Reflections on CEL17: Literacy Leadership for Access and Opportunity

by Emily Meixner

At times, attending and participating in a professional conference can feel a little like spending several days in a ball pit – so much excitement, so many people, so many ideas that you can either burrow into, let bounce off you, or hold possessively onto until you’re ready to throw them back into the pile and see where they end up.  Attending a conference can be exhilarating, but like the ball pit, it can also be exhausting.


This year’s CEL convention in St. Louis was, at least for me, a combination of all of these things. It was a time to reconnect with old and new friends as well as an opportunity to rededicate myself to the difficult yet meaningful work I do every day as an English professor and coordinator of a secondary English education program.  In St. Louis I had the opportunity to share ideas and experiences that are currently informing my professional practice, and I was challenged again and again by my colleagues to ask the kinds of questions that keep me working toward the goals articulated in this year’s convention theme, “Literacy Leadership for Access and Opportunity.”


Currently, literacy leaders face a multitude of challenges.  These were very clearly articulated by many of the participants who attended one of the convention’s first sessions, “Leadership in a Time of Political Discord.”  UnknownAs we shared experiences across geographical locations and professional roles, we kept returning to the fact that we are working in a time in which many of our constituents – students, teachers, colleagues, parents – feel uncomfortable.  Political discord is often uncivil.  Ideologies seem more entrenched than ever.  It’s often easy to feel like we’re all playing on different teams and that we’re working against rather than with each other.



But as one of this year’s convention keynote speakers Cornelius Minor pointed out, “You cannot face a dragon if you do not look at it.”  And so much of the work of this year’s convention was identifying strategies to help us – and our teachers and students – face these dragons.  In the session I mentioned earlier, we talked about how important it is to listen, even if we don’t always like what we’re hearing.  We discussed taking on the approaches used by community organizers in which we engage our constituents in one-on-one conversations to identify common values. We reminded ourselves that we work as a community, that we are resources for each other and we’re not alone.  And we committed to using our voices to advocate for instructional practices and institutional policies that best serve our diverse students and colleagues.



These were just some of the shared ideas that were meaningful to me at this year’s convention.   What follows are moments of inspiration and actionable take-aways from other CEL members who attended this year’s conference, too.  Please feel free to share your voice and your ideas as well.

Emily Meixner, CEL Member-at-Large,
Associate Professor of English, The College of New Jersey


Rebecca Sipe, CEL Past Chair

Eastern Michigan University

I appreciated the sessions that directly addressed the messiness of classroom decision making and offered teachers direct ideas for ways to organize the day-to-day. The first session I chaired as well as Oona Abrams’s session highlighted choice and very intentional planning on the part of the teacher. In Oona’s case she was pushing students into new genres and new ideas using a thoughtful, articulated plan. Students were engaged in multiple reading experiences and then she followed that with using those genres as samples for their own writing. The last session I chaired introduced multiple dilemmas that teachers face when selecting literature for either individual or whole class reads. Both sessions were thought provoking and very well delivered.


Nicholas A. Emmanuele, Emerging Leaders Fellow

English Teacher and Department Chair, McDowell Intermediate High School, Erie, PA

Cornelius Minor insisted that “change is not evolutionary, but revolutionary” in education. The Conference on English Leadership forwarded this call for access and opportunity throughout its sessions. While social justice permeated many of our discussions, I was also able to gain insights in revolutionizing my class structure and pedagogical approach to teaching literacy. I came to NCTE and CEL this past November looking to further prepare myself to incorporate workshops, conferencing, portfolios, and standards-based learning/grading into my practice — and how to assist my colleagues in moving toward this mindset (and I did not leave disappointed!). Mr. Minor encouraged teachers to trust their own research to revisit methodologies and challenge institutional practices that are detrimental to our students. Amy Rasmussen and Sarah Zerwin echoed the “revolutionary” impact of reader and writer workshop as transformational, not “just” as curricular add-ons. Heather Rocco and JoEllen McCarthy highlighted reading as “life work” and encouraged us to view every piece of literature as an invitation for students to discover something about themselves, others, or the world. My time spent at CEL allowed me to refine my practice, keep the fire burning, and connect with other passionate and inspiring educators who do what we do best: provide bright futures or our students.


