I Believe in Literacy (Advocacy)

CEL member Christina McCabe shares her ideas on how to highlight students’ voices in “This I Believe” essays. Follow the links to hear some of her students’ work.


by Christina McCabe

“Ms. McCabe, I have nothing to write about.” “Nothing’s ever happened to me.” “Do I really have to share it with the class?”

I hear these comments every year as we begin what I always tell my students is my favorite unit ever. Every freshman at Chatham High School writes a This I Believe essay, an authentic assignment inspired by the radio program of the same name. We ask our students to think about what they value, what they believe in, and why… where do these beliefs come from? Every year I am blown away by the stories they share — from the funny to the insightful to the inspiring. Students learn that they believe in fairies, in contact lenses, in sunsets, and in making wrong turns. They learn to find their voice, and they realize that they have stories that are worth telling to audiences who want to hear them.  

It is beautiful to see students’ growth throughout this unit. We spend a few days listening to each other share our stories; as students receive positive feedback and are asked questions about what they shared, I see them smile and stand a little taller knowing that people listened and cared. In an effort to extend their audience beyond the classroom, we record their essays and I create a website of podcasts which I share with the school community, parents, and beyond (through Twitter, conferences, etc.). I believe that the stories of our students matter. I believe in using reading and writing to help students find their voice. I believe in the power of words. I believe in literacy.


Statement from the Conference on English Leadership Executive Committee Regarding Its Annual Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 19–20, 2017

August 23, 2017

Each year the members of the Conference on English Leadership eagerly anticipate our Annual Convention. We look forward to the opportunity for literacy leaders to convene in one location so that we can learn, collaborate, and grow together. This year is no different.

Except that it is.

Over a year ago, CEL selected “Literacy Leadership for Access and Opportunity” as our convention theme. Little did we realize how critical these conversations about ensuring access to rich, diverse literacy experiences for our students would be, come November. But they are, and so the reason for our anticipation about the CEL Annual Convention has shifted. While the Convention will remain an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and grow, it will also be a call to action. CEL Convention attendees will engage in critical conversations about equity, race, and diversity issues that will prepare and empower us so we return to our schools ready to guide and support teachers as they create more inclusive, accepting learning environments.unnamed

In a NCTE blog post published on August 15, Jocelyn Chadwick, President of NCTE, stated, “We move forward, toward the controversy, toward any controversy that affects children’s right to lifelong literacy and our teachers’ right and ability to teach them.” CEL moves forward, too. As literacy leaders, we move toward St. Louis with a renewed sense of purpose to unite our communities and to advocate for our students and their teachers. NCTE is in contact with the Missouri chapter of the NAACP and local agencies to create opportunities for members to engage in outreach efforts throughout the Convention. Please look for more details about these opportunities soon.

We hope you will join us for CEL’s Annual Convention in St. Louis on November 19 and 20as we move forward, toward the opportunity to be better and to lead better.

New School Year Resolutions


by Erinn Bentley

Like many other teachers facing the end of summer break, my thoughts turn to the new school year. Every year, I begin fall semester with some “resolutions” –ways to improve my practices or stretch my pedagogical beliefs. This year I have created resolutions based on lessons learned from one of my summer classes. As an English education faculty member, I had the joy of teaching an undergraduate course focused on young adult literature as a part of a study abroad program. For three weeks, my students and I studied the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in England. Our “classroom” became the museums, streets, churches, and courtyards of Oxford and London. In many ways, it was an idyllic experience. There were also a few unexpected twists and turns in our journey: Cancelled trains. Rainy weather. Museum closures. Homesick students. These positive and challenging experiences impacted my perspectives as an educator. While my new insights are not ground breaking, they are small ways I plan to shift my focus.  I am sharing these ideas as reminders for us all – as teachers, administrators, and colleagues – that the new school year can be a good time to reflect on our past experiences and set tangible future goals.

Resolution #1: Allow yourself (and your students) permission to get lost. 

During our travels, we took some wrong turns. Literally. One detour included an unanticipated two-mile walk along the Thames. As the trip’s leader, I was frustrated at having made such a logistical blunder. My students, though, did not seem to mind. They gleefully snapped photos of the sights we encountered and chatted pleasantly. I realized that had we not gotten lost, we would have missed an exquisite view of the Tower Bridge, missed taking selfies at Cleopatra’s Needle, and missed this time of laughter. This experience confirmed what I already knew about myself as a teacher – I like to make a plan and stick to it. Of course, I will change due dates or revise activities when needed, but for the most part, I follow my prescribed plan.


Becoming lost, I discovered that my students did not think I was a failure as an instructor or leader. In fact, by getting lost together, we learned how to trust one another, how to navigate using landmarks, and how to problem-solve. As I begin the new school year, I plan to embrace this resolution by letting go of some control. Rather than feeling uncomfortable if students veer off-course during a discussion or a committee meeting does not go as planned, I will take a deep breath and see where we go. I will admit to my students and colleagues when I have “lost” moments (instead of trying to fake my way through them). I will focus less on the destination (e.g., the “perfect” lesson) and focus more on building relationships with students and colleagues along our journeys.





