Reaching Out to Build Professional Mentorships

[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with Rebecca Bowers Sipe, who shares how she developed professional relationships between in-service and pre-service teachers.]

When I decided to return to teaching English methods classes at Eastern Michigan University after ten years in administrative work, I did so with lots of excitement—and a good dose of trepidation. A sabbatical afforded time for a needed deep-dive into current young adult literature and new professional research in the field. I had been an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and Conference on English Leadership CEL) throughout my time away from full-time teaching, so I felt confident in my personal teaching skills. And, of course, I loved interacting with students.  So why did I continue to experience a shadow of concern? 

“Teaching is like riding a bicycle! Once you are in motion everything will come back!” my husband reassured me.  Yet, from the very first day, I felt tension as I struggled to align my own teaching behaviors to my beliefs. While it’s true that many of the basic skills needed for setting up a successful learning environment do come back, so much of teaching future teachers involves creating a delicate balance between the utopian and real. Often, I pondered how to adequately challenge the thinking of methods students through reading and discussion of best practices while also preparing them for the challenge of putting theoretical knowledge to use in real secondary classrooms.

Each week I found myself reaching out to secondary teacher friends to check my understanding of their current day-to-day lived reality. I found myself thirsty for those conversations and greedily accepted their offers to visit with my students in our classroom or by video chat.

Two fortunate things happened as November rolled in. First, a conversation with a current student reminded me of how many outstanding teachers and authors I know in the profession from all my years at NCTE and CEL. This student was awed that I had talked with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher (two of our assigned authors), but also that I could direct her to so many teachers nearby who were gifted writing or literature or debate instructors. Second, the annual NCTE and CEL conventions were scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving, and I had the opportunity to attend. Perhaps it was the coming together of those two things that helped me see how important it might be for me to connect each of my current students with an outstanding English language arts teacher somewhere in the country who could share responses to a preservice teachers questions, offer reality-based perspectives on the issues we discussed in class, and help these soon-to-be teachers to understand the critical need to stay professionally engaged.

At NCTE and CEL that November, I approached 20-25 of the best teachers I know. My request to each was to serve as an “email mentor” for one preservice student for a semester. My plan was that each week the students and I would be addressing specific topics in class that were critical to teaching at the secondary level: Examples included how to select and teach powerful adolescent literature, how standards and standardized testing might be impacting teaching, and the critical role of teaching for social justice.  It was important, I felt, to not be the only voice of authority in the room. Years with the National Writing Project (NWP) had shown me that there are many ways outstanding teachers can approach a problem! With over 20 mentors in the program, I anticipated that we would hear lots of variation in approaches to the questions we were exploring, and I welcomed the opportunity to build on those perspectives to create a rich learning environment.

I also hoped the mentorship would be a two-way learning process. So often outstanding educators find themselves feeling alone in their classrooms or schools. Particularly teachers who enjoy change may find themselves at odds with principals and other teachers who prefer to “not rock the boat.” My goal was to provide an outlet for teachers to reflect and celebrate their own teaching as they helped a future colleague. We were blessed to have mentors from Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Michigan (both lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula). Some mentors were from affluent, suburban districts while others were from smaller and more rural environments. Some served highly diverse student populations while others worked with relatively homogeneous populations. This diversity afford opportunities for preservice teachers to benefit from the experiences of teachers in highly varying circumstances.

During our first meeting in January, I described the process to my students, and prior to the second class I emailed each student and the student’s mentor to make introductions and formalize our process. We established a protocol of starting each class with the question “What did you learn from your email mentor this week about….?” Within two weeks, I had to consciously limit the time for conversation! Having the opportunity to reflect back to our readings and previous conversations about assessment, for example, and then enrich that conversation with information from half a dozen or more perspectives representing multiple lived realities of secondary teachers created an amazingly rich opportunity for the class to meld the theoretical with the practical of teaching in more dynamic ways than I could possibly have done alone in my classroom. 

How did this work for students at the preservice level?

Overall, mentor teachers were remarkably generous with their time. I had stressed to my students that mentors were engaged in this relationship as an act of love and on top of everything else their job required; they received no compensation for this work. In addition, because of the distances involved, potentially all communication would occur digitally. Even with those limitations, the range of communication was amazing. 

