Category Archives: Inquiry

Leveraging Librarians

This post is written by member Oona Abrams, editor of English Leadership Quarterly

 When I was seventeen years old, my (not so) secret wish was to be cast as Marian the Librarian in New Trier High School’s 1992 production of The Music Man. Really, what was there not to love about Marian Paroo? She was the stunning beneficiary of all the books in River City’s library, single, self-sufficient, uncompromising, and unapologetic about her high standards—in short, my heroine.

Par for the course in my high school theater career, I was cast as Marian’s mother. Meh. Mrs. Paroo wasn’t a fan of Marian’s high standards. She wanted her daughter to “manage her expectations” when it came to both books and romance. But Marian was stubborn. She could see through all the pretense of her persistent gentleman caller, Harold Hill. And in the end, by keeping both her standards high and her heart open, she helped Harold discover the most authentic and successful version of himself. While I never got to play the role of Marian the Librarian, I will always share her passion for books and high standards.

This past April, I chaperoned a field trip to the New York Public Library. The CHS Book Club went on a tour with one of the docents there, and it struck me how enraptured the students were. They were stunned by the volumes of periodicals, by the amount of information that is physically stored in one place. And, like most book lovers, they adored the gift shop. It was tough to get them back on the bus, but the enticement of visiting two NYC bookstores did the trick. Of course the architecture and design of NYPL are awe inspiring, but in addition to those details, our students were in awe of the quiet places held sacred there. It reminded me of some of those scenes in the River City library when Harold Hill is scolded for raising his voice, and it certainly stood in contrast to our school library, where students rush in droves during their study hall periods to collaborate—often loudly.

In addition to following rock-star librarians like John Schumacher, Elissa Malespina, and Joyce Valenza on social media, I’m fortunate to have two librarian friends with whom I have regular contact. Mike Curran, who is my school’s LMS, and Susie Highley, a science teacher turned LMS from Indiana. I talk with Susie almost every day on Voxer. She is my first resource for everything from the latest tech tips to a book recommendation for myself, a student, or a family member. I see Mike almost every day as well—he is a steward of learning and a navigator of change in our LMC. As I write this, our library is being redesigned. At the beginning of every marking period, I send Mike a list of titles I’d love to see the school library carry, and he always manages to get them. And they don’t go up on a shelf—he has them displayed in the front hallways and at the entrance of the library. Every time I begin a new unit (memoir, argument, narrative nonfiction), Mike has a cart of books at the ready for my students to peruse. He brings it down to my classroom, allows students to check them out from there, and keeps a running list of titles on our library database for my future reference. This past spring, Mike spread the word about the 2017 NerdCampNJ among his community of librarians, which resulted in a strong cohort coming to share their expertise with literacy leaders. And then, of course, there are my town librarians. I often joke that I’m as popular with them when I walk in the door as Norm is on Cheers (“Oonz!”)

Librarians play several roles, but the most important one is modeling the inquiry and curiosity that we most want to see in our students and in ourselves. And here is the part where I feel like a bit of a fraud, because there are many years in my career when I simply did not take my students to the library at all, when there was either “not the time” to do it or I settled for a source that came up in a Google search instead of encouraging students to take a deeper dive into databases; when a newborn at home and too many papers to grade meant that I did not take the high road like Marian and instead took the path of least resistance, like Mrs. Paroo; when the librarian in the high school I worked in was just not someone as warm and invitational as Mike or Susie and as such was not someone with whom I wanted to “play nice.” Have you been in this spot too? I sure hope I’m not alone in my confession here.

Throughout the August issue of ELQ, you’ll see that the authors of the articles, like Marian the Librarian, have kept their standards high and their hearts open. They have passion for helping educators and learners on their journeys, and they are “future-ready.” I hope you enjoy the issue as much as I have as I’ve worked on it. As a new school year approaches (or, in some states, begins!), may we all be inspired to collaborate in the ways we see modeled in these authors’ stories.

Oona Marie Abrams has been a high school English teacher since 1996. Editor of English Leadership Quarterly, Abrams has also been selected as an Emerging Leader Fellow by the Council on English Leadership (CEL). She resides in Bergen County, New Jersey with her husband and four sons.

Ways to Celebrate the Eclipse!

On August 21, the Moon will block the Sun, as seen from North America and down through mid-South America. The Sun will be entirely blocked on a path that is about 60 miles wide. This path will go through parts of 14 states. 

When I was in grade school, I remember working with a few other students to build a pinhole camera out of  of cardboard. We stood with the sun at our back, while trying to look at the projected image on a second piece of cardboard. Here are some more modern ways to get students engaged with the eclipse.

Invite students to look at historical and primary sources about eclipses throughout history. Then compare that coverage with the news we see today. What is the same? What has changed? Student can record the similarities and differences as a Venn Diagram or in a Compare & Contrast Map.

All Summer in a Day” is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury that was first published in March 1954. The story is about a class of school children on Venus, which in this story, constantly has rainstorms and the Sun is only visible for one hour every seven years. Invite students to make connections from the short story to this current eclipse. If you would like to engage more with the text, check out this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org.

