#LitLead Preview for 12.11.14 – Purposeful Professional Development

Whether administrator or teacher, professional development plays a crucial role in our growth as an educator.  On Thursday, December 11 at 9 p.m. EST, the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) invites you to participate in our #LitLead Twitter chat during which we will examine ways to plan and participate in purposeful professional development.  We’ll reflect on professional development sessions that changed us for the better and discuss how to effectively seek purposeful professional learning opportunities outside your school district.  We’ll discuss the planning process for designing professional learning experiences as well as the follow-up to ensure teachers are supported as they implement their learning.

Here is a preview of some of the questions we’ll discuss:

  • What are your “musts” for PD sessions? What must it offer/include/provide?
  • What are effective ways to decide what a department’s or school’s PD topics will be?
  • How can we create and/or participate in sustained PD (study same topic over time)?
  • If you plan PD, what process do you follow to prepare the sessions?
  • If you plan PD, how do you get buy-in from the attendees?
  • What are the most effective ways to engage attendees in the PD session?
  • If you present PD, how do you know attendees are learning?
  • If you attend off-site PD, how do you decide what workshop/conferences to attend?

We would love to hear your comments and questions, so please join in the chat for a few minutes or all sixty.  We look forward to learning with you!

Heather Rocco (@heatherrocco)
CEL Associate Chair
Supervisor of English Language Arts, Grades 5 – 12
School District of the Chathams, NJ

14 Takeaways from #CEL14

Paul Henry

Attending the Conference on English Leadership Convention in Washington, D.C. provided me a needed retreat. I was encouraged, challenged, and, most of all, inspired by those around me. In an effort to navigate my thoughts and hopefully take the next step, I want to briefly identify fourteen takeaways from CEL ’14. I must give credit to the presenters responsible for the thoughts. I learned from Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Sarah Wessling, Matt Marone, Oona Marie Abrams, Jim Burke, Heather Rocco, Chris Bronke, and more. Some of my thoughts were simply inhaled in the rich atmosphere of the convention, or ideas that blended and connected among multiple sessions. I very much enjoyed connecting more with colleagues from the North Jersey area and beyond.

Here are 14 from CEL14:

1. Students have a fundamental right to know what they are learning each day, why they are learning it, and how it will help them. We need to be clear about our purposes….and my purpose should never be to prepare them for another class or for college or for a test. (Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey)

2. As we guide students, we must guard against cultivating learned helplessness. Are we making students dependent upon us as teachers? A good question to ask each day: How did I prompt students to think for themselves and find answers to my questions and theirs? (Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey)

3. The ones working the hardest in the room are the ones learning. Make sure I’m not the only one learning. (Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey)

4. Am I simply performing texts or am I assisting students as they contend with a complex text? I want to put them in a position of tension with a text and help them work through it. (Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey)

5. Rigor doesn’t just mean difficulty. Rigor is better understood as complexity. Complexity is a measure of the thinking, action, or knowledge needed to complete a task. How many ways can a task be accomplished? Does it require multiple steps, multiple modes of thought and action? (Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey)

6. Precluding failure means teachers are doing all the work. We must give students permission to fail, to learn from failure. Students should be more afraid of mediocrity than they are of failure. The same applies to us as teachers! (Sarah Wessling)

7. Matt Marone provided an excellent example of students studying non-fiction in a way that matters. An earlier session spoke to the belief that a text, closely studied, should prompt action; it should want to make us want to DO something. Matt’s work with his students was an amazing example of truly authentic outcome of his students’ research and study. Though there is not space here to go into all the details, I was reminded of the importance and the potential rewards of having students read, write, listen, and speak with real purpose. No “letters to the board of education” here. (Matt Marone)

8. As we teach writing, we should often ask students, “Are you a better writer after having written this essay?” We should ask this question early and often. In what ways are they improving? Are they aware of their weaknesses and their areas of growth? Does our feedback about one essay inform their approach to the next? (Oona Marie Abrams)

9. Students should lead writing conferences. Based upon their own reflections about their progress, they should identify the things that are working and the things they are struggling with. (Oona Marie Abrams)

10. Effective leaders and teachers disrupt embedded (ineffective) practices. Disruption or interruptions is difficult and sometimes painful, but it leads to growth. (Jim Burke)