Resolution #2: View the world as your classroom.

The curriculum in a study abroad setting is obviously different from that in a traditional classroom. Through walking tours, museum visits, live performances, and lunches in pubs, we experienced the places, events, and people that inspired various literary works. As I begin this school year, I am challenging myself to find ways to continue to make the world my classroom. As part of our study of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we visited the Imperial War Museum in London to learn about the displacement of families during the Blitz bombings of WWII.


While I cannot take my students on actual field trips across the globe this fall, I can design virtual ones. In the past I have incorporated primary source documents, photographs, artwork, audio files, videos, etc.
into my instruction by utilizing materials from places such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the British Museum. 

My resolution this year is to design at least one virtual field trip for each semester, in which students do more than simply examine a single document or artifact. By better integrating digital archives and collections into my classroom, I want my students to become so immersed that learning is a lived experience.

Resolution #3: Embrace the moment.

Traveling in a new place can cause sensory overload! With so much to process, it was easy to get lost in a blur of sights and smells. Throughout our trip, I scheduled time for my students to simply journal about their experiences. Those were some of my happiest moments from the trip. Too often, I am so busy “doing” life that I forget to pause and reflect. Or, perhaps I feel guilty taking time to pause, as there are always many tasks on my to-do list. I tend to mark time based on the academic calendar –measuring weeks based on a semester’s length and dividing hours among meetings, class sessions, and other obligations.  My focus usually is on upcoming events – the next break, the next conference, or the next project deadline.


My third resolution for this school year is to take time to pause and reflect. Learn how to better embrace a moment rather than fill each hour. Take time to journal about my experiences. Take time to have coffee or lunch with a colleague. This year I will set my own pace.

Erinn Bentley is an associate professor of English education at Columbus State University, where she currently teaches and supervises pre-service teachers on-site in local high schools.



Reason, Emotion, Thinking, and Writing in School

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Peter Smagorinsky, The University of Georgia

Writers Who Care….The name of this blog suggests an assumption that emotions are foundational to writing, and I’d add, to living life. You’d never know it, however, from the ways in which schools view writing as a form of “cold cognition”: purely analytic reasoning, unadulterated by underlying feelings, which are believed in the context of school to be illogical and inappropriate. The analysis of the most moving of literature must itself be dry as a bone, with students often forbidden from using “I” to express their interpretations, as if their papers are written by an “objective” observer….who doesn’t care at all.

Smagorinsky_Reason,EmotionBut not so fast. This summer I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt addresses how people with radically different ideologies all claim that reason is on their side, and that any…

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What Summer Writing Looks Like in Our House

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Anne Elrod Whitney, Ph.D.

Our summer is getting started, and all around us families are making plans, changing routines, looking back at the just-past school year and thinking in a vague, anticipatory kind of way to the next one. These are the days when saying “I’m going into _th grade” still sounds new and grown-up to the kids who say it.

These are also the days when moms and dads ask me what my kids will be writing this summer. Since I’m a professor of education focusing on writing, the parents in my community know I have opinions on what’s good for kids as writers. They worry, too, about “Summer loss,” in which kids lose skills over the summer which then have to be retaught the following fall.

Here’s what I tell them: summer writing will and should be different from school writing. So much growth…

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Does the study of grammar improve writing?

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Lindsay Jeffers

In a casual conversation on the patio this weekend, my mom brought up the importance of diagramming sentences so that my daughter could learn how to write well.  My husband started to chuckle, anticipating what I was about to say in response.  As I fumbled through an explanation of why diagramming sentences is not an effective way to improve writing skills, I recalled this great post by Patricia Dunn, which succinctly sums up the research on traditional approaches to grammar and their effect on writing and also provides links to those studies.

Dunn writes:

“When well-meaning teachers use the same old isolated grammar drills, textbook exercises, or worksheets that students’ grandparents may have been subjected to when they were in school, students’ writing does not improve.”  She continues, “Peer-reviewed research over the past fifty years has consistently shown that isolated grammar drills and worksheets do not…

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The Curriculum Seesaw: Finding the Balance of Canon and Contemporary Books in Curriculum Design

In curriculum design, sometimes I feel like we are seesawing between two extremes:  the kids’ need for choice in contemporary literature and teachers’ need to provide rigorous, traditional, and complex texts. This blog highlights how we attempted to find a balance.

by Karen Reed-Nordwall


Student researching women’s issues after reading I Am Malala.

Is Huck Finn relevant to this generation? Is it important to teach the canon?  How do we continue to allow student choice in book selections and avoid fake reading? How do we include diverse authors and which ones? Should we include graphic novels?  How do we preserve teacher choice in our curriculum?

