Challenging High-Achieving BIPOC Young People in ELA Classrooms


I’m fresh off my tenth summer teaching writing in the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard. My students are high-achieving young people who attend public high schools in Boston and some surrounding cities. Nearly all are BIPOCs, with limited financial means. These are young people that are proficient at “doing school.” They do their homework, will often complete multiple drafts of a project, complete their required readings, and are often viewed favorably by their teachers. They are dreams to teach. 

When we meet early in the five-week course, they are already uneasy, as they’ve heard about my policy of frequent revisions and writing assignments with no prescribed thesis statement. I change the course every summer, but what has remained consistent is that young people generate what they want to write about within the genre of study, topics which have most recently included open letters, ruminations, and Letters of Recommendation (from The New York Times). 

Ten years’ worth of teaching in this program, and even longer in urban public schools, has taught me that the writing we do in the summer is quite different from the writing they return to once school begins. Sometimes they email me during the year to report on what they’re reading, or to share something they’ve written, but, for the most part, what happens in the summer stays in the summer. 

What I’ve been thinking about and that has gotten much clearer to me is how to bridge that summer work with the work of school. More specifically, I’ve been considering how to raise the level of writing challenge for these talented young people of color who often languish in urban classrooms because they are already competent in many of the skills their peers are struggling to learn. 

What do we, as educators, owe them?


Acknowledge their competence: Young people often tell me that they have mastered a range of writing skills: they know how to craft a thesis-driven argument. They might know some grammar “rules.” They have completed the assigned reading and corresponding assignments. They have done their homework. By all accounts, they are doing the work and they are quite good at it. They want us to tell them every now and then that they are doing a good job. One particular young person said she wished her teacher would remember that she’s still a child, too, and that the endless stream of feedback and criticism she receives needs to be balanced with letting them know what they are doing well. I think, too, it’s easy to get caught up in how far behind some students are and worry about test scores and accountability, but we must remember that there are young people in our classes that are performing above grade level, who probably entered our classes that way and, at very least, we need to keep them there or push them higher. Assuming they are competent is a best first step.

Increase choice: High-achieving young people of color know how to do particular tasks well, but they often don’t know how to extend those rote skills to other, higher-order tasks that require a different type of critical thinking. For me, the possibilities opened up once I realized that we could push past taken-for-granted understandings about “writing.” I could have them address a range of audiences and purposes. I could flex their problem-solving muscles through Genius Hour. We could challenge them to read books they wanted to read. I told them the choice was theirs. Initially, they were skeptical because they’re accustomed to following the rules. They rarely were able to state the rules or revise the rules to fit their needs. If we are serious about preparing young folks for the future, I’m committed to making sure they can create and choose whatever future it is they envision.

Read, write, and talk about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and everything else: The numbers of BIPOC young people who have not read more than one core text that centers a BIPOC character remains alarming. I taught Angie Thomas’ On the Come Up and young people felt a powerful connection to Bri. The level of conversation, discussion, and writing was significant, largely because they connected with the text through many diverse perspectives. Also, moving these young people beyond standard discussion measures and assessments–even letting them plan and lead discussions for the class–increases the level of challenge and builds a community of literacy peers and role models. There is nothing more powerful than intentionally creating a literacy community of young people.


Teach them how to stretch: Success should look differently for high-achieving young people of color beyond templates and rote tasks. When I took the time to study sentences and writing craft, they were captivated. Chats about text sets that built on their interests and were of increasing complexity pushed them to expand their reading range.  Connecting them to professors of color, public intellectuals in the community, and attending local literary events in the city encouraged them to claim their right to enjoy the city’s feast of literary delights. 

Know that what helps some will help all: I’ve always expected my young people to achieve at high levels, no matter who they are. They generally all do. Through careful planning in conversation with young people, consideration of how to expand their understandings, and intentional work on how to do that work, all students benefit. I’m arguing that we should certainly expect and teach for the top rather than the bottom, or even the middle, especially when BIPOC young people are concerned. When we do, the results can be significant. For those high-achieving young people who consistently do the work and are hungry for a new challenge, they are particularly deserving of our recognition, our instruction that moves them far beyond the average, and of our love.  

by Dr. Kimberly Parker

K_PARKER (1 of 16)

Dr. Kimberly N. Parker currently works with preservice teachers as the Assistant Director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA. She is a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Twitter: @TchKimpossible


How Do We Help Every Teacher Thrive? Let Them Choose from Goals that Unpack the Essence of Good Teaching 

As leaders, we want to mimic the moves of the best teachers: assess each student’s/teacher’s individual strengths and needs; co-create personalized goals; give the student/teacher concrete strategies that unpack the essence of good learning/teaching; and provide meaningful feedback so the student/teacher will want to go back, try again, and continue to grow. 


