The new year is a great time for both students and teachers to reflect on literacy practices and set some new goals. I decided to share my reflections and goals with you, and hope you all will have some time to do the same. Reflection and goal-setting is something we can do for ourselves, and it is always worth the effort!
I have evolved as a teacher over a career that spans 38 years of classroom teaching, facilitation of the K-5 gifted program, and extensive work as a writing extension teacher. This year is my 6th year as an independent consultant who often serves as a literacy coach. Perhaps my biggest reason for wanting to be in this role is my commitment to the changes in instruction that take place when you put into practice what you’ve learned. I look back on my experiences with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, and I know how important it is to “think big but start small!” – as Michael Fullan suggests.
When you begin to understand something new, you try to also figure out how it fits into what you are already doing. I think about the addition of portfolios in my own classroom, and how I first started with just a writing portfolio before eventually creating a portfolio across the content areas as well. As a literacy coach, I had to recognize when a teacher gets it – has this new understanding, and is ready to put it into practice. Then I had to think about what resources and supports he/she will need to be successful.
I have learned that helping my students grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and people is the greatest gift I can give them. Choice has always been the most important factor in achieving this gift, but I identified another component this past fall.
Lu’s interview emphasized what I had read in research articles and seen in best practice presentations: the need for multicultural literature in the classroom. Although this knowledge had influenced the novels I read, taught, and book talked, I observed firsthand the power that books can have on students when they recognize themselves in the authors and characters they read.
Emika Chen, Warcross’s female protagonist, left an indelible imprint on Cynthia, one of my current eighth graders. The student’s name is a pseudonym. As a seventh grader last year, I watched Cynthia grow into a confident, young woman. She developed her voice as a writer and found the confidence to engage in conversations with her teachers and peers. As a returning eighth grader this fall, she read Warcross. This independent reading book fostered a new level of agency that I had not yet seen.
While our reading conferences appeared standard—discussing characters, setting, plot, theme, and craft—the novel’s setting and the characters’ names became particularly interesting to Cynthia. During one of our early conversations, she wanted to clarify the change in setting from New York City to Tokyo, and she brought up how Emika Chen’s name revealed her Chinese ancestry. She also wanted to look up the name Hideo Tanaka in order to pronounce it correctly.
As an avid reader, Cynthia has read, discussed, and analyzed many books since September 2018; however, Warcross was the first book that she voiced her interest in the novel’s setting and the characters’ race. Her interest moved beyond simply reading the book for enjoyment to investigating Lu’s style. By studying and understanding the craft and decisions of a fellow Chinese American writer, Cynthia found her own agency as a writer. Cynthia recognized herself in both the protagonist and author which inspired her to make similar writing choices. This influence became evident during our short story genre study, for Cynthia’s final piece revealed a correlation between Lu’s novel and her own writing.
In Cynthia’s previous writing pieces and school assignments, she left her characters’ races and stories’ settings as ambiguous. While I never thought much about this writerly decision—and perhaps neither did Cynthia—this changed after reading Warcross. Seeing Lu as an empowered Asian female writer and Emika as the representation and extension of that authority inspired Cynthia to develop her own writing in a similar fashion. In the weeks that followed her reading of Lu’s novel, Cynthia spent much time crafting her latest short story with Asian inspired names: Ayane Hiyori, Kaito, Ruka Kanon, and Chika Ronshaku. Moreover, the details she included such as “sakura hair pin” and “red and gold kimono” provided the reader with context clues to help them understand that the story took place in Asia. Not only did Cynthia incorporate Asian names and cultural details into her short story, but also she developed her main character, Chika, with similar director traits as Emika. The more power Chika possessed the more confident Cynthia became. She used her writing as an opportunity to explore her own agency through her protagonist.
The manifestation of Cynthia’s authority did not stop with our short story unit but continued to grow during the weeks that followed. In November, Cynthia brought in Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection and Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection, two Manga books. This marked the first time that she brought in Manga for independent reading. During our reading conferences, we focused on literary elements and craft decisions, and we explored interesting moves made by Ito in terms of the storyline and artwork. Knowing Cynthia is an artist, I asked her if she would be interested in creating her own Manga for her next Self-Selected Writing Piece. Excited about this prospective idea, she shared her Manga with her table partner. Immediately, the two girls became invested in the project. Together they researched drawing tips, began developing possible plotlines, and sketched character ideas. Additionally, the pair brainstormed character names, settling on Ying and Yang for their twin girl protagonists.