Heather Rocco, CEL Chair

K-12 ELA Supervisor, Chatham, NJ

For many years I have embraced the motto “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.”  This statement has empowered me to do things that may fall outside the norm or the accepted practices in schools.  During his keynote presentation during the CEL Annual Convention, Cornelius Minor, though, proposed a much more thoughtful process to advocate for improving instruction or enacting change.  In his talk he addressed a question I am often asked as well: “How do I get the support of my administrators when I try this [insert radical, but great idea here] in my classroom?”  While I might offer my cheeky response above, Mr. Minor presented a clear, informed pathway to gaining administrative support.  He urged CEL attendees to “Do your research.”  Mr. Minor’s slide (see below) offers the process he uses when enacting change.  He explained that teachers should do professional reading and then make a plan.  Then they should try out this new methodology with a small subset of students for several days, assessing the idea’s effectiveness and the students’ responses.  Once they have tried it for a week or so, educators should review the results, noting what was successful and what may need to be changed.  Mr. Minor explained that if this research reveals that the methodology works, “Then go to your administrators and say I am going to do this and I’ve already tried it with our kids and here is what I’ve learned.”
Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 10.40.06 AM

This informed approach makes it more difficult for naysayers or administrators to say the idea will not or does not work with “our kids.”  If teachers approach their leaders with data and results, they will not need to ask for permission or forgiveness.  They will simply demonstrate how this methodology works and explain how their students will learn because of it!  Thank you, Mr. Minor, for this much improved approach to advocacy!


Natalie Croney, Former CEL Member-at-Large

English Department Chair, Bowling Green High School, KY

We often advise our students to read out of poetry instead of reading into it. When they read into poetry, they make claims based on assumptions instead of what the poem actually says. They depend on their background knowledge more than the words on the page, and they come to incorrect conclusions that ignore the words on the page altogether. During the St. Louis CEL Conference, I thought deeply about whether and when I make claims about students based on assumptions about them. Those assumptions can stem from their ability distinction, social affiliation, or even their last name. Whatever the identifier, I had to question if I allowed students’ labels to speak louder than the students themselves. How often do I give students the chance to speak? Do I provide opportunities for them to find their voices? And when the students are given the chance to communicate, do I purposefully listen?


What the St. Louis CEL Conference reminded me of is that we must fight for authentic human connection. It is the connection with students that makes it possible for us to teach them. We cannot hope to effectively differentiate instruction, create policy, or lead educators without knowing our students well. We cannot read into them. We must read from the wealth of information that students provide us with when we give them the opportunity to share their stories.


Jeff Krapels, CEL Member

English Teacher, Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, NJ

Cathy Fleischer, Ann Marie Quinlan, and Rebecca Sipe’s “Everyday Advocacy” session provided a framework for a practical, actionable approach to helping educators change those problems that “keep us up at night.” Their method (also detailed on their website encourages teachers to “leverage our expertise to create the changes we know matter most.” In a nutshell, the presenters’ strategy asks that you identify a problem that you’d like to solve. Then, determine who at the local level needs to understand this issue, ie. who is your audience?. Once teachers have done this, they should articulate what their message is–what is it that you want your audience to understand about this issue. Finally, and perhaps this is the hardest part, teachers should be able to identify the desired result if their advocacy engenders change.


I actually saw a lot of connections between “Everyday Advocacy,” and Cornelius Minor’s strategies for effecting change. His suggestion to pilot an idea and use research dovetailed with many of the strategies from this session. In fact, many of the CEL sessions I attended focused on strategies to help teachers change attitudes, cultures, and environments. It was this synergy of ideas that made the experience worth it, and has me excited for Houston next year.