What can this process look like so we set up every teacher to succeed and thrive in personalized ways? 

Like this: we help teachers self-assess to form their own professional goal, rather than imposing one on them. We help them choose from a hierarchy of possible teaching goals, organized so teachers have foundational elements of instruction in place first and then keep building. Basically, we set them up for success.  

Here’s the hierarchy of teaching goals: 

Berit, hierarchy

Teachers choose one focus area or goal at a time, knowing that the hierarchy is based on current research on the essential components of a thriving classroom, tailored to meet the needs of diverse students. 

We help teachers to use checklists to find the professional goal that’s right for them, so they feel ownership in this process. The checklist for whether to focus on classroom environment might look like this: 

Berit, chart

We provide practical, research-based strategies to work toward that goal. Here’s a sample strategy for the environment goal: 

Try This: Stop Decorating and Start Turning Classroom Walls Over to Students 

Look at all of your classroom wall space, including bulletin boards in the hallways, and make a rough estimate: What percentage of the walls are student-created? If it’s less than 80%, decide which teacher-created walls can be cleared. 

Research has shown that crowded wall spaces can serve as visual and mental clutter for many students- the opposite of what we want, and another reason not to spend our precious time stapling cut-outs in a Pinterest-worthy design. Take down a lot of the posters, displays, and decorations that were purchased or teacher-created. Toss or recycle visuals that do not serve as “silent teachers” or that are not referred to regularly.

Frame spaces on bulletin boards and leave the space inside the frame empty, so students know these spaces are theirs to fill. You might choose one or two labels in advance, such as “Works in Progress,” “Words that Intrigue Us,” “All About Us,” “Our Goals,” or “Shout Out Wall”, but leave the rest to be decided upon by students as time goes on. 

Embrace visual resting spaces and blank walls. Know they will be filled with student creations when it’s time! 

Whenever possible, we provide time and space so teachers can try strategies with colleagues, and tips for how to do this work together. We also provide indicators, based on what students do and say, that will help teachers see if the strategy is working. 

We celebrate the successes that teachers have made happen, just as we would any student’s efforts and achievements. We watch our teachers (and students) thrive. 

For a complete set of strategies tailored to fit every teacher’s goal, along with checklists, indicators, and ways to go through the process with colleagues, stay tuned for Berit Gordon’s book coming out in spring 2020, published by Heinemann. 

by Berit Gordon

gordonheadshot-128-1-203x300Berit Gordon taught in NYC public schools and in the Dominican Republic prior to her literacy coaching work. She is a graduate and former adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her recent book, No More Fake Reading, offers solutions for boosting stamina, joy, and skills among adolescent readers. Please feel free to reach out on the contact link at

The People in the Room

Sometimes there’s a disconnect. Leaders know this. Leaders live this. Whether we are leading a building, a department, or a classroom, there are those times when we feel the divide. Sometimes, it’s subtle; sometimes, it’s palpable. Regardless, it’s present, and it can get in the way of our important work. And it is there, in that divide, where we learn–as important as it may be–the work alone is not enough. And we come to realize it’s not the work on the table that matters most, it’s the people in the room.

As a literacy leader throughout most of my twenty-three-year career at the district, building, and department levels, I have lived the disconnect that can creep into our work. But as I lived, I learned. And I put that learning to work. In my second year of a twelve-year tenure as department chair, I put into practice an activity I call Smiles and Frowns. At the beginning of each department meeting, we paused for the people in the room, as we went around the table and shared a smile, frown, or both from our professional and/or personal lives. Immediately, it began to change the dynamic. Ultimately, it changed the culture.

Our work often necessitates crucial conversations, and at times these conversations create uncomfortable situations around the table, as people passionately share their views about things that matter most to them. My department frequently engages in these important conversations. We get frustrated. We get upset. We disagree. But. But we stay in the conversation. And I attribute that to Smiles and Frowns. Of course, all those things happened prior to our implementing Smiles and Frowns, but then they were conversation killers, and the work stopped. And our work is too important to be put on hold. As a leader, I came to recognize the best way to address the disconnect was to connect the people in the room. Smiles and Frowns is a simple tool to bring people together. It encourages voice. It builds empathy. It connects.


(Photo credit:

I have not been department chair for three years now, but Smiles and Frowns is still at the top of each meeting agenda. It has become a part of our collaborative culture. It’s an important part of our reality, which inspired me to create the same reality in my classroom two years ago.

