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.

January Image 2

January Image 1

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. 

January Image 3

January Image 4

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

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.