From response to student questions about how to approach sensitive literature focused on  social justice to how to create a curriculum that is relevant to students while still meeting locally or state imposed standards, mentors provided honest and sometimes difficult to hear feedback. In addition, pre-service students heard repeatedly about the importance of continually growing in one’s profession. NCTE, CEL, NWP, and local interest groups peppered the conversations as mentor teachers demonstrated how they seek out vital growth experiences and how those experiences have enabled them to thrive across careers. 

One of the pieces of literature methods students were reading was Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. This book, among others, fueled an interest in developing units of instruction that focused on social justice. Deb Marsh, high school department head from Dexter, Michigan, offered her mentee needed but difficult response to Jessica’s first four-week social justice themed unit. In doing so Deb offered encouragement but also shed light on just how fragile high school students are and how that may impact plans for difficult conversations. 

Lillia describes her professional development conversation with Paula Diedrich who teaches middle school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan sharing: “I learned that she is maybe the most professionally engaged person I have ever met…She is doing professional engagement all the time. She is not only constantly attending professional engagement events, conferences, and clubs, but she is also constantly presenting at them as well! I counted all of her professional development things that she mentioned, and it is seven different things that she participates in consistently!”

How did this work for mentor teachers?

Paula Diedrich is recognized as a powerhouse in her district. I had met Paula through the National Writing Project where she is very involved as a teacher leader. Paula shared, “I loved this ‘requirement’ to reflect upon my own teaching each week. I searched for an email from her [Lillia] this past Saturday as responding to her questions became part of my Saturday morning routine these past few months. Her emails were similar to having a Book Club meeting and forced me to sit down and get it done.” 

Chris Bronke, teacher and department chair at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois, shared with his mentee the transition he had made from a mostly teacher-driven to a student-focused classroom. As an active member of CEL (currently Associate Chair), he had previously shared the challenges of teaching about privilege though he, himself, would not be considered lacking in privilege, pointing out the necessity of honestly learning alongside his students in a trusting relationship. 

Though not all email mentor relationship provided the same rich quality experience, the overall value to the classroom conversation was powerful. Not only were students able to secure feedback on their questions and planning, they were collectively able to see how different teaching might be from one state or region to the other. 

Benefits to the methods classroom experience

I am forever grateful to the teachers who participated in this project. They not only allowed pre-service students to share a glimpse into their classrooms, they also allowed me to continuously check and re-check my own reactions and approaches to a host of issues. I’ll admit that setting up a project such as this takes some effort. And, dealing with the students who might not have as fruitful experience as others requires some delicate interventions. However, the benefits to the methods classroom was irreplaceable, offering opportunities for authentic feedback, diverse perspectives, and multiple testimonies as to the importance of professional involvement.

Recently retired, Rebecca Bowers Sipe, is a 25 year veteran of the Anchorage School District in Anchorage, Alaska and a 23 year veteran of Eastern Michigan University where she taught English Methods classes. Becky has been an active member of NCTE, NWP, and CEL for many years, serving in various elected capacities.

Reflecting on Positionality and Equity in English Language Arts through Multimodal Learning Representations and Dialogue

[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with Dr. Elsie Olan and Dr. Kia Jane Richmond, who extend their presentation from November.]

Positionality is an important component of teaching English Language Arts because, as Kezar (2002) notes, “people have multiple overlapping identities. Thus, people make meaning from various aspects of their identity” (p. 96). Each of us comes from a specific place, with unique experiences, and personal and cultural histories – all of which feed into our positionalities as individuals and as teachers. For example, Elsie identifies as a first-generation Latina teacher educator-researcher working at one of the largest universities in the United States. Kia Jane identifies as a white woman and Air Force brat who advocates for and mentors future teachers of English Language Arts at a rural Midwestern university. We continuously revisit and reinvent our identities through our conversations with each other and members of our discourse communities; these dialogic interactions inform our understandings of ourselves, our relationships with others, and our practices as teacher educators and researchers. 