11. I am proud to be in a profession where I feel like I’ll never get it completely right. We are always revising, always growing, always learning. (Jim Burke)

12. Being positive in a negative situation is not naiviete–it’s leadership. (Heather Rocco and Chris Bronke)

13. We need to embrace fear and encourage others to embrace fear. Stepping outside our comfort zone is the only path to growth. (Heather Rocco and Chris Bronke)

14. My final takeaway is the lasting knowledge that I am surrounded by inspiring colleagues who are doing brave things for all the right reasons. I am encouraged and challenged to continue to collaborate and build professional relationships that will benefit my students and teachers. Thank you to all who played a role in CEL14 and I look forward to collaborating in the future.

Paul Henry
Supervisor of English
Mountain Lakes High School, NJ

*This blog was reblogged with permission by the writer.  Thank you, Paul!

Collaborative Leadership: #LitLead Preview 10.9.14

Chris Bronke

Chris Bronke

Educational leadership can be a lonely and difficult journey filled with constant change, complex issues and unreasonable expectations. However, leaders must be ready to accept these challenges with enthusiasm so that they create a professional culture that encourages and supports teachers as they design dynamic learning experiences for students. By leading through collaboration, leaders can motivate and empower educators so they can produce successful results and enact changes otherwise thought impossible. So what holds the key to unlocking the power of effective leadership?   Collaboration.

Heather Rocco

Heather Rocco

This Thursday, October 9 at 9 p.m. EST join Chris Bronke and Heather Rocco as they host a #LitLead conversation on how to use collaboration as a means for personal and departmental professional development to keep moving themselves and their teachers forward in their educational practices.


1.  What are the ideal conditions for collaboration amongst teachers and leaders?
2.  If you do not have those conditions, how do you promote collaboration?
3.  In what ways do you and/or your school leaders model effective collaboration?
4.  What issues/efforts lend themselves most effectively to collaboration?
5.  How can leaders promote a culture of collaboration amongst teachers?
6.  Share an example of an effective collaborative effort in which you participated.
7.  Why is it important for leaders to collaborate with other leaders?
8.  What are your best ideas to promote leaders-to-leaders collaborations?


You should also plan to attend the CEL Annual Convention at National Harbor this November 23 – 25 where Chris and Heather will be featured speakers on this topic!  The convention keynote speakers include Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Sarah Brown Wessling, Jim Burke, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. The breakout sessions feature presenters who will discuss how they use collaboration in their classrooms, departments and schools. The convention fee of $165 for CEL members ($190 for NCTE members) includes three meals and two networking receptions as well. While we encourage you to attend the NCTE Convention that immediately precedes the CEL Convention, you are not required to attend both.


We hope to see you on Thursday at 9 p.m. and at CEL’s Annual Convention next month!


Heather Rocco
Supervisor of English Language Arts & Literacy, grades 5 – 12
School District of the Chathams, NJ
Christopher Bronke
English and Communications Department Chair
Downers Grove North High School, IL

To Blog or Not to Blog?

I have recently been thinking about the amount of time I spend working on my writing. For each blog I publish, pages of scribbles, nonsense, rubbish, and incoherent ramblings are produced. I go through multiple revisions, each draft more perfectly crafted (or at least I think) in one area while still frustratingly weak in another. I ask others to preview pieces and provide feedback on the work (sometimes painfully so), and finally, I am able to hit “publish” on the piece–only to read it and realize I still don’t like this word or that sentence.

While many people may call this the textbook definition of insanity, I call it the perfect balance of painful struggle and blissful excitement. However, a colleague and I were talking about blogging the other day, and he admitted he just didn’t see the purpose, wondering why, in a time when our jobs already have us booked beyond anything that remotely resembles a “40-hour work week”, I would go out of my way to work more writing this blog. In that moment, I stumbled to clearly articulate why I do this, but I knew that writing about it would help me crystallize my belief in the power of blogging. So, consider this my meta-blog…the blog to help me realize why I blog.