In education, we talk a lot about the importance of relationships–many of us suggesting that there is nothing more important. There is nothing more important. And though I have always thought I did a decent job of making them a priority in my classroom, my recent implementation of Smiles and Frowns showed me the incredible power of creating intentional, daily opportunities for the people in the room to connect. It is the best decision I have ever made.

We begin each period, each day with Smiles and Frowns. No matter what. Even on assessment days, we take the time to connect. The assessment will wait. At the beginning of the year, on the very first day, when I introduce Smiles and Frowns for the first time, I say this to my kids, “We will learn a lot of important things this year. But there is nothing more important than the people in the room, so we will begin each day with the people in the room. We will learn each other.”

And we do. By the end, we are a community. As many of my kids would say, “We are a family.” I will never not do Smiles and Frowns. I write and talk a lot about it. Here’s a link to a post on my blog that explains the what, why, and how of it. I think it is the closest thing to a silver bullet I have ever seen in a world full of shiny objects which promise more than they can deliver. I am not selling anything. It’s free. It’s simple. It’s powerful.

Our work is human work. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It always will be. I’m not sure we can every fully close the divide, but when we connect the people in the room, we have a chance to make the divide less-wide.

by Monte Syrie


Monte Syrie teaches English at Cheney HS in Cheney, Washington. You can connect with him on his blog and on Twitter @MonteSyrie.

Redefining Laziness: an optimists take on work ethic

There will always be outliers; this much is true, so I don’t pretend to believe that what I am going to share here is going to work for every kid.  However, I do think, as a whole, we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we, explicitly or implicitly, conceptualize specific students as just “being lazy.”   One thing I learned while coaching is that very few, maybe no, athletes see themselves as lazy nor are they trying to be lazy, and yet, each and every year, I found myself coming home and complaining to my wife about Suzy or Sally and how lazy they were.  Then one day it hit me: maybe they aren’t lazy…we just currently have a different definition of what hard work looks like. From that moment on, whenever I saw tangible examples in practice of what I wanted hard work to look like, I would praise that action openly and publicly, and say things like, “this is what hard work in this gym looks like.” Over time, it started to make a difference because when an athlete was “being lazy,” I could remind them, with concrete examples, what hard work should look like.


Prior to the shift, I was unable to change “lazy” behavior because in the athlete’s mind, he or she WAS working hard.  The work ethic wasn’t the root of the problem; it was the symptom–it was their definition of hard work that was the issue.  Of course, that athlete wasn’t going to work harder because, without me showing her with examples, she had no idea how to work harder.  Because, again, in her mind, she was working hard.

Over the years, I have begun to use this same approach in the classroom, and I have found it to be very effective.  Of course, this will not work for certain students because, for whatever reason(s), we will always have students who just flat out don’t want to work hard, and that is true for life, but when you think about specific students are who working “hard” but you know that they could/should be doing a lot more, here are some tips to help deal with their “laziness”.

  1. Clearly define, with examples, what hard work looks like.

I love to show students examples of other students drafting work when we are writing papers or to share student examples of text-marking.  When students who are not working as hard as we would like to see what you mean by “hard work” via other students examples, they can conceptualize your expectations.   I teach freshman, so this is especially important with students coming in from a wide range of middle schools all with vastly different expectations and definitions of hard work.  I have gotten to the point where the first two to three weeks of class are all about helping students understand my expectations and what “hard work” looks like in my class. It is time well spent!

  1. Survey your students on their perceptions of their own work ethics.

I have always had students do self-assessment of their essays before turning them in, but recently, I started adding a question or two about their work ethic.  So, in addition to “grading” their own piece, they have to explain how hard they feel they worked on this piece (on a scale of 1-10) and why, with tangible examples, they feel this way.  This has become super helpful in a lot of ways. First, if the paper isn’t very good, it helps me know if it was because of a lack of skill and/or confusion or just a result of a lack of effort. That changes how I intervene.  Second, it forces the students to continue to think about hard work (or lack thereof) in tangible ways as they try to point out examples to support their “why.” Third, the data can be hugely important in goal-setting conversations with students and during parent-teacher conferences.  So, as your students work through your class, don’t be afraid to ask them how hard they think they are working and why they feel that way–with specific examples.