Reflection and dialogue are now more important than ever. In the shadow of COVID-19 virus and its unprecedented implications for teaching and learning, much of what many of us do as educators has changed. Yet one thing remains constant: the need for teachers and students to revisit who they are and where we want to go as learners. This is the best time for us to rely on each other for social and emotional support and to be empathetic to students’ needs (and our own) as well as understanding of what these uncertain times have demanded of educators and students -and how that has informed who we are and what we can do. Devising and implementing methods of conversation that help us – and our students – to explore representations of, and reflections on, ourselves as well as the characters portrayed in any literature we bring into our classes can provide opportunities for empathy, collaboration, and support for each other. 

Both of us regularly employ an interactive, multimodal (drawing and writing) activity called “literacy quadrants,” which Elsie developed by adapting “Frayer’s Model (1969), a graphic organizer that helps students form concepts and learn new vocabulary by using four quadrants on a chart to define examples, non-examples, characteristics, and non-characteristics of a word or concept” (Olan & Richmond, 2019, p. 90). A major component of literacy quadrants prompts participants to “inquire into their identities” and invites them “to explore and ask questions about their learning, especially their reflective stances, critical approaches, and peer relationships within diverse learning communities” (Olan & Pantano, 2020, p. 80). 

Throughout their dialogue with partners about literacy quadrants (images) and writing through a guided (examine-predict-discuss) sequence, participants are engaged in intentional and empathetic listening, defined by Rogers (1980) as sensing accurately the feelings and personal meanings of another and communicating through sensitive, active listening. Participants interact with their own (and their partner’s) constructed multimodal representations, and they reflect on their own lived experiences and their partners’ responses to both sets of images and writing. The beauty is that the interaction goes beyond participants’ acknowledgment of different perspectives, to places where they find connection, which helps them further probe/explore literature and their own lives. 

The benefits of reflecting on our positionalities and beliefs through literacy quadrants and dialogue include the following: 

  1. Reflecting upon one’s lived experiences, multiple identities, and literary texts can invite learners to situate themselves in relation to others’ lived experiences and positionalities. Thus, each participant has the opportunity to connect and to better understand how one’s interpretations and experiences are similar to and different from those of others (both in real life and on the pages of a literary text). 
  2. Engaging in dialogue with peers helps participants to negotiate their positionings, reflective stances, and understanding of others’ lived experiences, which can lead to more empathetic communication and more equitable relationships between and among peers and teachers. 
  3. Using literacy quadrants opens up the classroom (whether in face-to-face interactions or in a digital learning environment) as a vulnerable and safe space in which participants can express their understandings and misconceptions about literature and lived experiences without fear of having their voices muffled; the key is that empathetic listening provides a way to honor what is being said and to invite non-threatening questions from partners. 


Kezar A. Reconstructing static images of leadership: an application of positionality theory. Journal of Leadership Studies, 2002, 8(3): 94–109.

Olan, E. L., & Pantano, J. A. (2020). An ‘epiphania’: Exploring students’ identities through multimodal literacies. English Journal, 109(4), 78–86. 

Olan, E. L., & Richmond, K. J. (2019) Using literacy quadrants in preparing teachers of writing: Reflective tools for identity, agency, and dialogue,” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education, 6(1): Article 6. 

Rogers, C. R. (1980). Empathetic: An unappreciated way of being. In C.R. Rogers (Ed.) A way of being. (pp. 137-163). Houghton Mifflin. 

kia elsie 2018Dr. Elsie Lindy Olan, associate professor and track coordinator for Secondary English Language Arts in the School of Teacher Education in the College of Community Innovation and Education at the University of Central Florida, researches the role of language and writing, literacy, literature and diversity in learning and teaching in Language Arts education and cross-disciplinary education, and teachers’ narratives, inquiry and reflective practices in (national and international) teaching environments and professional development settings. Her work has been published in English Education, Research in the Teaching of English, Education and Learning Research Journal, Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics, and Language Arts. @ElsieOlan  

Dr. Kia Jane Richmond, professor of English at Northern Michigan University, directs the English Education program and supervises student teachers in Michigan and Wisconsin. Her publications have appeared in English Education, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Language Arts Journal of Michigan, and Composition Studies. She is currently writing a book, Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters, forthcoming from ABC-Clio/Greenwood Press.  @kiajanerichmond


Momentum in a Time of Accountability

[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with Lauren Wilkie’s reflection on our shift to distance learning.]