Chris Bronke

Chris Bronke

1. Because I don’t know what I don’t know until I write about it
When I really stop and think about it, my somewhat new obsession with my own writing (and therefore blogging) came from attending a workshop given by Penny Kittle which focused on strategies for getting students to write more, more creatively, and with greater style. In this workshop, she argued that we write simply because it helps us learn, to uncover things we didn’t know–it is a vehicle to self discovery. She is right. I could write pages and pages about all that I have learned about myself since I began writing frequently upon the returning from that workshop. Words are our we think; it is that simple. So, as Penny did to me in that workshop, I encourage you to explore your words, your thinking, and yourself–write more!

2. Because I have a lot to say (for better or worse)
While I am not always sure if people really want to hear what I have to say, that is the great thing about a blog; no one is forcing anyone to read what I (or any blogger) write. However, in writing all that I have over the last year for this blog (as well as all that didn’t make it to this blog), I have learned that my thoughts on education are important, that they do matter, and that people do want to hear them. More importantly, people in education want to hear your voice, too. We are blessed to live in a world that provides us with so many ways to share our voice; don’t miss out on the opportunity to share in writing–blog!

3. Because teachers need to do a better job of self-promoting
Be default, teachers are selfless; they give their all rarely looking for or expecting anything in return; it is a beautiful sacrifice and one that shines a light on the true people teachers are. However, in a time in which that light is being darkened by a cloud of media misinformation, political agendas, and an over dependence on standardized test scores to determine success, teachers must fight back–refocus that light on to all amazing ways we help kids. My blog has become very personal; it’s a confusing juxtaposition insomuch as the writing, in and of itself, has become more reflective, more personal, all the while the amount of people reading and commenting on it has steadily increased since I started blogging. However, it is through this increased audience that I feel I have found a voice in self-promotion, and most importantly not just for myself, but for the profession as a whole. Will you join me in sharing the good word of all teachers do for kids?

4. Because it makes me a better model for my students
I love teaching writing. I always have and always will; however, I have become exponentially better at it– more honest, more real–since I started blogging. Why? Because I am going through the same worries with word choice, the same struggles with syntax, and the same consternation over commas. Because I am concurrently engaged in a never-ending battle for non-existent perfection that taunts and haunts us…all while rewarding us in ways few other endeavors can. Simply put, writing for my blog makes my students and I equals. It isn’t teacher and student; it isn’t “trained” writer and novice; it is a community of learners equally struggling to make our words dance, to create a joyous cadence with our sentences, and to allow our emotions to permeate the page and our readers’ hearts. Will you join me in being a writing model for your students?

5. Because it is fun
One of my favorite quotes from anything I have ever read is so beautiful in its poetic simplicity: “Words, words, words” (Shakespeare, II. ii). Here we see Hamlet both having fun with Polonius while also expressing the unspeakable power of language. It is just that simple: playing with language is fun. Writing is a “1.21 gigawat” trip back to the future. It forces us to reconsider our believes, reexamine our ideals, and defend our thoughts. But more than anything, writing gives us a pathway to play, to have fun…a chance to be a kid again, using language to do that back flip off of the swing set, to race down the monkey bars, or skin our knee falling off our bike. So, the next time you are having a bad day, frustrated by the mundane and seemingly pointless bureaucracy of education, take a few minutes and WRITE! Because it is fun!

Christopher Bronke
English and Communications Department Chair
Downers Grove North High School, IL

Reposted with permission from Chris’s blog.

Why I Joined CEL and Why You Should Too

To be perfectly honest, I joined the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) in 2012 because I wanted to go to Las Vegas where the NCTE Convention was going to take place in November. Now before you judge me, what you need to understand is that I didn’t want to go to Las Vegas to play the slots in Win City, or to marvel at Cirque Du Soleil, or to embark in any of the tawdry behavior that makes one pledge that whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I wanted to go to Vegas for perhaps the nerdiest reason of all: I missed my West Coast colleagues and friends, who I erroneously assumed would be attending the conference. Joining CEL seemed to be a genius way to extend our time together at NCTE.