  1. Ask students what they could have done.

One question I love to ask to help students conceptualize their work ethic is, “well, what else could you have done that might have changed how hard you worked on this paper?”  Sometimes, that answer is something as simple as “not procrastinate,” but other times some really great ideas can surface. I have heard everything from, “I could have come in for extra help with paragraph four as I knew it wasn’t turning out well” to “I probably should have put more work in during the reading of the text before getting to the paper” and countless other examples. But unless students have a clear understanding of your expectations for hard work with tangible examples, they will struggle to answer this, and you will get the dreaded, “I don’t know…”

  1. Respect the fact that work ethic is a choice.

One of my favorite stories from work lately came this past spring.  We had a senior at our school who was enrolled in AP Literature and Composition for the fun of it.  Essentially, he already had his required four English courses prior to the beginning senior year, but he still wanted to be in AP Literature because he enjoyed the readings and the conversations with his peers.  However, he was very upfront with the teacher that he planned on failing the class because he wasn’t going to do the work since he didn’t need to pass the class. So, this student, essentially, audited the class, but he knew he was going to get an F on his transcript.  Of course, this is an extreme example, but the reality is, work ethic is a choice and one that we need to respect. I have had countless students in my freshman honors class get a B even though they were fully capable of an A; however, they were taking four or five other honors classes and in sports or activities.  This type of student makes a conscious choice to adjust his/her work ethic based on survival, and we need to respect this sort of choice (until there are widespread changes in our antiquated educational system).

As we think about our jobs as educators, the bigger lessons, like understanding hard work, are really what we are tasked teach if we want to set students up for long-term success.  So, as you think about your students this year, and when you notice that student being “lazy” ask yourself this: “is this student being “lazy” or have I failed to fully help that student concretely understand what hard work looks like in my class?”

by Christopher Bronke

Chris Bronke

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School where he teaches freshman honors and leads a team of 22 teachers.  Connect with him on Twitter at @mrbronke.

Implementing Incremental Change as a Teacher-Leader

As we look ahead to CEL’s 2019 convention on “Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” I wanted to reflect a bit on 2018’s “CELebrating the Vision, Voice, and Momentum of Leadership” theme. Last November, I presented with Mr. Matt Morone (@MrMorone) and Mr. Brett Conrad on encouraging authentic literacy. In that session, I described my reader-writers workshop approach to high school English. However, implementing change outside the classroom is another challenge.

I serve as a Department Chair in my building, but I am a full-time classroom teacher. Thus, my role is not that of an administrator. As a teacher-leader, to affect change within my Department, my process does not entail top-down mandates.

I have found the process below has worked very well for my nine fellow Department members.


(Slide layout by Matt Morone—with an image of my classroom set up in preparation for a Department meeting—from our CEL 2018 session, “Addicted to Grades, Allergic to Learning: Curing the ‘Doing School’ Mentality and Encouraging Authentic Literacy.”)

Explore and Study on Your Own: While the NCTE and CEL conventions have been vital to my own professional development, teacher-leaders can also explore books, blogs, tweets, and/or podcasts to expand their pedagogical options and understandings. For me, I need to mull over new ideas and compare sources or talk to others before I try something new within my classroom.

Implement and Trial in Your Classroom: Whether you are a Department Chair, a mentor, or a leading teacher, trial new approaches in your own classroom (as much as your curriculum or circumstances allow). This way, once you suggest an idea to others, you have some personal experiences of the challenges and successes to reference and share. We each have different change thresholds.

Share Out to Colleagues: Sharing ideas with peers can be done informally in passing, or—if you have influence over professional development planning—in more formalized sessions. In my position, after I implemented a readers-writers workshop format in my classroom, I decided we’d read a professional book as team. I selected Berit Gordon’s (@beritgordon) No More Fake Reading: Merging the Classics with Independent Reading to Create Joyful, Lifelong Readers as our first Department text this past school year (purchased using funds from our Department budget). A common text focused our discussions.

Struggle, Question, and Engage as a Group: Our book study lasted the full year, with us discussing only a couple chapters every two months. Some contractual Department meeting time was allocated to reading, and our District offered to grant us some continuing education credit for reading outside of our day as well. While reading more books may have provided a wider range of discussion topics, a single focused text allowed teachers to begin processing and wrestling with ideas. This also allowed me—and, as we continued, others—to offer personal experiences with implementing the method. Further, as a teacher-leader (and not administrator), I only offered the book and discussion as professional learning—not a mandate for colleagues to change their instruction. I wanted to be clear that no one needed to implement the strategies we were discussing . . . but nearly all of my colleagues have done so to some extent. The discussions, questions, contentions, and trials over the course of a year provided a safe space to try something new.