When I was initially offered to blog for CEL, I was excited to share with you all the *thrilling* work of vertical alignment, everyone’s favorite curriculum task that is always on the list of things to do, but inevitably keeps getting shoved down to the bottom for more pressing, urgent needs. I was, sarcasm aside, genuinely excited to share some insights I had with leading a team of teachers through a process that was generally uncharted on such a microlevel: it was driven by student work through an inquiry model, it was created by teachers and for teachers, and it involved a whole year of hard work, some concession, and a lot of reflection. 

But then, our world was turned upside down in what seemed like a matter of days. The dominoes fell one by one: athletic events, flights, school closures, restaurants and bars. And now, I sit in my home in downtown Chicago during rush hour, overlooking an empty street, a lone woman with her dog walking by. I began ruminating about how COVID-19 has impacted all of our lives, and two words came to mind: momentum and accountability, seemingly two unrelated terms, but so, so interconnected in moments like this. 

I was listening to the cacophony of voices on the news while I was cleaning up this morning, and a panelist discussed how post 9/11, American citizens took the time they needed to mourn/grieve, but there was a nationwide momentum, a push, that permeated through the sorrow and helped us claw ourselves out and do something. I vividly remember people tying yellow ribbons on trees, putting American flags out on their front door, and just being nicer. But now, we have been presented with a pandemic virus, there is quiet. Solitude. Isolation. What is so different in our time now is the stillness, how the lack of action is better. It’s not do something; it’s do less. The very act of stopping the momentum is somehow making things better.

The idea, though, of doing less seems foreign to me. Many of us are a part of CEL because we are leaders in our field, oftentimes going above and beyond not because we want the glory, but because we see potential, promise, and opportunities to use our leadership skills to better our school environment for student outcomes. As the adage goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and anyone in education – not just teacher leaders – could tell you that accountability is the most popular word (next to “fidelity” and “data,” of course). In a profession where we are constantly asked to chart growth, monitor progress, own up to our shortcomings, and call in others to own up to theirs, accountability seems to be at the forefront of all of our decisions.

When I think about the school year, I think of that period from February to April as the slough, a not-so death march to Spring Break where we get that final push of momentum before, you guessed it, state tests, SATs/ACTs, and AP exams. But what does that look like now? As a nation, most of us transitioned to online or eLearning or enrichment or some other form of *something* that would hopefully help students learn over the duration of work stoppage. There were some camps of parents, teachers, and educational leaders who took a student-directed approach, with choose-your-own-adventure style learning; on the other end of the spectrum, there were districts that mandated parents to check in every day, students to be online synchronously learning for hours at a time. We as teachers have been told that doing more – either by way of the teachers’ or students’ efforts – is better for accountability and momentum. Still, what happens when the ways we know how to measure student learning – such as attendance, grades, test scores, and the like – are not able to be effectively measured? What happens when we cannot truly guarantee accountability or momentum during a crisis, or thereafter? And, finally, should we?

While we still seem to be early in these times of school closure, I am confused, but I am also finding solace in knowing that in moments of peril, we as a people make sacrifices and reprioritize what matters most. People have been supporting local businesses, spending time with their families, helping out in their community, and being entirely more conscious of the world around them; still, it makes me sad that a pandemic took that. Sometimes it takes a critical moment to jolt us to reconsider our practices. And while I don’t have the right answer – none of us alone do – I hope this time isolating illuminates our successes, but also shines a light on where we need to do better for our students, not just what gives us a sense of relief as professionals.

In my department’s task of vertically aligning our writing curriculum, we had no book and no guide to help us make organic, authentic decisions to benefit our unique school situation, and the same can be said of these strange times that are in front of us. Vertically aligning was messy; there were disagreements in terms of schools of thought and philosophy, but we found a way to push back on those differences to find someplace in the middle, a consensus that was arrived at by professionals working together. My hope is that we as a country use this moment as one to gain momentum in change moving forward, on a multitude of levels. In reflection of crises like this, and in each state, district, school, and department, I hope we as leaders can empower others to examine our practices, engage in solutions-oriented disagreements, and trust one another to arrive at best practices, no matter how long it takes or messy it gets. Our students deserve it.