Gina Sipley

Gina Sipley

Of course, I use the word nerdy, lovingly. Teaching, at its finest, is a collaborative and cooperative endeavor; we grow exceedingly close to those with whom we work. In 2012 I had recently relocated from a small independent school in Oregon to a small independent school in New York. Although I grew up in New York and it has always been the place I call home, it was disorienting to return after having lived for a decade in other parts of the country. My return to New York was filled with the reunion of beloved family and friends who nurtured most aspects of my life, but anyone who has ever taught knows that your professional life at times becomes your entire life. And it was in my professional life in NY that I felt a bit out of step and alone. So attending the NCTE-CEL Annual Convention, seemed like the perfect chance to reconnect with old colleagues, the friends with whom I could reveal the dirty laundry, so to speak, of my curriculum and pedagogy and who could help me without judgment and without repercussion (when one works in a private school without the protections of tenure there is always a sense that one false move could be the end of your career). This was a brilliant plan to reunite with my Oregon friends in Vegas except for one tiny problem: I was the only one who could get funding to attend the conference. Thus, I went to Vegas, alone.*

Except this is what I learned in Vegas, when you join CEL, you are never alone.

What makes CEL so different from other organizations is that its annual convention is purposefully designed to be small. NCTE is a mammoth organization with a spectacular, but overwhelming conference with ballrooms bursting full of eager participants and a seemingly unlimited list of sessions occurring concurrently. Each special event requires an RSVP and a bit of pre-planning in terms of allocating additional funds. The CEL Convention was a welcome respite from the bustle of NCTE. With its endearing Hospitality Committee that immediately greets and identifies newcomers, someone has taken the time to seek you out and make sure that they get to know you beyond your name badge.

It is becoming increasingly rare for a convention to include meals within the cost of registration, but this is where CEL gets it right. Food is community, and at CEL, you have several opportunities to eat with the entire conference while listening to dynamic keynote speakers. This inclusive design encourages more quality conversations among participants because everyone has broken bread together and participated in the same keynote sessions. A particularly wonderful feature of the conference are the facilitated dinners where several veteran members of CEL each choose a restaurant and participants have the option of signing up to a join a group and either make new friends or reunite with others. One of the worst things about attending a conference for the first time can be a solo evening meal in a strange city far from your loved ones, but at that very first night of CEL you are instantly among friends.

CEL has a wonderful intergenerational quality and what perhaps most impresses me about the organization is its commitment to fostering leadership among its novice members. They offer an incredible Emerging Leaders Fellowship, which I was privileged to receive, that offers registration remission and two-year long support with an inspiring mentor. There is an active effort to recruit members from a variety of different types of institutions and across various geographical spaces. Moreover CEL’s embrace of educational technology extends the walls of the conference to a continuous thread of discussion during Thursday #litlead chats, curated #CEL conference tweets, and our blog. The inclusion of educational technologies allow us to not only connect with educators nationwide, but to better understand what’s going on in the classrooms that are physically close to you, sometimes even in your own building.

This November will mark my third CEL Convention. Where I am excited to learn how to become a more effective and empathetic leader in our collaborative world, what I am, secretly, most excited about is connecting with my CEL colleagues, who in a very short space of time, have become old friends.


Gina Sipley (@gsipley)
Instructor of Reading and Basic Education
Nassau Community College

Making Student Work the Center of Teacher Work

I am consistently pleased by and proud of the Leyden High School English department’s collaborative energy. We write objectives together. We exchange lesson frameworks and email classroom activities. We share unit and reading calendars. We co-write quizzes, tests, study guides, and rubrics. When I think about what happens at our best Wednesday morning meetings, I conjure up an image of committed and competent educators huddled around tables, purposefully planning, problem-solving, and producing.

But after three days attending the CEL Summer Institute on Critical Issues: Assessment, I have to admit that the image no longer materializes with the same nobility. The excellent character and competence of my faculty remains intact, as does the quality of the work being produced. What’s changed is that the CEL institute has thrown an important absence into sharp relief.

John Rossi

John Rossi

When my colleagues and I collaborate, we focus primarily on teaching artifacts, the learning materials we develop and create. We need to shift our energies to work with learning artifacts: responses, essays, and projects that students have submitted as evidence of their learning. As chairperson, I need to direct my colleagues to devote more of their collaborative time to the second (and more important) half of the teaching and learning cycle.

To be fair, it’s not that we ignore this part. We regularly look at large sets of exam data together in order to identify troublesome test questions and guide revisions. And I know my teachers interrogate their students’ performance constantly and in various ways. They also adjust their instruction accordingly. Thus, I know solid formative assessment is taking place.

