By Ellen Foley
One of my former students, Milton, was distraught when he received his first paper from his sophomore English teacher: “C-” was scrawled, in red ink, at the top of the page. Several grammar mistakes had been circled (also in red ink), and there were a few question marks in the margins. That was it.
Milton craved what we all crave when we submit our ideas to another person: validation that the ideas have been understood, and, if not, questions and suggestions for clarification, some encouragement to keep writing, and, according to Grant Wiggins, some comments on how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. With all of these demands, it’s no wonder that providing meaningful feedback is so difficult.
Inquiring into Writing Feedback
I teach a course titled Writing in the Secondary School at Western Michigan University for eager, soon-to-be English teachers. One…
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It took me a few weeks to get our bulletin board remodel going, but now we’re making progress. (See Part 1 here.) The bulletin boards are bare and my students are planning what they will create and bring in to hang on the walls.
(I left the life skill posters up on the green bulletin board because they are too high for me to reach and the students agreed that they were helpful reminders. The cursive alphabet is staying, too, if only for nostalgia. Maybe it will even inspire some students to give it a try.)
I surveyed my students a few weeks ago to find out who they would like to work with on a bulletin board, and then I put them in groups based on these requests. Some groups are big (6 or even 8 students) and some are smaller (the smallest is a pair). The size…
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by Christopher Bronke
How do you teach something that you yourself doesn’t fully understand? In what ways can you attempt to enlighten your students to concepts that you yourself wrestle with daily? How can you craft units of study that center on elements of our society that will always be foreign to you the teacher?
You dive in, head first, embracing the messiness, wrapping your arms around the unanswered and possibly unanswerable, and you tell your students that these units are as much for you as it is for them.
This is how I created a semester-long examination of the concepts of otherness and privilege for my freshmen students…and for ME.
I have always given lip service to the general idea that, as I tell my students, I hope I learn as much this year from you as you learn from me. And while I truly have always believed that statement, never before had it felt so real and honest to be saying it as it did on Thursday, September 12, 2017 as I stood at the front of the class with Beverly Tatum’s Seven Categories of Otherness projected on the screen behind me. Acutely aware that I am not an other in any of her seven categories, that I am, as I like to tell my students, the “unstereotypeable” — white, middle/upper class, educated, straight, Christian male. And yet somehow I was now going to spend the next 15 weeks guiding my students through a study of otherness which would lead us into an examination of privilege.
Unit Design–using literature as a mirror and a window
I have always started my year using Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as it is short and accessible, yet provides students with room for good thematic and stylistic conversations. There have been years in which I have used this text to explore gender, others in which we study race, but this year would be different. We would use this text to directly explore all elements of otherness, to determine who are the others in this text, why they are such, and how they react to being other.
I firmly hoped that this would ground my students in a deeper understanding of, what is for me and for many of my students, a challenge to grasp. How does one fully understand otherness when he is almost never an other? And even for some of my students who trigger a few of Tatum’s categories, Downers Grove is, as a whole, a society of “the norm”, a town of the “what we are supposed to be”, and a school of “those that ‘fit in’”. For me to help them get to a point where we could start to explore the privileges associated with growing up in such a town, we needed to start with an exploration of just how “not other” we, generally speaking, are.
From there, we moved into a text set that I hoped, both directly and indirectly, would guide my students through a practical exploration of their own and other’s privilege (or lack thereof). I constructed our second reading experience around the following texts:
- excerpts of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
- Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun
- a Sandra Cisneros essay called “Notes of a Native Daughter” (taken from a collection of texts called Tales of Two Americas edited by John Freeman
- This Buzzfeed privilege walk
- two essays, both originally written by students for the Princeton school paper, that appeared on Time.com. (you can find a link to essay two at the bottom of this link I shared)
This text set did a few things for us. First, it challenged students with a wide-range of reading levels and genres. For me, this had to be at the core of what we did because I didn’t want to lose the skill-development part of my job in favor of the thematic nature of the unit; it needed to have both. This text set allowed students to engage deeply in complex texts. However, it also provided a wide-range of viewpoints, some directly and others indirectly, exploring the concept of privilege. It allowed students to look inside of their own experiences and outwards at the experiences of others to, hopefully, better understand the concept of privilege.
The end goal, other than great conversation and individual growth, was a personal argument paper in which students, using their own experiences and evidence from the texts, had to write to the following prompt:
Agree, disagree, or qualify the following statement: privilege has played a role in who I am today.
The resulting student pieces were personal and raw, honest and reflective. This style of writing forced them to navigate elements of narrative and storytelling with the deeply intellectual analysis of other’s writing. And while there are many elements of these units that I will adjust and enhance for next year (I will discuss this later), I feel as if this unit really pushed students in ways that made them intellectually and personally uncomfortable yet supported emotionally and academically. But don’t take my word for it…
What the STUDENTS had to say…
Upon the completion of these two units, I surveyed my students asking two essential questions:
- What were your takeaways from studying otherness and privilege?
- Did you see value in studying otherness and privilege this year? Why or why not?
I am truly proud to report that to question number two, 27/28 students responded “yes”; while I would have loved to have seen 28/28, that number truly made me feel like the risks associated with units like these were well worth it. But I will let the students’ words do the talking:
Responses to question one–What were your takeaways from studying otherness and privilege?
- That I am more privileged than I had ever imagined.
- I believe that everyone should learn about the concepts of otherness and privilege. Even in a school like Downers North, where there are little cases of otherness, we should be more aware of it.
- I didn’t know much about privilege and otherness and this unit really helped me understand that they are present in all we do and that both are interwoven into our lives.
- Learning about privilege and otherness has been super cool as it is something everyone deals with. I feel that learning these topics has helped me in my learning and overall as a person.