These are a just a few of the questions that have ricocheted around my brain for the past two years during my English department’s curriculum cycle. What we teach directly affects our students. Our students aren’t stagnant–as they change their world is also changing. And so we teachers always wonder, both before we begin a unit and as we end, if we gave them what they needed. Here is a central set of questions that our department battled with this past year during our curriculum redesign:

Is it important to teach the canon, and how do we add in diverse authors?

Our answer:  Yes, we agreed the canon should be taught, and we settled on 50% of the time. That ratio is what worked for our students AND teacher’s needs as content experts. The canon matters; it is relevant and complex and the foundation for English literacy.  By limiting ourselves to 50% of our time, we had to make VERY difficult decisions.  The other 50% of students’ time needed to be grappling with contemporary writers. We chose pieces that resonated with kids (relevant and engaging), allowed them to step in another’s shoes, and taught them about the human experience.  As our students are facing a globally connected future, it was crucial to find books that represented more than just one race, economic status, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.  For engagement, students were looking for their own life experiences to be reflected back at them so they could learn about themselves and validate their own experience. We also know the power of empathy through books and wanted to make sure students were exposed to as many alternative perspectives as possible throughout their education.  Furthermore, like the canon, the books we chose for our curriculum also needed to be complex text: challenging and causing students’ literacy to grow.  

Ninth Grade Example

We kept 50% of the cannon and added in 50% of contemporary/diverse voices. We also still allowed students to choose their own books, but we had some whole-class reads, too. For example, in English 9, we read The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy, The Odyssey (excerpt), The Woman Warrior (excerpt), Romeo and Juliet, I Am Malala (YA version), Gettysburg Address, Night (excerpt), I have a Dream, and March:  Book One and/or March: Book Two.  Students also chose their own books, and we read short stories, blogs, articles, and poems.

Our ninth grade students loved the graphic novels we chose this year. My students loved reading about Congressman John Lewis in the March series and were interested to learn about the Freedom Rides and how many protesters were like them. They all loved the idea that young people like Malala and the Freedom Riders could make a difference in the world.  I highly recommend adding in some graphic novels (March: Book One, March: Book Two, and The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy) and giving time to read choice books in class, even if it’s only ten minutes each day. It was the time the students most looked forward to every day.

This list is not revolutionary nor perfect, and I recognize that some schools do not have the budget to purchase new titles. This is our attempt at finding a balance, and the students appreciated the new books and chance to explore themes that interested them this year.


Karen Reed-Nordwall is an English Department Chair at Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills, MI where she currently teaches ninth and twelfth grades. She serves as a Member-at-Large for the Conference of English Leadership (CEL). You can follow her on Twitter at kr09bps.

Studying comics and setting students up to be thoughtful and creative composers

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Ashley K. Dallacqua, PhD

As a small group of seventh-grade students sit down to a working lunch, they immediately peer over each other’s shoulders, admiring the work on the desks. Walking by the room one might see students hunched over paper with colored pencils or pointing at another’s work exclaiming “Oh wow!,” “I like that too!,” “How long did that take you?,” or “I like your faces!” There is an energy to their composition practices and a thoughtful and supportive attention to detail. During a year-long inquiry around comics and graphic novels, these students were invited, regularly, to be composers. As they worked to create both informative and aesthetic comics responses, students made choices as writers and as artists. This was work that students valued. As one middle school student shared with me, reading and composing comics “was like a weight off of my shoulders to be able to…

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Teachers’ Writing Matters

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

As we leave the school year behind, many teachers will finally have long-awaited time to relax and sit outside with a good book. Others will return to the classroom as students themselves. Our hope is that teachers will use the summer months to begin (or finish!) writing projects of their own.

Meg Petersen discusses why teachers should write, particularly about themselves and their experiences, and share that work with their students. In this way, they may work more confidently with student writing.

“There is a deeper reason, however, for teachers of all subjects and levels to write about their lives and share these stories with each other.  Writing and sharing narratives of our own experience helps us understand how our lives in and outside of the classroom are shaped by our identities and cultures.  We can come to see our way of understanding the world as only one of many…

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My Kid is Creating YouTube Videos?

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

Jonathan Rochelle, project manager of Google Apps for Education and co-founder of Google Docs and Sheets, considers the role of YouTube in his son’s life.

Within the past year, my 13-year-old son, Jeremy, started showing a deep interest in making videos. He was mostly inspired by other young talents he saw on YouTube and by a friend of his, who had started a business making videos for local sports and events.

When Jeremy jumped into online publication, I asked myself the same questions many parents do:  If my kid starts a YouTube channel, or a blog, or some other creative outlet online, should I support it or kill it? Will it take time and attention away from school work, just increasing their already over-spent “screen time”?

Find out the answer to these important questions in Jonathan’s 2014 post, My Kid is Creating YouTube Videos?

Screenshot of a Youtube channel titled "Techspective- Tech from a younger perspective"

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