Yet we’ve been operating under this paradigm: we review summative assessment data together but monitor and respond to formative assessment evidence alone.

Unfortunately, the cut scores on data reports rarely foster sincere discussion. Because they are reductive in nature, teachers usually respond reductively: “The students bombed this question, we need to revise it.”

Reviewing student work is different. At the CEL institute, we talked about the inherent value in conducting a collaborative examination of student artifacts. Among other benefits, it may allow teachers to form norms for grading and expectations, discover or share best practices, illustrate how students progress as they move through the program, and monitor whether or not the tasks assigned yield products that reflect the department’s published goals or values.

The call to look at student work together is just one way that the CEL Institute reinforced the importance of teacher decision making in assessment matters, a highlight of the NCTE position statement on formative assessment. While I understand and appreciate the power of data to inform instruction, I sometimes worry that “the numbers” are presumed to be superior to the careful, informed observations of a well-trained, caring professional. There’s room for both, and I hope to assert the power of the latter in the coming year by requiring my teachers to endow their students’ work with the bagel crumbs and coffee stains of their coworkers.

In addition to the singular takeaway above, I’d also like to share some thoughts about the conference as a whole.

The three day institute provided invaluable networking opportunities. Because CEL specifically attracts disciplinary leaders, I found myself working with colleagues whose concerns were identical, not just similar or related, to my own. Moreover, each and every one of the CEL organizers and facilitators demonstrated his or her commitment to English leadership and experience-driven expertise in an approachable and effortless manner. I left the conference with contact information for exponentially more peers and role models than I had previously.

All these feel-goods were accomplished because the institute included a purposeful and practical structure, rather than a routine series of whiplash-inducing lectures on loosely-related topics. The keynote speakers and sponsors remained squarely focused on issues of assessment, and for the majority of the time, participants were in small groups exploring different strands related to assessment.

I chose to work with others in the Curriculum Program strand, investigating the role of assessment in an organization’s scope and sequence. In that context, I had the opportunity present my unique plans and goals for the English department at my district through a consultancy protocol discussion. It was powerful to listen–and not respond–while others with a direct knowledge of my position and the ELA content offered concerns and troubleshooting about my unique and timely problem.

Given the tremendous, personal gains I made in these three short days, I’m excited to continue working with CEL and its members in the future. And I wholeheartedly encourage others to take advantage of this powerful learning network.

John Rossi (@JRossiLeyden)
English Department Chairperson
Leyden High School, IL

Changing a Stubborn School Culture

In high school, I was involved in a variety of extracurricular activities. I was a varsity gymnast. I was on student council; attended football and basketball games; went to a few high school dances (but only when I had a date because that was the unspoken social rule at my school), and took advantage of volunteer opportunities. I was proud of the school I attended and looking back now I realize that a large part of my high school social life revolved around school activities. Nerdy? Maybe. But, I enjoyed those four years immensely, and I did well in school.  It seems I enjoyed those four years enough to return to a high school and to dedicate my time working with teenagers. My guess is that if you are reading this, you enjoyed being in school as well, and it is part of the reason you returned as a teacher. But what about those students who only put in the required attendance time? Could they be enjoying their high school experiences more by getting involved in extracurricular activities? Would their grades improve by simply joining a club or sport? Data suggests that they would. So how do we as educators encourage reluctant or uninvolved students to become involved in extracurricular activities and in turn improve the culture of our schools?

Stephanie Fike

Stephanie Fike

We start by making the 7:00 am – 3:00pm school day more enjoyable for our students so that they are more likely to stay after hours or return in the evening. Before you roll your eyes and tell me there is no room for fun while aligning to common core standards or practicing for the ACT, think about your favorite class or your favorite teacher. What made it enjoyable? Was it an activity, a routine, an approach to learning that you connected with? Maybe it was a personality trait of the teacher, or maybe it was the first cIass in which you felt understood or part of the group.  What if someone from that class, or the teacher of that class, invited you to become part of a club or activity you had never tried before? Would you have taken that risk? This is exactly the issue the staff at Wauconda High School, in Wauconda, IL, is examining.