- I think that the thing that left an imprint on me the most is how the people who are most oblivious to these concepts are usually the ones creating them.
- It was hard to learn that some of my success is due to my privilege, but that pushed me to really understand how hard some people have to work.
Responses to question two–Did you see value in studying otherness and privilege this year? Why or why not?
- I absolutely see the value in studying privilege especially at such a critical age when we are starting to decide on our own beliefs. It is important to be as educated as possible.
- I definitely see a value in studying otherness and privilege because the only other place we discuss it is probably at the dinner table so we only see our families perspective.
- I think that there was a high value in studying these two topics because it made me more self aware of how lucky I am and how hard it can be for those who don’t fit “social norms” or have privilege.
Where I Could Do Better (and would love your help…)
Despite wonderful feedback from my students, I know that there is a lot I could do better and should do differently.
- The text set, while good, was too narrow. There are elements of otherness and privilege that we just didn’t get to discussing much, and that was my fault because of the scope of the text set. I know for a fact that I need to include a LGBTQ perspective to this text set as well as look to provide the perspective of a religion or two that is outside of Tatum’s “norm.” This is non-negotiable for me, and someplace I would love your help. I created this Padlet, and I hope that, after reading this piece, you might consider posting texts you have or do use to help teach either otherness or privilege.
- I would have liked to bring in more “real” voices to the conversation. I know that the texts I used were good (and will be better next year), but I think that students would have loved to literally hear from (and maybe even get to do a Q&A with) people from all walks of life who have to navigate otherness and/or privilege in ways that maybe the majority of my students (and I) don’t. Please feel free to email me (email@example.com) if you might be willing to Skype/GHO into class next year to share and engage with the class.
- Next year I will have students do more consistent journaling along the way which will serve as consistent reflection and good prewriting for the paper at unit’s end.
- I would like to find a safe way for students to share their papers, too. This is tricky because of the personal nature of the assignment, but I think it would be great for students to read/hear from their peers about the impact of these concepts/constructs on their lives.
My ultimate reflection is this: teaching these concepts in a predominately white, upper-middle class community was risky, but at the end of the day, that is probably what drove my passion to do so, and it is why I am so glad that I did.
Chris Bronke is English Department Chair in Downers Grove, Illinois. Follow him on Twitter: @MrBronke and check out his blog: http://www.medium.com/@mrbronke.
By Amber Jensen
In the years I’ve spent as a student and a teacher in middle and high school, I have both asked and been asked the ubiquitous question: “But why do we have to learn this?” And I’ve told and been told the answer that so often follows: “You’re going to need to know it when you get to college.”
It’s no secret that preparation for college looms large for both teachers and students. It’s second nature to think about learning in the context of what students need to know to get into college and what they will be expected to do when they arrive. Whether it’s MLA format, grammatical structures, thesis statements, or integrating textual evidence, teachers so often reassure students that today’s learning tasks are made relevant by tomorrow’s likely reward. Preparing students to be successful in the future is a really important part of the job…
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In my ongoing efforts to give my students more voice and choice in our classroom, I decided last summer that I would hand over the bulletin boards to them. I wasn’t sure my students even noticed what was on our walls, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t know what they needed to see that might impact their learning. But the start of the year came and we hit the ground running with our NaNoWriMo work. My bulletin boards continued to be filled with traditional classroom stuff: reminders of rules and procedures, inspirational quotes, book posters, comics that reflected fun with language, and occasionally some student work.
Over winter break I decided that the start of a new semester in January would be a good time to address this. Our classroom was now an established community, so it might be easier to talk about what we need on…
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At the end of 2017, we are thankful for the many contributions that have made Teachers, Parents, Profs: Writers Who Care an ongoing voice for authentic writing instruction. In 2017, the Writers Who care blog had over 21,000 visitors from countries all over the world. We published 20 new posts written by teachers, parents, and professors on topics such as school writing vs. authentic writing, writing at home with kids in the summer, supporting bilingual writers, and studying comics.
In September of 2013, the blog published its first post with this mission:
- Spotlight and celebrate the powerful writing work that teachers and students currently do, and illustrate how that work could potentially be affected by certain educational and/or political policies.
- Circulate information about teaching practices and policies, so that our audiences can advocate strongly for students and teachers.
- Address how research affects writing in schools and…
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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.” As 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.”
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 www.everydayadvocacy.org) 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.
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?
By Patricia A. Dunn
Whether students compose arguments for tests or for real-world genres such as online petitions, public service announcements, complaints to manufacturers, letters to editors, etc., their writing would be more persuasive if they acknowledged and understood opposing views. As more and more people today shield themselves from positions with which they disagree (by limiting their news channels and social media feeds), how can students learn to open the minds of those who don’t already agree with them? The first canon of ancient rhetoric—invention (exploring an issue thoroughly)—can help.
What is Invention, and Why Do We Need It for Writing?
Ancient rhetoricians designed invention strategies to help speakers understand and consider many sides to an issue, not simply to address the concerns of opponents but to possibly negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to a problem. We know invention today mostly through “pre-writing” exercises that help students think…
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by Ann D. David and Megan Janak
Writing in Room 103
- How big is a blue whale really? Is it bigger than our room?
- Who would win in head to head race, a tiger or a cheetah?
- Are naked mole rats really naked?
First graders inquire, and as their teacher, I work to draw upon their desire to know more about their interests using writing inside Room 103. So as we embarked upon a research and inquiry-based unit of study, my writers were enthusiastic to become experts in new areas and not in the least bit hesitant or concerned about the work they were to face because of their existing workshop knowledge and experience. We had been living a writing cycle in our collective writerly life.
Since the first day of school, my first graders have seen themselves as part of a community of writers who read, write, and think…
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