Lauren WilkieLauren Wilkie is a high school English teacher and writing center director in Chicago. She is an instructional department chair at her school and a member of Chicago Public Schools’ Teacher Advisory Council. She is a member and active participant in Secondary School Writing Centers Association (SSWCA), NCTE, and CEL as a member of the Emerging Leaders 2019-2020 cohort. Follow her at @mswilkie24.

I Believe in the Groundswell.

[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with Heather Rocco’s approach to enacting programmatic change.]

I love the “what if…?” moments of leadership. I love when a teacher shares an idea or poses a question that inspires wonder, where we sit together and imagine how this new possibility might change our approach to a unit or our methodology. I love when a teacher brings a book to me and says, “I think this text would be a great addition to this unit and here’s why.” I love the mutual trust exchanged between the teachers and me, their content area supervisor, when they want to take a risk, try something new, and see how it goes.  I believe in their professional judgement. They believe in my support of them. 

But there are times when we need to rally around a programmatic change, when the data shows a gap or when the research supports a method that isn’t currently part of our teaching.  While I have the authority to simply say, “Here. We’re doing this now,” I rarely use that approach. My goal is still to evoke that collaborative “What if?” mindset even when we have to make a change that some may find difficult. I have learned that the best way to create lasting, meaningful changes is to make effective use of the groundswell.  

Now, the groundswell approach to change requires time and patience. If the state or board of education  mandates an immediate change to your program, the groundswell approach is not the way to go. But if you have two or three years to allow an idea to gain momentum and energy, I truly believe the groundswell will allow the change in practice to be truly embraced by educators and be more effective in the long run. Here’s one way I approach this groundswell process:

  1. Get input.  I spend a lot of time talking about the idea with teachers before I decide to jump into the work. I’ll say something like, “I’m noticing students are not in the habit of reading, and I’m thinking we should add time to our classes to let them read independently.  What are you noticing?” Or, “I hear most students do not feel engaged in literary essay writing. What other options should we provide them to teach analytical writing skills?” And then I listen. I note teachers’ reactions. I read resources they recommend. I acknowledge their concerns about the ideas.  This input sets my course for rolling out the implementation process. I know who my early adopters will be and who will need more time. I understand the concerns before we even begin the work and can troubleshoot them. I gauge how long this implementation will take. And then I bring it to the entire team.
  2. Be transparent. Change should not be a covert operation. I make sure that I dedicate time in one department meeting (or many) where I explain the idea to everyone, emphasizing that I have already spoken to most of them individually about it. I present the two- or three-year plan for implementation. This plan includes the professional learning that will happen, resources I have available to them, and the opportunities where folx can dip their toes into the work…or not. If they prefer to take this year to process, learn, observe and plan, I invite them to do that too.
  3. Find partners. Once everyone is “in the know,” I return to those who expressed an interest in giving this change a try. I collaborate with these early adopters to see how and where they see this change working in their classrooms. I let them try it and share their feedback with me. I go into their classrooms and co-teach or coach as they try the method. We talk and listen and reflect throughout the process. 
  4. Share experiences. I ask early adopters to share their experiences both with the group at large as well as with their colleagues who are in the  “toe dipping” stage. During these meetings and conversations, early adopters present their findings, candidly sharing the successes and the struggles. They ask their peers for ideas to help tackle the challenges, inviting them into the thinking that happens around this change and, hopefully, giving colleagues who haven’t tried the method yet an opportunity to consider how they could do something similar in their rooms.
  5. Keep building.  The following year, I invite more teachers to partner with the original cohort and me. I aim for at least 50% of the department (depending on numbers) as it helps reach that tipping point, where the change in practice becomes the norm more quickly. Then I repeat step four, adding in small group time with teachers so they can converse with their peers about the work. All the while, I continue to encourage those who are hesitant to try some aspect of the work. I communicate clearly that this change will be the norm by [insert date here], and I am offering them this practice time to build their capacity.
  6. Make the change. There does reach a point where I say, “This is what we are doing.” But no one is surprised. If I have been consistently finding willing partners and sharing their experiences with others, most teachers feel prepared to make the shift. I continue to provide these new adopters the support they need, drawing on the expertise of those who have been trying it for a year or two.     