In this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org, students listen to and discuss poetry that pertains to the study of astronomy and write their own poems to enhance their learning of the subject. As a final project, students use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press to compose original poetry books about astronomy.

What makes a shadow? Do shadows change? These and many other questions provide the framework for students to explore their prior knowledge about shadows as fiction, informational texts, and poetry. In this lesson, language arts skills are linked to the learning of science in a literacy-based approach to the study of shadows.

Will you be able to watch the eclipse? What are you planning to do with your students?

Mrs. Stuart Goes to Washington: The Last Word

Before I begin my tour of the museums here in DC, I want to take a minute to extend my utmost gratitude to a few people. First, the NCTE team in the DC office, Jenna Fournel and Lu Ann McNabb, for being gracious and welcoming. I will miss our little office camaraderie. Second, my family. I was only able to have this incredible experience only because of the support of my amazing mother-in-law, who came down to DC to watch the kids for three weeks, and my sweet parents, who flew out for grandparent duty for the remainder of the time. Finally, my darling husband, who has been alone at home with a screaming cat for over a month. My deepest thanks to you all.

It’s tough to explain to a twelve-year-old the sheer power of words. Ironically, words don’t do themselves justice. As I made my way around the sights in DC, I found myself constantly in awe of the words all around me and the way in which they have shaped, and continue to shape, our country. Below is a collection of my thoughts, lesson ideas, and reflections on five museums, in the order in which I viewed them.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

As a teacher of the Diary of a Young Girl, the Holocaust is a topic I discuss with eighth graders every year. The main exhibit experience begins with a large group of people packed into a steel elevator, that makes you instantly uncomfortable. When you exit, you are met with videos taken during concentration camp liberation, and a giant photograph of burnt corpses. The silence in the museum is overwhelming. Two areas in particular spoke to me. The first was the section on propaganda. This year I would like to have students analyze the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels to answer a common question: Why were people angry at Jewish people? How did Goebbels use words to confuse and deceive? The second section I found interesting was about the League of German Girls. During our unit study, we cover Hitler Youth, but I didn’t know about its female counterpart. Finally, I have tried researching contemporary genocides in the past, but I would like to revisit that this year. The USHMM website has a rich library of educator resources, including a couple of interesting professional learning opportunities.

National Museum of American History

I uncovered a few neat ideas here. Most important is Wonderplace, a super awesome play space complete with a climbing structure, and kitchen with fake fruit, and the Spark!Lab where kids can be inventors and make stuff.  Kiddos were happy for hours. The exhibit Many Voices, One Nation made me think, How do the words of many people, across time, unite to form a country? I could have my students look at the works of the authors we study, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Wright, Daniel Keyes, and whoever else gets tossed in there this year-to see how each of their unique voices became a part of the narrative of America.

Executive Order 9066 got me thinking about how words can used to strip people of their liberties.

I also saw Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, which resulted in the removal of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes. Another question to pose to students: How have people used words to deprive others of their freedoms? (Check out the Smithsonian’s History Explorer for educator resources. You can search by grade level, time period and/or subject you teach.)

Folger Shakespeare Library
Life imitating art. The exhibit had cute interactive elements.

I’ve been a fan of these guys since I met them at NCTE’s Annual Convention in 2014. I’ve used their incredible resources for teaching Shakespeare, and they also offer professional learning opportunities,  including a month-long stay here in DC to study Shakespeare in depth. Of course I had to visit! The current exhibit showcased paintings of Shakespeare, the man himself and the scenes from the plays. The library is home to the largest collection of Shakespeare works, as well as other rare Renaissance works. Since I took the tour, I got to peek in the reading room. Swoon. During the tour, our guide mentioned that Shakespeare was not wholly original and that he took many of his stories from other authors. How can words be refashioned into something new and exciting?  On an unrelated note, while at Folger I enjoyed learning about Project Dustbunny, dirt from the gutters of books analyzed for past readers’ DNA – wild.

First Folio! First Folio!
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The abolitionist paper, The North Star, was founded by Frederick Douglass. My kids will love seeing the actual paper.

This museum is the newest, opening in September 2016. I noticed a few different ways in which words were important, especially for someone who teaches Richard Wright’s, Black Boy. First, Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal were on display. Both struck me, and I thought, How do people find strength and comfort in words during times of pain and turmoil? I look forward to examining this question with my students; it’s a topic that pairs nicely with Anne Frank finding solace in books.

Finding comfort in words can be a common thread throughout history.

Alongside the reading of Black Boy, my students and I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A question for my students will be, How can we use words to fight for change? This question will be especially useful as we follow Wright on his journey of discovering how authors used words to fight against racism.

 

Newseum
The California paper posted outside the day I visited.

The Newseum “promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.” Tons of great ideas here! Around the outside of the museum are front pages from each of the fifty states and around the world. What a great activity for teaching media literacy. I want to pull the day’s headlines from three papers and have students analyze the differences. How can we use the same words to paint a different picture? There was also a neat exhibit on each of the five freedoms. This might be interesting to explore as my students learn about the Bill of Rights in social studies. How are the words of the past relevant today? I want to explore the modern issues relating to each of the five freedoms.