With this new writing piece, Cynthia is now sharing her agency with her peers. She is writing herself into existence and finding her real-life director’s role through her ability to create strong Asian female characters. Lu’s work empowered Cynthia to write and discover her own authority in the world.
Choice enabled Cynthia to select books and authors that reflect who she is, yet the invitation to produce and manipulate language gave Cynthia her power. To facilitate my students’ growth, I must support them as they find their voices. This guidance in tandem with choice become the greatest gift the Writing-Reading Workshop can offer, for it allows students like Cynthia to establish who they are and who they wish to become.
How are you empowering your students in your classroom? Please share below!
For years I struggled with the need to teach my ninth grade students how to write a standard five-paragraph literary analysis. I knew I was responsible for moving them up to their future English classes with this skill, but it was also torturous teaching the formulaic approach to this writing task. As we moved through the lessons, students eyes would glaze over, my eyes would glaze over, and we all generally lost interest in writing. To make modeling easier, the essay prompts were all dictated by me in response to texts also selected by me. The result was bland, repetitive writing that lacked creativity or thought. This also made grading torturous.
Then, a few years ago when I started the C3WP approach to teaching argument and research writing, I experimented with applying this method to literary analysis writing as well. Accordingly, rather than reading one text together as a class then writing an essay analyzing some literary element within that text, we started to read many texts centered on a common motif and write in short bursts about the texts daily. After we had read and discussed around a topic for a while, we would revisit the texts as a whole and ask ourselves “so what?” These responses turned into a literary analysis that was developed after many days of thinking and pulled from several texts. As a result, the writing process and lessons got a lot messier, but the engagement and thinking grew exponentially.
Around the same time I started experimenting with this new approach to teaching literary analysis writing, I stumbled across this quote from Kelly Gallagher:
Reading helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.
Now, whenever my students are gearing up to write a formal literary analysis, I share these words with them and prompt them to write about how the texts have enlarged them intellectually and/or emotionally. This prompt has much less structure than previous writing prompts that read something like “How does the plot development of this story communicate theme?” or “Identify a dynamic character and explain how their change influences the downfall.” As a result the thinking and writing is all over the place and the students are the ones putting in the hard work, with me there in the background to confer and support them along the way. I still model how I would approach the writing task, but my model often varies greatly from their writing and only serves as a support rather than a strict structure.
For example, we are just wrapping up a unit in which we studied a series of pieces dealing with the transitory nature of home for many people. While digging into this idea, we thought about and discussed a variety of texts: a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a chapter from The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, a short documentary called “Border Purgatory” from The Atlantic, and a book called Dreams and Nightmares: I Fled Alone to the United States When I was Fourteen by Liliana Velásquez. Students were also invited to find and read texts dealing with the topic on their own and to write and reflect on their own personal experiences with home.
The following is how one student, a recent immigrant from Venezuela and an emerging English language learner, introduced his essay:
And here is the introduction from another student in the same class:
Both writers have made insightful observations and crafted well-written introductions to their essays. Rather than the dread I used to feel at taking home a batch of essays to grade, I am excited to read these and to see what everyone else’s takeaways are.
What are some ways you move your students beyond the basic literary analysis?
December is a busy month for teachers, but it also tends to be a reflective one as well. The weeks leading up to a break from school or transition to a new semester and a new year are a natural time to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going. For many of us, that reflection might include looking back at moments of transformative professional learning and growth, whether at a conference, a school-based event, or within another type of professional or collegial network. Have we learned something new? Do we understand something differently or more deeply? What will this look like in our learning spaces?
My colleague and co-writer Mary Buckelew and I had the good fortune to attend and present at the NCTE/NWP conference in Baltimore, along with several Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project colleagues, and Mary and I also stayed for the Conference on English Leadership (CEL), immediately following NCTE and NWP.
There were, of course, many highlights and significant moments, big and small. Finding new friends, meeting Twitter friends in real life, and getting deeper insight into ongoing relationships are all part of the experience. I’m grateful to all the people I had the opportunity to learn from and with, whether presenting or attending a session, or sharing a conversation or meal. I wanted to share a few highlights from three of the speakers:
One was the author Tommy Orange’s address on Saturday morning. I had read the highly acclaimd There There, and was looking forward to this presentation. Once Orange began talking, the space, with perhaps 500 people, felt intimate. Orange shared his journey from his early school experience as a sports-loving, non-reader who showed no literary promise whatsoever (corroborated by his first and second grade teachers!) to a young bookstore employee who got turned on to fiction when he took breaks from moving and re-shelving books. A love of reading led to a passion for writing, writing the books that he wished had been available to him. Like most writers, he wrote what he knew. When asked if they were literally true stories, he explained that people have “earned their stories” and are not his to take. No matter, his characters come alive on the page, and his words captivated us in the convention hall.