By using the groundswell approach, our department has implemented independent reading, workshop teaching, strategy groups, and more. I truly believe that giving teachers the time they need to grow into a change has made all the difference in our teaching as well as our morale.



Heather D. Rocco serves as the K-12 Supervisor of English Language Arts in the School District of the Chathams. She is also an Associate Member of The Educator Collaborative, LLC, and Past Chair for the Conference on English Leadership. Follow her on Twitter @heatherrocco.


Rethinking Research

[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with follow-up from the session presented by Mr. Jeff and Mrs. Shari Krapels.]

After presenting our session “Rethinking the Research Process” at CEL, we were pleasantly surprised at a turnout that was larger than we anticipated, but more importantly at the many follow-up conversations we had with other attendees afterward. In years past, when we’ve thought about potential CEL presentations, we’ve gravitated toward ideas that we’ve been excited about in our own classrooms, or toward problems we’ve tried to solve, with the hopes that some of our participants would also be considering these same ideas. CEL 2019, though, revealed to us just how much of a felt need there seems to be when it comes to rethinking the research process.

What was very clear to us is that many middle and high school ELA teachers are frustrated by the traditional literary research assignment; it often takes a long time, it’s not always the most authentic assessment, and because so many of our students do not major in Literature, they may never be asked to write one again after high school. That said, many of our conversations during the session and afterwards throughout the conference continued to circle back to our session’s original premise: it’s important that students learn how to research, but that research can take many forms (while still adhering to most state standards). 

What also came up in our conversations, both before and after CEL, is that research continues to be part of our lives after leaving the classroom. We conduct professional research to be sure, but much more often research enters our daily lives in the hunt for new recipes, developing an understanding of a political candidate’s platform, trying to find out where we know that actor’s face from, or (mild spoilers for the newest season of The Crown ahead!) whether or not the British government really believed they had a spy occupying the office of Prime Minister. We need to prepare our students to do the kind of serious research that their professional lives may include, but we also need to prepare them to do the kind of research that will enrich their day to day lives and help them to be responsible citizens.

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The good news is that the standards really are on our side. In looking at some of the Common Core’s standards for research in the 11-12th grades, you’ll notice that the phrases “self-generated questions” and “solve a problem” feature prominently. Another standard asks that students use “advanced searches effectively.” Nowhere is a specific form of research assignment or type of source named. We believe this gives teachers the wiggle room necessary to help students research meaningfully in the same authentic ways that real people tend to research. 

NCTE provides additional support in their position statements on both teaching writing and literacy. When we define writing broadly, as NCTE does, it becomes clear that the research paper is not the only way to have students present their research findings. And when we consider the questions NCTE raises when defining literacy, it becomes clear that we are called to do more than simply have students write research papers. 

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In our presentation at CEL 2019 (the slides for which you can access here) we discussed a few ways that teachers can rethink the research that they ask students to do. We pointed out to attendees that even on a show like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, an incredible amount of research goes into presenting a short comedic, yet highly informative segment (Note: the video clip in our presentation from Last Week Tonight is probably more appropriate for adults than for your students). In teaching our students that research is about action—that we’re supposed to do something with our research— we can refocus their purposes in formulating a research question in the first place. 

By expanding our conceptions of what student research looks like, it’s likely that for many of our students, they will research meaningfully for the first time. 

Shari Krapels

Shari Krapels
is a high school English teacher and newspaper advisor in northern New Jersey. She is also a member of a county wide group of teachers and administrators working together to develop best practices in assessment for students in addition to being an alum of ASCD’s Emerging Leaders program.


Jeff KrapelsJeff Krapels is a high school English and journalism teacher in northern New Jersey. He is the chair of his school professional development committee,  the co-chair of his district’s regional professional learning board, and a technology coach in his building. Outside of his home district, Jeff is a member of NJCTE, NCTE and CEL, and he presents at conferences at both the state and national level. He also writes about education topics for sites like Edutopia and at his personal blog


Reflecting on Change

[This post was originally posted on the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Blog on December 4, 2019. Reposted with permission. All photos are courtesy of the author.]

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:

Tommy Orange NCTE

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.

Stachowiak CEL

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.

Parker CEL

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).


