be adapted for an assignment after our whole-class reading of The Outsiders. Students will engage with the text by writing a letter to an adult in their life. They will recommend the book, explore a theme, and connect to our larger unit: Words to Live By. Like a more traditional literary essay, this assignment will ask my students to analyze The Outsiders and engage in theme development; however, it will also enable them to put a more personal touch on their writing. My hope is that these adults will read The Outsiders or remember when they read the book, creating a space for my students to have a readerly conversation with them. Also, my students will be conducting research for our January non-fiction unit. In addition to students selecting the topic they wish to learn about and the genre they will use to showcase their knowledge, an extra question will ask them who they are writing to—who they want to inform with their writing.  

Finding authentic audiences encapsulates why we as humans write: to share our stories and let our voices be heard. Helping my students to think about who they are writing to and why they are writing has become a focus during instruction. The seemingly simple questions “Who are you writing this for?” and “Who will read this piece?” have shifted our writing process and created real-life writers out of my eighth graders.

I would love to hear the ways you are getting your students to write with authentic audiences!

Storytelling & Inquiry at NCTE

By Liz Mathews

Attending the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference for the first time, I worried mid-way that my conference-going experience was fragmented and would be disconnected from a single, purposeful narrative. With this blog post in mind, I wondered how I could possibly interweave learning about trauma-informed arts activities, critical fat studies in graphic novels, and moving, first-person immigrant stories together. Looking again, I think what stiched this patchwork together is the elemental commitment to the power of storytelling. But I am provoked, too, by a comment from my Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) colleague, Kelly Virgin, who remarked during my workshop on action research with Janice Ewing and Mary Buckelew about the value of entering and entertaining multiple inquiries.

I didn’t resolve any of the questions that the NCTE panels raised; I may never. That’s OK, especially just two days after the conference close. This past weekend, I collected voices. I was stirred. I felt more emotional about being human together than I normally allow myself, thanks to the generous vulnerability of presenters and attendees. Here are two snapshots from the conference, which I hope may spark your own inquiry:

#WhatICarry by Joan Bauer, Donna Gaffney, Katie Hyde, Tendo Mutanda

It may be easier to express fears and worries in images. Children who’ve experienced trauma especially demand socio-emotional projects that help bridge the gap created from loss. As Donna Gaffney noted, “Children experience loss, but they don’t understand grief.” The salve can be photography and arts-based writing. Using themes of self, community, family, and dreams, #WhatICarry aided self-understanding and the “ability to read the world.” Katie Hyde framed the work: “It’s not about using one medium to explain another, but rather to expand.” That expansiveness, in the form of multimodal books and maps, embodied once-foreign grief in a circular process. As Joan Bauer said, “To write is to walk forward and backward at the same time.”

De Artista a Artista: Craft Learning from Yuyi Morales, Maya Christina Gonzales, y Juana Martinez-Neal

Juana Medina “made sense of silence by coming up with stories.” She wove her own stories of family, place, migration, identity, and illustration to a room of early morning attendees, many of whom expressed their relief and delight in hearing and seeing stories that represent, rather than erase, them. Medina reminded us, “the world goes round with stories.” Next, Yuyi Morales continued the morning’s oral histories by sharing her own narrative about her progression as an artist and transnational human. She was vulnerable and inclusive, reflecting on how we, collectively, “started not knowing anything,” and grow. She admitted that she came to the United States feeling “insufficient,” but that she realized how “that space that was a void is really like a blank canvas.” Her art and writing is an act of recovery, of power, of invitation. “Every book [I write] is an exploration of something I need to grow,” Morales said. We’re all called upon to grow alongside Morales and Medina.

I thank my PAWLP community for affording me the opportunities to share in meaningful conversations and engage in the spirit of inquiry together at NCTE. I was grateful to discover at NCTE the transformative work that our PAWLP fellows are doing in their schools and communities. It’s ironic that it can take coming to another city to learn about the important work happening at home. I’m honored to call you colleagues.

NCTE November: When it comes to good professional development, Neverless!

By Jason Fritz

Early on Friday morning, as I drove into downtown Baltimore, I couldn’t help but notice the streetside Baltimore Ravens’ Neverless signs, a clever play off of the “Nevermore.” refrain of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and homage to the city’s fascinating literary history. Right away, I could see why NCTE would want to hold its Annual Convention in such a place.

At the Friday General Session, speakers Tonya Bolden and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. emphasized that teachers should remind their students just how quickly a society can change its laws and remove freedoms previously thought permanent. Gates detailed a long list of such instances in U.S. history and punctuated his talk with, “History repeats itself, but only if we let it.” I don’t see how anyone could have left the session without a sense of agency and duty to go out and do something to make the world a better place. I’d like to start my journey by reading Bolden and Gates’ collaborative work: Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow.