Using a database program called 5 Star, Wauconda High School learned that it is operating within a 50/50 culture. The data showed that slightly less than half of our students participated in at least one activity/sport/club.  This means slightly more than half of our students remain uninvolved in anything other than required attendance in classes. This revelation was disheartening. Certainly, we want to create a stronger feeling of inclusion for our student body and change our 50/50 culture, not only because we are aware that participation in extracurricular activities improves grade point averages, but also because we want our students to have great experiences, fond memories, and skill sets such as time management, self motivation, and self confidence.

If we can identify which students choose to remain at school past the required time to participate in activities, and pinpoint which students never return in the evening hours for performances or athletic events, then we can start to discuss why. We suspect that some of our students have after school jobs that make it difficult to participate. We also suspect that some of our students are charged with caring for younger siblings while their parents work. Sadly, some of our students opt to not participate because they do not buy in to our mission, or they feel that they do not fit in. So, how do we remove those obstacles? In all honesty, that remains to be seen. The 2014-2015 school year will be the rollout year for Wauconda High School. We plan to use the preliminary data from last year to guide our focus.

This year is going to require a great deal of individual and group effort on behalf of both students and staff to change this 50/50 culture.  It will be a calculated, sometimes awkward effort. But make no mistake, it will be worth it for all parties involved. I envision a culture this year in which teachers and staff speak directly to students about whether or not they are going to attend a club’s meeting because it sounds like something the student may enjoy. I envision faculty and staff handing a student a free ticket to the homecoming dance and encouraging that student to bring a friend. Don’t worry student council advisors; this is not lost revenue. These students had no plans to purchase tickets to homecoming, but they may come now since someone has included them. I see a student inviting a classmate to show up at his club’s meeting tomorrow because the two of them have worked well on a class project and that bridge has already begun being built. Activities directors will invite specific students to free pizza lunches in order to discuss what clubs the non-participating students may have an interest in starting. There may be sibling days where clubs welcome in the younger siblings of active members, or there may be off site meetings now and then at locations other than the school that might attract a few newcomers. The possibilities are endless, and part of our mission this year will be to explore some of them.

The ultimate goal for Wauconda High School is to improve our 50/50 culture. We would like to see much more than half of our students participating in extra curriculars, feeling more connected to our school community, and in turn performing better in their classes. We do not let our students opt out of participating in our classrooms because we know that they learn best by doing; we should be viewing extra curricular activities in the same light.

Stephanie Fike (@sfike11)
English Teacher
Wauconda High School, Wauconda, IL.

#LitLead 8.14.14 Preview – Launching Independent Reading

After reading the work of Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle, English teachers at Chatham Middle School and Chatham High School teachers implemented independent reading into their middle and high school classrooms.  By simply giving students the time and the resources to read books they choose, our school has truly become a community of readers.  Tonight’s #LitLead guest hosts, Gina Bakaj, Oona Abrams and Christina McCabe, are excited to share what they have learned and to learn from all of you!  We look forward to chatting  about independent reading tonight at 8:30 pm ET!


Below is a sneak preview of the discussion questions:
1. Why is IR important? What are your goals in implementing IR?
2. How do you get student buy-in to IR?
3. On Day 1, how do you introduce IR to your Ss?
4. How do you help Ss find their first book choices?
5. What are creative and authentic ways to share book suggestions?
6. How do you build an authentic community of readers around IR?
7. How can you get admins and teachers involved in IR?
8. How do you include parents in IR?
9. What do you (the teacher) do during IR time?
10. How do you assess IR authentically?
11. How do you keep track of what Ss read?
12. What books will you recommend to Ss this year?


And here is Penny Kittle’s video I showed the English department at our opening meeting last year that inspired even the most dubious members of my team.


Reading 2011


See you online tonight!


~Heather Rocco
Supervisor of English Language Arts & Literary, Grades 5 – 12

Honest Prose

Recently, I read an essay which quoted the following from Kingsley Amis: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since [World War II], it’s Workshop.” Though I wasn’t quite sure what about it struck me, I annotated the sentence so that I could return to it. A few weeks later a colleague mentioned how one of the teachers she supervises defended her effectiveness in the classroom based—among other things—on the fact that she “ran a great writing workshop.”