While a Department-wide book club is not the only means to engage with staff, a focused study of a concept or process over time without mandated, immediate change has worked well for our team. For next year, we each pitched ideas and voted on another text. As Chair, I may select a text every two years, with a Department vote on opposite years. The rush of the school year makes abrupt change hard at a systemic level, but low-stakes explorations within the safety net of peers (similar to our classroom-based assessment strategies with students!) may result in positive changes. Sometimes momentum builds in small steps. We hope you can join us this November as we build momentum in literacy leadership at our Conference on English Leadership’s convention in Baltimore!

by Nicholas A. Emmanuele


Mr. Nicholas A. Emmanuele is an English Teacher and Department Chair at McDowell Intermediate High School (Erie, PA) who also serves as a Member-at-Large on CEL’s Executive Board. Nicholas also blogs at Connect with him on Twitter @NAEmmanuele.

Letter to a Conflict Leader

To Whom it May Concern:

Once you are in it, you will come to realize that leadership is all about conflict.  All day long every day you will be presented with problems: district, community, parent, teacher, the federal government.  That’s just the beginning.  And most of these problems you will not have caused, and you will have little control over them.  At a certain point, the problems will hit you quickly enough and forcefully enough that you will feel like a swimmer caught in a series of ocean waves attempting to pound you into the sand.
What then?  Learn to surf!  A key aspect of navigating the inevitable conflicts of leadership is to learn a few go-to techniques.
1. Favorite phrases: ‘Tell me more’ or ‘What makes you say that.’  The idea is that when conflict comes, like a surfer, rather than trying to outswim the wave, lean into it.  This is not natural, leaning into conflict, as we tend to have a flight response activated, but it is crucial.  When someone says, ‘that was a bad decision,’ respond with, ‘Tell me more.’  Try it out.  It works with virtually all aggressive statements, and these are a few I faced last week: ‘You don’t like me,’ ‘Administration doesn’t support us,’ ‘This initiative is a waste of time.’  Tell me more, tell me more, tell me more.  A great bonus is this gives you time to be really careful with your response as you’re listening!
2. Position of perception: Perceive someone bringing you a problem as if they are coming to you in a time of need and pain.  This is as opposed to someone attacking you or trying to hurt you.  If you can make the attack about them, their need and their perception, then you can keep your mind clear and able to focus on the true nature of the issue.  Even if it is about you, it really isn’t.  Thank people for bringing you their concern and see it as a sign of trust to speak with you.
3. Own your mistakes.  This is simple and difficult, as we tend to shy away from vulnerability.  Right after I finish this blog, I am going to write an email to a team apologizing for missing a deadline.  I responded to an email from a student with an apology.  I apologized to a parent yesterday for missing a call.  You will make mistakes.  Rather than an admission of a flaw, an apology is a sign of strength.  Only someone stable and confident can apologize, and having the strength to often diffuses the attack.
4. Silence is golden.  Most mistakes are made through impulse, and those people really out with an agenda or to hurt you are trying to incite a reaction.  When someone says something really incendiary, send the email to a trusted teammate or mentor and have them help you navigate the turbulent surf.  This is also key as your partner can keep a level head and help you see what you cannot.
Good luck and enjoy the surf!
by David Reed-Nordwall




David Reed-Nordwall is an Associate Principal at Bloomfield Hills High School in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Teaching Kids How to Adult:  Choice and Blending as Keys to Adulting in English Class



The last English class a senior takes at the high school I teach at is English 12B.  Well, it’s the last English class they’ll take if they don’t opt to take AP Literature. I designed the course four years ago with a group of dedicated English teachers based on the idea of Genius Hour made famous by Google.  The idea is you give kids a dedicated amount of time in English to work on their passion. It can be mostly anything because everything can be English, right? For example, a student wants to design a fishing net that would help protect an ecosystem from overfishing.  How is this English? She has to read the research, analyze, synthesize facts, think, interview, and present. Yes, she had to write a research paper, too. After teaching this class for three years, I’m convinced that any topic can become an English topic.

Students in English 12b spend the first three weeks of the term with me doing traditional English things, such as reading Outliers, analyzing TedTalks and articles, researching, presenting, writing annotated bibliographies and synthesizing sources using templates from They Say, I Say. What sets it apart though is that it is all preparation for their project.  They must develop a robust project of passion. They must find something they care enough about to spend the rest of the term invested in, and it must benefit others.  

“Think hard about what you are going to do. The worst thing that can happen is for you to start a project that you don’t care about, and you’re stuck with it for an entire trimester. You need to care about your project for you to want to work on it, and you need to work on it a lot to make it good.”

-Advice from an English 12B student

Choice can be a daunting task for kids.  Some kids come in with a topic ready to go, others have a few they want to pitch, and some come in without any idea.  They become my focus. I need to sit down with kids to lessen their anxiety about this process. Used to being told what to do, they look terrified to make a commitment to a topic for nine weeks. It’s a crucial process and one I love because this is life.  They will be graduating in weeks, and everyone is asking them which college they are going to, what are they going to do with their lives, and what are they going to major in?  This is their new reality, and they are unprepared because they have never been asked to think for themselves about such vital decisions. I reassure them that it’s ok not to know and look for ways to help them navigate that journey to topichood.