Oona Abrams, ELQ Editor

English Teacher, Chatham High School, NJ

John Krownapple’s keynote address struck the balance between interaction and inspiration. At one point, he had us turn and talk with partners at our tables, using his own childhood experiences as a springboard. We were given the sentence stems, “When you look at me, you might think…., but actually….” It started such deep conversation at our table, and then Krownapple dovetailed that into a discussion about how we automatically label both our students and ourselves. When I think about being a member of CEL, I think about the depth and intimacy of the topics and discussions we’re not afraid to grapple with, and this year’s convention did not disappoint.  I also loved looking back at Kate Baker’s sketchnotes on the session, because she caught some items that I didn’t.

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Sketchnotes by Kate Baker


Janice Schwarze, CEL Associate Chair

Principal, Downers Grove North High School, IL

Timothy Shanahan reminded us of the importance of disciplinary literacy and how ALL teachers, not just ELA teachers, must teach reading.  John Krownapple asserted that the heart of equity is teacher-student relationships.  Cornelius Minor argued that democracy is dependent on literacy, and educators need to provide opportunities for students to fully engage:  to do what is hard, fail, and have the emotional, social and intellectual ability to try again.  The words of these three keynote speakers came together in Steve Zemelman and Madeline Kobayashi’s presentation on giving students voice and agency.  Madeline’s civic action project was inspiring in that she asked students, “What are the labels people put on us that we want to remove?” and then empowered them to conduct research and tell their own stories.  Students produced amazing videos, posters, speeches and essays, experienced firsthand the power of literacy, and realized they can indeed make a difference in our world.  All of this was because the teacher cared enough to take a risk and show students that their voices mattered.  Amazing!


Shari Krapels, CEL Member

English teacher, Cresskill High School, NJ

So much of what I learned at CEL comes back to John Krownapple’s keynote; he reminded us over and over again that we have so much power in our roles through our labels as “teachers” with the people who we call our students. That power we wield is important and worthy of our attention and respect, and through listening to and connecting with other English leaders at CEL, I came away inspired to find that there are so many wonderful people using that power to make beautiful, meaningful changes in their students’ lives. Heather Rocco and JoEllen McCarthy reminded me that a love of reading is “caught, not taught.” Cornelius Minor made me feel brave enough to stare down my dragons, because our responsibility is not just academic, it is social and political. Rebecca Sipe and Cathy Fleischer empowered me to tackle the issues that keep me up at night by providing a framework for doing so. Over and over again I was invigorated, and by the end of our two days together, I felt more ready than ever to go back into my classroom and do the truly essential work that all English teachers do.


Josh Flores, CEL Member-at-Large

Pre-K – 12 ELA Coordinator, Mustang Public Schools, OK

Sometimes I think breakthroughs and original ideas are held back by the fear of being reprimanded by other adults. You would be hard-pressed to find adamant rule followers at CEL, and that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back! Not to say we’re a group focused on breaking the rules, but we do ask critical questions and are willing to explore alternative possibilities.  Disrupting the status quo was a big takeaway for me when interacting with fellow members during Cornelius Minor’s keynote about aspirational discomfort. Cornelius made us reflect on our roles and responsibilities as educators and literacy leaders—to defend the practice. He spoke about the discomfort we should aspire to achieve to grow rather than remaining compliant with a simplistic status quo. But rather than merely giving us inspiring words, Cornelius gave a call to action. As professionals, we shouldn’t quietly rebel against systems we don’t believe in; it is our professional responsibility to design and practice on-going action research together. As I left CEL again this year, my mind was occupied by ideas for empowering my teachers with “weaponized action research” and encouraging them to wield evidence fearlessly as a persuasive tool.



To the many of you who also attended CEL this year (or have attended the Annual Convention in the past), what were your most important take-aways? What will help you provide literacy leadership for access and opportunity?


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