This exhibit poses the question, what freedoms do students have at school?

There was also really cool display about the rights of students, which I know mine will enjoy talking about, especially the parts on dress code. A question I will ask is, How can you use words to fight for what you believe in?

And now I, NCTE’s 2017 Kent B. Williamson Policy Fellow, am signing off. I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed the journey. Please contact me, I’d love to connect and chat. Peace.

Learning: The Fine Art of Drowning

This post is written by member Tom O’Connor. 

Education was not my forte. Given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.

While in Teachers’ College at the University of Ottawa, I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them who would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, Leonard Cohen had nothing to do with it. I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.

The teacher who came to mind was Kevin Gildea, my university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton College, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney, and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Bakunin could influence how I read. The CanLit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and soul crushing. Whoa.

Of course, there was no course for this at Teachers College. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable, and out of their depth.

I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put the puzzle together. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.

My job as a teacher, it would seem, is to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.

The question is, am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?

Yes, it’s true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, Marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that’s what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multidimensional characters into a small, limited, concrete definition of a hero. You know the one I mean—a good person who does the right thing.

Then I introduced them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for a character like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Watchmen’s Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students—those “innocent” young minds—loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could reach in an English class. When I discussed the choice of essays with the students later in the semester, they used words like scary, but afterward, one student said, “I am really proud of myself.” Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.

Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper on a less complex topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70 percent and gone home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud.”

What about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay in the shallow water? Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average, marks. If you are like I was in high school, you will be fine. But if you are like I was in university, you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and learn to navigate the waves of challenge.

The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear, they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need them.

Tom O’Connor plunges into the battery-smoke while waging war on the five-paragraph essay. He is also the Assistant Department Head of English at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. 

Mrs. Stuart Goes to Washington

This post is written by the 2017 NCTE Kent Williamson Policy Fellow Lauren Stuart. This will be the first of a weekly series. 

Greetings from Washington, DC.! I thought I would start by introducing myself. My name is Lauren Stuart and I teach 8th- (and soon 6th-) grade ELA for the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

I am honored to be this year’s Kent B. Williamson Fellow. What does that mean? As a way to honor Kent Williamson’s dedication to teacher leadership, NCTE established this fellowship, which allows a member to come to DC and be immersed in education policy. Each week during my stay, I will share my experiences with you. Also, you can follow me along daily on Twitter @laurenpstuart.

Week 1

The week began with a training from the McKeon Group on both education policy and NCTE’s priorities. I was reminded that the actual policymaking process is nothing like the textbook version.

As a member, you should know that NCTE is asking Congress to support ESSA’s Title I, $190 million for LEARN, and student grant and loan programs. NCTE is also asking Congress not to eliminate Title II funds. If you would like to contact your representatives to discuss these priorities, let me know and I will help you make contact with them. You can write me at laurenpstuart@gmail.com.

My second day brought me together with our esteemed Executive Director, Emily Kirkpatrick, as well. We traveled together to sit in on the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Summer Legislative Institute. NCSS and NCTE share the same concerns! Our colleagues have proven that social studies is relevant, needed, and wanted by our students, and yet they must constantly convince decision makers to fund their programs. Participants visited their legislators, and most had positive responses. If you know a social studies teacher who would like to get involved, encourage them to join NCSS and attend the NCSS annual convention this year.

I was also able to attend School Vouchers and Segregation, an event at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. The Center for American Progress released a paper on this topic, and brought together a panel for discussion. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) opened the session by stating that research shows that vouchers negatively affect student achievement. He urged the government to support public schools and not divert funds to private schools.

Justin Reid from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities told the story of Prince Edward County, and how their students came to be a part of the class action lawsuit that became Brown v. Board of Education. What I did not know was that because of the verdict, the Board of Supervisors decided to shut down the schools for five years instead of integrating. Kids went five years without an education. In addition, white students were given tuition grants to attend private schools, which led to segregated schools.

Also in attendance at this event was Catherine Lhamon, the Chair of the Commission on Civil Rights. She called for a promise from the federal government to ensure simple justice and civil rights for all students.

People and Opportunities to Watch

This section will highlight people I met while in town, as well as opportunities I come across.

Jill Cullis, Bill of Rights Institute.

Jill is a fellow Hope Street Group alum hailing from Colorado Springs. She was in town for the Bill of Rights Institute, Founder’s Fellowship. “It was a week of incredibly rich discussion based upon primary source documents in history. I rarely get professional development that is content based so the week with the BRI was so valuable to improving my instruction in US History.”

Doug Hodum, Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship

Doug is a science teacher from Maine who is here on a yearlong fellowship.

Luella Wagner

Luella is a fellow Californian, who was here for the NCSS SLI. I loved chatting with her about her interest in Native American studies and being a studio teacher.

Lauren Pfeffer Stuart is an 8th grade ELA teacher for the Beverly Hills Unified School District. She is a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow and a Teach Plus California Fellow. She has two young boys and lives in Sherman Oaks.