Leading with Solidarity: Centering Trans and Non-Binary Voices


As someone whose way of being as a human and as a scholar is rooted in anti-oppression activism, and as someone who identifies as genderqueer (and non-binary trans), I am often asked by cisgender educators how people can support trans and non-binary adults and children. I usually can’t give the answer in a 30-second elevator speech, or in a conference workshop, or even a day-long professional development, so I find myself telling people to do what I think is the single most important thing any privileged person needs to do: to center the voices of minoritized people.

Of course, that is no small feat, and it is my hope that in my answer, people go and do the ongoing work of recognizing and interrogating their own biases as they move to be anti-oppressive.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that when I’m met with overwhelmed stares, it’s likely in part because the person asking knows how much important work is involved on their part. But, it’s also probably in part because most people have not had the opportunity to truly understand what it means to “center” minoritized voices.

Centering is about being in solidarity with others. It’s about listening to, believing (as in trusting, not as in believing in), and supporting the needs of minoritized people. This is much bigger work than a blog, but I’d like to offer a few ways people can get started on the important work of centering trans and non-binary voices.

  1. Acknowledge that cissexism happens every single day, in every single space.

The simplest way to understand privilege is to realize that if something doesn’t seem to be an issue for you, it’s probably because you have privilege. Cisgender people often don’t know how problematic not having all-gender restrooms is – not because they don’t care – but because they don’t have to think about it on a daily basis like trans or non-binary people do. This is called cisgender privilege.

Even if you can’t (or don’t) see cissexism happening, if you acknowledge that it is happening all around you, then you are actively working to dismantle silencing and create visibility.

non-binary flag

  1. Be an educated accomplice (and educate others).

I like to use the word “accomplice” instead of ally because it implies active collaboration and solidarity with, not just being in passive support of, trans and non-binary people. And we need accomplices – educated ones. Some quick ways you can educate yourself:

      • Know trans and non-binary history
      • Recognize how cissexism is denied, minimized, and justified (and notice if/how you do these things)
      • Notice who holds power and how it is (mis)used
      • Use trans-inclusive language
      • Know your own limits as an accomplice

Being an educated accomplice requires you to educate yourself. Watch videos, read books and articles, learn from experts. But don’t rely on trans or non-binary people to do all the work of teaching you. Be accountable to yourself and respectful of trans and non-binary peoples’ time and assets.

  1. Be aware of, equalize, and leverage power.

I often hear people talk about “giving” something to others when they talk about centering voices, whether it’s a spot at the table or the stage and a microphone that previously wasn’t available to them.

This is problematic thinking, though, because it implies that trans and non-binary people are powerless until cisgender people bestow upon them their powers. This upholds systemic oppression by reinforcing a hierarchy of identity (i.e., cisgender people have something that trans/non-binary people do not, and they are therefore valued better). The reality is that we all have the right to have power, but systemic oppression denies power to some individuals.

It’s important to remember this – that we all have the right to hold power – because centering trans and non-binary people means that cisgender people are aware of when they hold power, how they can share (not transfer, give up, or give away) power, and how they can use their power support, not oppress, trans and non-binary people.

Image result for diverse teens school stock photo

  1. Remember your “why.”

To center trans and non-binary people is to be in solidarity with them, not to just help them. Work hard to interrogate your own motives for centering their voices, making sure to avoid the ever-oppressive “savior complex” that keeps the us-versus-them mentality thriving in harmful ways. A good “why” to have when collaborating with minoritized individuals is to maintain human dignity for all.

  1. Intentionally create space that fosters solidarity.

Spaces where trans and non-binary people are centered are those where they are able to share everything they want to share – their narratives, experiences, needs, wants, worries – and where cisgender people heed how much space they themselves take up in those places.

Listen. Ask questions. Practice humility. Listen some more.

If you’re going to be at the Conference on English Leadership, I invite you to join me for the Monday morning keynote where we’ll be taking this topic to a more in-depth level and talking about how English leaders (and leaders in general) can provide support and solidarity for their trans and non-binary faculty, staff, students, and families.

¹A cisgender person is one whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.