Two other memorable and moving talks took place at the CEL conference on Monday. At a breakfast session on Monday, Dr. Dana Stachowiak, an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the Women’s Studies and Resource Center at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, presented on the topic of “Creating a Community of Care.” She began by inviting us to ask ourselves how we can be fully present during our time together. How many of us had to put our phones down and resist the urge to tweet that suggestion? Dr. Stachowiak entered into her topic by using herself as an example of someone who challenges our perceptions of the gender binary, and guided us in reflecting on the characteristics that we have come to identify as male and female. With wisdom, humor, and grace, she led us to examine our gender biases and how to create healing-centered engagement at the school and community level.
Later that day, at the CEL lunch, we heard from Dr. Kim Parker, who is assistant director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is one of the co-founders of #DisruptTexts. Her talk was called “#TheyDeserve: Creating Transformational Literacy Spaces with and for Young People.” Dr. Parker posed the question: “What does it mean to get out of kids’ way?” She spoke passionately about the need for us to share our internal reading lives with our students, and to set the conditions for them to create their own identities as readers. She went on to share examples of how she has approached this work in a variety of ways, including independent reading, Genius Hour projects, and Rumination Essays.
A common thread seemed to be that each of these presenters brought their full self to the presentation, and encouraged us to do the same. They took us on an exploration into the way their passions and vulnerabilities have infused their lives as writers, educators, and unique humans finding ways to navigate the world, and left us with a call to support our students and colleagues on our own journeys. Dr. Parker concluded her talk with a quote from Octavia Butler: “All that you change, changes you.”
What changes have you made this year? How have you changed? How will you share those changes with your students and colleagues?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University and a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. She is a long-term member of NCTE and a new member of CEL. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers:Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).
Things You Learn as a First-Timer at NCTE 2019by Courtney Knowlton
1. If you coincidentally find yourself in an elevator with Kelly Gallagher, don’t be afraid to tell him that Reading Reasons made you a better teacher.
2. Ideas and books will fly at you in every direction. Make a quick note of things, like ‘Read Woke,’ that you want to look into more later.
3. Stock up on the playful badge ribbons, such as “I’m a page turner” and “Word Nerd.” They will go fast!
4. Standing in line at George Takei’s book signing is more than worth it for the chance to listen to his husband’s quips and to experience George’s appreciation for teachers firsthand.
5. Make use of group texts to plan meals together. It is an ideal time to reflect and to hear stories about that time in New Orleans when a writing marathon included a carousel.
6. Download the NCTE conference app. You’re going to need your own “personal assistant” to keep all those times and room numbers straight. You do not want to miss Ralph Fletcher discussing visual literacies using a zoomed in puffin photo.
7. Listen to your mentor when she tells you to wear comfortable shoes. Don’t let blisters slow you down when you’re trying to get from that poster session regarding video grading to a translanguaging presentation several city blocks away within the convention center.
8. Also, listen to her when she tells you to bring an extra suitcase for all the books you will receive for free/purchase. No one wants to be the person sitting on the ground surrounded by her toppled stack of titles because she didn’t come prepared.
9. Make time for decompressing and processing, maybe in the hotel hot tub.
10. Attend the NWP Brunch. It helps you remember that you are truly part of a writing movement.
A first experience perspective of NCTE by Sharon Williams
In the weeks leading up to attending NCTE for the first time, I considered each session carefully as I perused through the offerings posted in the online schedule for each day. I honestly thought that I would be attending professional development workshops that would offer me ideas on how to enhance my teaching practices in my classroom. And, while this was one of the ultimate aftereffects of attending, NCTE was so much more. For me, the conference not only offered me the benefit of useful tools that can readily be implemented into my classroom, but it also afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with peers, meet with mentors known personally and from afar, and to reflect upon inclusiveness and social justice in my own practices.
One session, in particular, that stands out to me is YA Literature and Teaching Poverty. The presenters were dynamic and passionate about the subject of childhood poverty and hunger and the impact that it has upon the learning environment. They created and shared a unit with attendees that included book speed dating, a poverty simulation, and argument essays. Students chose novels addressing the topic of poverty and its impact on not only individuals but also society as a whole. The chosen novels were read in literature circles. Students were required to write an analysis of their novels with a focus on various themes such as the relationship between poverty and power.