I cringed.

David Padilla

David Padilla

Thinking back to Amis’s words, I think I now know why the teacher’s statement elicited this reaction. Admittedly, I don’t know if the teacher in question does or does not run a “great writing workshop,” but I do know that simply stating she does something doesn’t necessarily mean she does. Nor does it mean that her perception of what is or is not “great” is accurate. After all, what does it mean to “workshop” something? Are all workshops created equally? Does her understanding of a writing workshop match up with mine? Who knows?

ELA teachers absolutely need a common vocabulary to discuss what we do. Especially in an age of “standards” and “accountability” (Two more words which give me pause.), we need to be able to speak to each other in ways which open the door to transferability, to talk about things that work in a meaningful way. I fear, however, the ELA world has unwittingly piled on layer after layer of catch phrases which simply give the impression of clarity. We do PD in our PLCs so teachers can brainstorm best practices for anything from formative assessments to literature circles to critical thinking skills.

You get the idea.

Way back in 1916, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch produced a handbook of sorts which has consistently remained in publication and which has been a staple for ELA teachers for nearly a century. In it, he took on a variety of topics, but one—in a section “On Jargon”—seemed to capture a dilemma we all face. The writers too often retreat behind stock phrases and clichés to capture their ideas.  Quiller-Couch calls such empty language “sham prose.” He tells us that only “by clearing this sham prose out of the way, we shall the better deal with honest prose when we come to it.”  Each year, it seems, I begin my classes by declaring war on automatic phrases which actually don’t say anything. I have students who disengage their minds as they reach for some pat saying that they’ve heard thrown around in ELA classrooms. For obvious reasons, educators need to make sure we hold ourselves to the same standards. We, too, need to avoid the trap of pseudo-clarity. Don’t assume everyone agrees on what we mean. Moreover, we need to make sure that what we mean when we reach into the barrel of stock phrases accurately captures our intent. There must be at least some measure of understanding of what we are addressing.

I don’t mean to be simplistic. After all, it would be inefficient–or even reductive–simply to pursue an endless series of “clarifications.” But too often, I have been in professional meetings where the “sham prose” ends up veiling—or outright overwhelming—the “honest prose.” Someone spouts off the latest collection of Common Core-appropriate phrases or terms, and the eyes of all participants simply glaze over. The retreat to jargonism unfortunately allows us to disengage. When someone begins dipping into the well of stock phrases, what follows is just too predictable. The most electrifying, engaging, and productive presentations I’ve seen have been remarkably jargon-free.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell famously advocated the adoption of six “rules” for writing which included, among other things, the directive that writers “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I’m not so simplistic as to think that one can—or even should—abide unfailingly this rule; after all, ELA teachers need to be able to provide some kind of umbrella terminology so we can move on to the important conversations about improving reading and writing. Still, in the same essay, Orwell tells us, “[i]n prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” My concern is that we sometimes fall back on (or surrender to) what we assume to be a common understanding packaged in the vocabulary we share. While a certain amount of clarification arises in conversation between capable people, we’ve all had the experience of expecting the terminology umbrella to cover something which it doesn’t, in fact, cover.

So what does this mean for ELA leaders? Basically, leaders at all levels simply need to be attuned to the dangers of slipping into jargonese. We need to do all we can to make sure that stock phrases do not undermine the potential for progress. In our classrooms, in department meetings, in district meetings, or at professional gatherings, we need to work consciously to make sure the language we value doesn’t undercut us. This may mean that we are mindful of dedicating more time to framing conversations, to setting clear definitions/descriptions for common terminology. But it is, I believe, time well spent. We should also be clear that passive agreement about vocabulary won’t necessarily ensure effectiveness; however, it might provide a baseline for making sure that we’re not hiding behind jargon. As the poet, critic, and teacher Donald Hall writes, “Jargon is a language by which we attempt to prove that we are the initiated, and to keep noninitiates in confusion and befuddlement. It is language, not to communicate, but to exclude.”  ELA teachers purport to make our professional work the improvement of communication, the expansion of opportunity, the pursuit of clarity. We just want to make sure that we don’t let the vocabulary of this pursuit get in the way.

David Padilla
English Instructor & Upper School Head
Baylor School, TN