“This is the first class that teaches you how to adult.”

-English 12b student


The second adulting moment is that the class is blended.  Students do not need to come to my class every day. If their parent agrees, we can develop a schedule of times to come.  Now they must come 50% of the time, but the other 50% can be out in the world: job shadowing, interviewing, interning, building, creating and writing.  The list is endless. The blended model is extremely structured with 50% face-to-face time and 50% online. Parents sign waivers and I monitor their activities through work logs and online check-ins.  I know I’m simplifying what blended is, but it would take me a whole book to explain all that it entails. Suffice it to say that blended always sounds great to kids until they realize they have to time manage and adult:

“If you’re like me you don’t like doing homework. Also, if you’re like me, you wait until the last minute to do your homework. As nice as it would be for you to be able to do that in this class, it won’t work out too well for you. Working on your project in a timely manner is incredibly important, and there’s so much to do that you won’t be able to wait until the day before to do it. It takes time and effort  to do whatever project you want to do, and it’s quite obvious if you put in the effort or if you don’t.”

-English 12b student

There are specific requirements to go blended, and I can take it away at any point:  They must have a B, have no more than two missing assignments, signed parent waivers, weekly work logs submitted, and an online presence on Google Classroom and Remind.  Kids love the freedom of blended and will do whatever it takes to keep that B in the class. Kids that previously had lower grades raise them to be able to have blended days.

“This class is 100% one of my favorites I’ve ever taken. This class is based on intrinsic motivation, meaning that you’re going to do a project on a topic that you’re actually excited to learn about. You’ll choose your own topic and be so interested in it that you’ll want to do the research…Get excited! You’re transitioning into adulthood and finding out what you really like to do, and this class is a step in the right direction.”

-English 12b student

Ultimately, the process is rewarding for my seniors. They have time to do what they genuinely love while learning essential English skills, but students also learn things about themselves they weren’t expecting.  They learn how ready they are for the next step in their lives. Many parents are happy their child had this experience for the first time with the safety net of a high school teacher and while they lived at home.  Most kids are surprised at their ability to tackle these assignments with new freedom and feel ready to take on the next steps, while others have a healthy dose of adulting and some of what it holds.

by Karen Reed-Nordwall

karenKaren Reed-Nordwall is the English Department Head at Groves High School in Birmingham, MI.  She is also a Member-at-Large of Conference on English Leadership.

Queering Your Classroom Library: Articulating Intersectionality



I am an educator and recovering homophobe. As such, I seek to help foster a school community where homophobia no longer exists and safe and inclusive spaces are the norm for every student.

The research is incontrovertible. According to the GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey, school can be a hostile and unsafe place for students who are LGBTQ. There are still a significant number of students who are harassed and bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and/or identity. The suicide rate for adolescents who are transgender is up to four times that of cisgender peers.

At the 2018 Annual Convention, I delivered the keynote address for the session entitled Amplifying and Celebrating Intersectional and Transectional LGBTQ+ Voices.

I have been a part of this work at both the classroom and policy level. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I supported the establishment of the Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students. This document provides information and resources to schools to ensure that they support students who are the most vulnerable in ways that range from allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity to referring to kids by their preferred name and pronouns.

iam jazz

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher, I let my students know that they are welcome, no matter who or what they are. There is a sign hanging outside my door that declares my classroom to be a safe space for all people. I emphasized this principle on the first day of school by reading the book I Am Jazz aloud to my students. The story chronicles the life and transition of Jazz, a transgender girl. The theme of the story, “Be who you are” resonates with everyone and establishes an atmosphere that is welcoming and inclusive.

This ethos is embodied in our classroom library. It is a critically important resource and contains hundreds of titles from multiple genres. Every year, my students and I co-create the categories for the library. Inspired by Donalynn Miller’s work, I want to make sure students have books at their fingertips, that they actively own their independent reading life and that I have the ability to continuously supply kids with books that match their needs and interests.

This year, inspired by Caitlin Ryan and Jill Herman-Wilmarth’s book Reading the Rainbow, I knew it was time for a category of books in the LGBTQ genre. I knew I needed my students to understand and own the creation of this genre so they would own and utilize it.

I began by asking them to consider groups of people who have been treated unfairly in our country just because of who they are. They created an exhaustive list which contained every marginalized group imaginable. I then asked them to consider this question, “How would hearing stories about the lives of people from these groups help all people understand them better?” The students quickly established that stories build empathy and that empathy changes people’s hearts and minds.