In addition, the teachers utilized the PBS Series, Poor Kids to drive home the effects of poverty and hunger in the lives of children prior to participating in the simulation and reflection activity. Finally, students were asked to choose a social justice issue related to poverty, craft a claim, and develop an argumentative essay upon that claim.
At the end of the presentation, the presenters shared student writings crafted during the implementation of this unit. As an attendee, I found it to be very moving. In the samples share, students were thoughtful and reflective in their arguments.
Even though the unit presented in this session is for 10th-grade, it is my intention to collaborate with my 8th-grade LA department team to include portions of the unit in our hero’s journey unit in January.
Standout Speakers by Janice Ewing
Three standout speakers for me were Tommy Orange at NCTE, and Dr. Dana Stachowiak and Dr. Kim Parker at CEL. They were all passionate and memorable. I’ll be sharing more about their presentations in my blog post on December 4th.
What if… by Kelly Virgin
At the very end of a long and packed four-day conference, I attended the NWP brunch and was invited to spend some time reflecting through a What if poem:
What if... I'd said I'm too busy this year? I don't want to spend the money the professional days the time the energy to travel to NCTE. I wouldn't have gathered around tables and talked with educators from as far as the West Indies and near as "a few blocks down the road." I wouldn't have shaken the hand of a mentor idol and thanked him for his inspiration. I wouldn't have rekindled old friendships and sparked new ones. I wouldn't have written poetry and inquiry questions and personal narratives and new plans for Monday. I wouldn't have opened my eyes and my heart and my mind to a wealth of innovative and imperative ideas. What if I'd stayed home instead?
I hope to see you all at NCTE in Denver next fall!
I arrived at the Baltimore Conference center on Thursday morning and happily bumped into Pauline Schmidt, PAWLP director, who had invited me to join PAWLP fellows to lead a roundtable the next day. This was my third NCTE conference and, by far, the most transformative, because of how much I felt a part of communities of educators.
One of these is an on-line community of educators. Through @ValBrown’s #cleartheair and #disrupttexts, I began learning from educators of color and reading books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and White Rage by Carol Anderson and Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed.
At a Thursday workshop on Identity, Inquiry, and Equity, Jess Lifshitz, a 5th grade teacher who I followed on Twitter and through her blogs (https://crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com/) shared how she teaches a critical reading process. “We can give them a critical reading process that they can apply to the reading they do in the world and the ways in which they live and interact with others in the world” (J. Lifshitz, NCTE 2019). This is something I am striving to do with my students constantly and year round.
Another presenter, Sara K. Ahmed, shared the importance of examining our own privileges as well as helping our students to recognize their privileges. On Saturday, I was able to speak with Sara in between sessions in the hall and thank her for her book, Being the Change, that a year ago, gave me the courage to start to explicitly bring identity into my classroom with my fifth graders through choices of texts, topics we study, and discussions we have.
Tricia Ebarvia, a PAWLP fellow and #disrupttext founder, led us in creating our own timelines and explained how our students’ time lines can be shared and discussed. Tricia shared Beverly Daniel Tatum’s (2000) work, “Who I am? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am” (Tatum, The Complexity of Identity: “Who am I?”).
In addition, I grew closer to the PAWLP community. I became a PAWLP fellow two years ago. I had the pleasure of presenting at last year’s PAWLP day and am a part of the Anti-Bias Book club. Hanging out over dinners in restaurants, sharing pizza in a hotel lobby and talking long after the pizza had gone cold, enjoying s’mores and finding more books to buy, and diving deep into our passions and worries as educators, wives, mothers, and citizens, we connected and I felt lucky to be part of the PAWLP community.
And that was even before the Sunday brunch when PAWLP directors, Mary Buckelew and Janice Ewing, authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019) presented. I had attended their workshop the previous day, along with other PAWLP fellows, and loved being guided by Mary and Janice and Liz Mathews to creatively reflect on my research question through sketching and poetry and sharing. At the brunch, in addition to hearing Mary and Janice talk about action research, we also got hear from Brian Kelley about his use of sketching to help slow down kid watching and noticing, and from Courtney Knowlton who shared her discussion with a colleague that helped her refine her action research, and Liz Mathews’ use of art to reflect. I felt lucky to be a part of such an incredible group of educators and grateful I had been able to spend time with fellow PAWLP educators.