I attended two morning sessions, the first of which was “Who Has Time to Read Books?: Carving Out Space for Honest Inquiry Into Our Readerly Identities as Teachers Who Support Students as Readers” by Alison Crane, Katie Hamill, Danielle Lillge, and Melinda McBee Orzulak, all of who were informative and inspiring. One of the opening slide statistics—excerpted from Dan Seitz’s article “Books are good for your brain. These techniques will help you read more.”—caught my attention: “Reading books can exercise your brain and even boost your emotional intelligence. Despite this, about a quarter of all Americans haven’t read a book in the last year and our overall book-reading time is on the decline.” In a moment of levity, one of the presenters mentioned the irony in English teachers struggling to find time to read because of the demands of teaching. But all of the presenters essentially used this alarming knowledge to drive home the point that for teachers to develop themselves as readers amidst their busy lives, they should do so first through self-examination, inquiring of their habits and beliefs as readers, and then through intentionality, setting new goals for what, how, when, where, and why they read. One of my take-aways was that to grow as a reader, teachers should always strive to read new genres and read with an eye towards understanding and appreciating unfamiliar languages and cultures, something I’d imagine teachers would want for their students to do as well. In fact, I’m currently reading the graphic novel Watchmen, a genre that I don’t have a lot of experience reading in, but I am enjoying it so far.

The next session was entitled “Authentic Inquiry in the High School Classroom: Choose Your Own (Research) Adventure!” by Amber DeSimony, Donna McAndrews, and Kristin Richard, all outstanding staff members from Niskayuna High School in upstate New York. To start, they encouraged all participants to pull up the website where they essentially housed their inquiry project, and I have included the direct link here, so that you can take a look at it: http://inquiryadventure.weebly.com/. Although there were many fascinating features of their inquiry project, what resonated most with me were two of the formats that students could use to present their research. The first was a research panel, where students could work together, each presenting to an audience on a different aspect of their inquiry project. The second was a TED Talk, where a student could present on their inquiry—either presumably live or in a recorded format—to an audience of their peers and beyond. I became excited because I could see students getting excited in presenting in these formats! I highly recommend taking a look at some of the videos on the website where students reflect on why they chose their particular presentation formats, as they are informative and helpful in thinking about your own potential inquiry project for students.

My day culminated in the most important experience of all for me—a session entitled “How Can We Help Our Students Establish and Maintain a Writer’s Identity K-16?” which was sponsored by the National Writing Project. I facilitated one of nine roundtable discussion in a room with my PAWLP colleagues. My particular session was “Roundtable 4: Giving Students Choice of Topic and Genre: How We Can Make That Happen”. I started each of my 30-minute sessions by introducing myself and asking the participants do the same, learning along the way how incredibly focused and eager to learn each of the teachers around the table was. I handed all participants what was my first infographic, which I made through the Piktochart website, and used it as a guide for the session, starting with my rationale for implementing choice in student writing, which included wanting to increase student engagement, promote a broader conception of writing among students, and encourage greater student autonomy throughout the writing process. I discussed successful teaching strategies, shared laminated copies of activities that I used with my students, and passed around texts, such as Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts, that I found particularly helpful in implementing choice of topic and genre. Most of the session involved participants discussing their experiences with offering choices, asking questions that they had about offering choices with writing, and brainstorming how to overcome the barriers that they had encountered in implementing more choice in the classroom. As with anything that is deeply engaging, I lost sense of time, and what was 60 minutes felt more like 5.

Leaving Baltimore, I realized that I had made a great mistake in only planning to go for one day. With what I had just experienced in the span of three sessions, I now knew how much more beneficial multiple days would have been, giving me many more opportunities to learn from other teachers and acquire new ideas for improving student learning. Driving by those purple Ravens’ signs, repeating block by block, like a refrain in my head, will forever remind me that when it comes to good professional development, Neverless!

NCTE November: NCTE Stands for Something More

By Chris Kehan

Although NCTE stands for National Council for Teachers of English, after experiencing their national conference in Baltimore, Maryland this weekend I can see those letters standing for something more – Networking, Collecting, and Teaching Excellence.
Walking the long halls and gathering in the rooms enabled teachers an opportunity to network across districts and states.  I was able to talk with teachers from around the country and make connections through our common desire to discover best practices in the teaching of reading and writing and bring them back to our students and colleagues.

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Sitting in each session and writing quickly all of the strategies and amazing quotes provided by the speakers inspired me to continue to grow as a teacher and a person.  I collected numerous strategies and books throughout the days I attended, and I am anxious to share them with my school community when I get back.

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Attending this conference was such a treat.  You find yourself in awe of the teaching excellence that abounds among the presenters, the authors, and the attendees.  I loved my experience and I hope to get another opportunity to attend this incredible conference.  Attending the NCTE Conference is something EVERY teacher should do at least once in their career.

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From the Classroom: Happy Picture Book Month!

While I use picture books all year long in my high school classroom, it is a happy coincidence that I use them almost daily during the month of November – picture book month. They make a more regular appearance this month because this is when we shift our focus to a short story unit and picture books are ideal for introducing students to literary elements and easing them into literary analysis.

I start the unit with a fun trip down reading memory lane by putting picture books on display all around the room and asking students to share their earliest reading memories. The excitement is palpable as students giddily share memories of gathering on carpets, or signing books out of libraries, or laying side by side with a parent and a good book. This year I used this article to prompt the sharing and had students reply with a classroom “tweet” on our discussion board.

After our discussion, students were excited (literally racing) to Read more