The one group that had not been mentioned on our list was people who are LGBTQ. I asked them if they had ever heard anyone make fun of somebody because they were LGBTQ or thought to be LGBTQ. They all raised their hand.

At that point, I reviewed some age-appropriate definitions of “LGBTQ.” I then taught the term “intersectionality” as a condition that exists when a person belongs to more than one group of people that has been treated unfairly. Next, I borrowed a collection of picture books for children featuring characters who were LGBTQ from Oakland University.


I asked my students to work together with a partner and do a book pass, where they examine the book and read as much of it as they can for three minutes. Together, the students were asked to write a response to the question “How could this story help people who experience intersectionality?” for each book.

The responses ranged from, “This book can show people that being gay or lesbian is okay and that your parents can be of the same gender”  for Heather Has Two Mommies to “Dresses are okay to wear for everyone” for 10,000 Dresses to “More people can understand that people can love whoever they want to love even if its a boy and boy or girl and girl” for And Tango Makes Three to “Speak up, be who you are” for Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress.

The students’ responses validated the presence and utility of the LGBTQ book bin in our classroom library. These stories fulfill a potentially life-saving role in normalizing the experiences of people who are LGBTQ in our classroom and in the larger communities beyond our school. Our students, all of them, deserve access to these stories.


Rick Joseph


Rick Joseph was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2016.  He currently teaches language arts and social studies to fifth and sixth graders at Birmingham Covington.

Advice From My Brother: what a home audio installer remembers about high school

This piece is roughly a year in the making.  I was at a bar with my brother, a guy who barely graduated high school but has become very successful with high-end custom electronic installations.  He was lamenting how worthless his high school English classes were–well really almost all of his high school classes (he loves to try to push my buttons–especially after a few Jack and Cokes).  So, I let him say his piece, which mostly revolved around the fact that none of the reading or writing assignments he did had any impact on the sort of reading and writing he does today. He certainly is not the first nor last to feel this way, but since it was more personal coming from him, I decided to spend the next year doing my best to chart/record all the reading and writing I did to see what sort of conclusions I could draw about those lists impact on my teaching.  


The reading list was one I didn’t keep very formally, but it would have looked something like this: a lot of books about wine, some books about gin, many articles about wine or gin, a few books about coaching/teaching, a few biographies, millions of tweets, thousands of news articles, an infinite amount of emails, a few pieces of fiction to consider for class, lots of poetry–mostly to be considered for class, and a two pieces of fiction and a few poems for “fun”.

I was more diligent about the writing I did, and so I kept them in three columns based on frequency, as you will see in the chart below.


Virtually Daily Around Once A Week Around Once or Twice a  Month
  • Emails
    • Personal and professional but one paragraph or less
  • Texts
  • Tweets
  • Reminders to self on home whiteboard
  • Notes to my wife
  • Feedback on student or adult writing
  • Emails
  • Personal and professional over one paragraph
  • Grocery/shopping lists
  • Poetry
  • Narrative feedback for teachers after evaluation
  • Blog posts about education
  • Thank you notes/cards
  • Emails home to families of my students

What struck me about both lists is the lack of “English Class” type writing. In the past year, I did not write a piece of literature analysis–hell I didn’t even write about a book I read at all, regardless of genre.  If you are an English teacher, you are thinking to yourself, “yes, but it is about the skills developed through doing literature analysis type writing that helped you become the writer you are now.” I do not disagree with that sentiment, and I do think that reading classic literature and doing a written analysis of it is an important skill-building task, but in so many English classes across the country, that is the primary, or only, type of reading and writing being done.  So, here are my personal reflections of this year-long record keeping and what it could (should?) mean for English classes and education as a whole.

1.  Short, informal writing is the primary means of communication.

Be it texts, tweets (and I am not on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram–but I imagine one could include these in the list), or short emails, we are a society, for better or worse, who communicates in short bits.  It is important that we value and teach this. Writing in these short bits while still being clear and concise is not easy (see our President’s Twitter account). So, instead of getting upset that so much of what students are turning in to us is shorthand or lacking formality, we need to help teach them when/how to code shift, when grammar is and isn’t important in this micro-communication, and how to be effective in clearly expressing a point in something as short as 140 (or now 280 characters) on something like Twitter.  It is a skill that is needed, but are they getting it or just reinforcing bad habits?