² Cissexism is prejudice or discrimination against trans or non-binary people. When these people are denied restroom access that matches their gender identity, for example, or they are asked to leave a restroom by others who believe they do not belong, this is cissexism. Though only one example, this happens every single day. Trans and non-binary people know this; cisgender people do not (because privilege).

dana3 (1)by Dana Stachowiak

Dr. Dana Stachowiak is the Director of Women’s Studies & Resource Center and an Associate Professor at of Curriculum Studies at The University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Ready for Baltimore and #CEL19!

HERO 1 -- Baltimore Evening Panorama - Quarter Res_Web72DPI_0

Exactly a month from now I’ll be in Baltimore, Maryland for CEL’s 51st Annual Convention. It’s hard to believe that nearly a year has passed since the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration in Houston. Even more mind boggling to me is that it’s been nearly two years since I agreed to serve as this year’s program chair.

I am SO EXCITED for this year’s convening.  And I’m so thankful for all the help I’ve received from CEL’s executive committee and its members as I’ve tried to organize the program around this year’s theme: “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum.”

If you found your way to this blog and are wondering why you should attend #CEL19 OR if you’re already planning to attend and wanting to know a little more about what’s in store, here’s what you can look forward to:

1.  Some remarkable keynote speakers.  This year’s lineup of keynotes will begin on Sunday afternoon with Project Lit Community founder, Jarred Amato.  Monday keynotes include breakfast with Dana Stachowiak, the director of UNC-Wilmington’s Women’s Studies and Resource Center, and lunch with Kimberly Parker, co-founder of #DisruptTexts and assistant director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA.  We are so fortunate to learn with and from all three of them. 


2.  Equally remarkable sessions. This year’s sessions fall into four different strands: Instruction, Technology, Professional Development, and Leadership.  And, the session choices vary widely. We’ll have presenters challenging us to think about instructional coaching, the needs of working mothers, critical media pedagogy, reimagining professional development, rebuilding after a strike, teaching climate change, implementing district-wide LGBTQ curriculum, action research, models of mentorship, and navigating conflict.  This year’s program offers 40+ sessions, including three 2-hour focused workshops on Tuesday morning led by experienced, innovative CEL members. 

3.  Opportunities to network with inspired and inspiring literacy leaders from all over the country.  Registration is still happening, but we already know that members from AL, WI, FL, MI, TX, CA, NJ, NY, PA, VA, GA, IL, NE, TN, KY, CT, MD, KS, NC, CO, AZ, NV, HI, MO, DE, and OK will be there! If you want to learn about what colleagues are doing in diverse communities across the United States (and Canada!) as well as build powerful networks, there are numerous ways to do this throughout the conference.


4.  Food!  As part of your registration, you will be provided with Monday breakfast and lunch as well as coffee Tuesday morning (the catering order is in!). There will also be an opportunity for you to meet and share a meal with members on Sunday night during our facilitated dinners at local Baltimore restaurants. These dinners (although not included in your registration) will be organized and hosted by one or two CEL members and all attendees are invited to participate. Sign up sheets will be available at and following the opening session on Sunday. 

5.  Quality conversation and powerful professional relationships.  Every year, I’m thankful for the people I’ve met through CEL because they inspire and challenge me. This year’s conversation will begin on Sunday, extend into Sunday night’s social (following the Sunday sessions and before the facilitated dinners), continue through breakfast and lunch on Monday as well as at Monday night’s meet-up, and then thread its way into Tuesday’s workshops and the closing Collaborative Engaged Leaders Forum. You’ll have time to think and talk — and think and talk some more, so if there’s a problem you’re trying to solve or an initiative you’d like to get off the ground; if there are resources you need, or mentoring you need to find; OR, if you just want to be inspired, you’re in the right place. 

As I mentioned before, I am SO EXCITED for #CEL19.  If you haven’t attended before, please do! If you’re attending or presenting at CEL for the first time, a joyous welcome.  And if you’ve attended in year’s past…thanks for coming again.  

In the meantime, keep an eye out on Twitter (@ncte_cel) for updates and for session promos! Learn more about us through our new podcast series #CELtalks: And, if you’re now wondering how you can register, just head to the CEL website:

I can’t wait to see all of you in Baltimore! 

by Emily S. Meixner

emilyEmily S. Meixner, 2019 CEL Convention Chair

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