2.  Audience matters.

This is not a shock to anyone out there; I get that.  But in thinking about the types of writing I did over the course of the year, each one was so deeply tailored to the audience. Here is a good example: I list “informal professional emails” as one of the types of writing, and that is one I (we all) do a ton.  However, even within that microgenre, audience matters a ton. When I send this type of email to a fellow department chair, it is vastly different than sending one to one of my teachers, which is different than sending one to my principal, which is different than sending one to my superintendent.  Each email would fall under the “informal professional email” microgenre, but the approach and level of “informality” within each varies greatly. So, we must continue to push to give students writing tasks that force them to, at a minimum, think about, but ideally authentically navigate the nuances of the audience.

3.  Schools need to ensure a more robust and varied reading experience is presented to all students.

I still remember when the Common Core was released and it suggested that a student’s high school reading breakdown should be 70% non-fiction and 30% literature.  A colleague of mine came to see me to say, “Wow, it sure looks like your department is going to have to make a big shift in what you teach in order to hit these numbers.”  I replied, “actually, I think you are going to have to; these numbers are not for the English class but the students’ full day. And since a student’s English class is less than 30% of his/her day, are you going to add novels to the science department?” Of course, I was kidding as a way of making my point, but looking at my reading list (again, coming from an English teacher–even if this one might be a bit atypical for English teachers), we must provide more opportunities for students to read things other than just novels or textbooks.

4.  All teachers, regardless of discipline, should be having students write.

I teach English, and in this year’s study, I, for fun, read two pieces of fiction and did zero “English Class” writing.  That means that all teachers in all classes can help students develop the bigger picture, post-high school writing skills needed. Teachers of all disciplines must think about ways of getting their students writing both in discipline-specific ways but also in some of the ways that invade our lives daily and are void of discipline.

I fully admit that there probably isn’t much in this post that is jaw-dropping and/or revolutionary; in fact, I hope that these are all factors you and your school have considered before.  However, even though I knew all of this, tracking my reading and writing habits for a year truly was a worthwhile experience that helped make the theoretical (things like the CCSS) real; my brother’s experience helped make reality tangible in ways I had not previously considered. So, I hope that you will not only consider these suggestions but also tracking your own reading and writing for a year (or even a few months), and then take some time to reflect upon that and what it means to you and YOUR classroom.   

by Christopher Bronke

Chris Bronke

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School where he teaches freshman honors and leads a team of 22 teachers.  Connect with him on Twitter at @mrbronke.


CEL Conference 2018: What did you love about the conference?

CEL is always such a re-energizing experience for me, and coming on the heels of a nonstop schedule at NCTE, it was so nice to connect with old friends and welcome new ones. I think one of the most fulfilling experiences I had this year was being told by Kellie Thompson that she submitted a proposal to present and then attended this year because she was invited by members of the CEL Executive Committee in 2017. She is now a state liaison, and she presented a workshop on Culturally Responsive Teaching. I was also so delighted to attend CEL 2018 with two colleagues from my school, Christina McCabe and Christine Cavallo, who presented a workshop together. This is the first convention since 2013 that I have attended with teachers from my home district. It makes such a difference!

-Oona Abrams


Another November in the books which means that this year’s CEL Annual Convention has come and gone.  We laughed and learned; shared and smiled; conversed and cared.  Kate Baker prepared for us a convention filled with helpful takeaways, probing thoughts, and new wonderings that pushed me at the moment to reconsider my work and, in the long run, will help me grow as a teacher, leader, and person. Each year, I find myself looking back, grateful for the new educators and leaders I am lucky enough to add to my network.  This year was no different.  Meeting new attendees, especially first-timers, is always a highlight for me. I particularly enjoyed the CELF to end the event as it gave me a chance to think-tank with amazing colleagues from across the country, and provided a space for tangible takeaways to improve schools.  What more could we ask for as an organization? It is safe to say, CEL has hit another grand slam with its annual convention.

-Christopher Bronke


Although I left the CEL conference this year with methods and resources I want to share with my future teachers, my big takeaway, the one I’m continuing to chew on, is Tom Newkirk’s call for curricular “economy.”  The longer I teach, the more I have — and want — to share with my students. Yet, the result of this, I think, are reading and writing methods classes packed with texts and tasks that may overwhelm, rather than inform.  As a result, I came home from the convention with a number of important questions as I start planning my syllabi for next semester: What content is most meaningful in the courses I teach? How have they become cluttered over the years? And how can I stop “hoarding” curriculum by peeling back the layers to identify what’s most meaningful, what’s most necessary?  I’m looking forward to doing this kind of house cleaning.

Of course there’s always more, so one other quote from Pernille Ripp’s keynote that I particularly appreciated and have been sharing with my future teachers is this one: “Reading is my homework.  When we read for our students, that is LOVE.”

-Emily Meixner