Category Archives: Learning Communities

Why We Write

This post is written by members Amy Miller and Meghan Jones.

“Writing can be my best friend.”

“Writing to me is the tool for creating a world that otherwise could not exist.”

“I want to be a writer who can write about things that are important not just in school. But world things.”

“Writing can bring life back to you when life is the worst it could possibly be.”

“Writing reminds me that the best is yet to come.”

After navigating our first year of heterogeneously grouped classes, the English 100H team, a group of teachers responsible for the ninth-grade classes, realized the need for a dramatic change for our first unit—we had to start the year off with a stronger push to rope all kids into what really matters in English class.

We wanted to cultivate in students the skills necessary to be successful learners and begin to instill in them the importance of being active, engaged readers and thoughtful writers. We worked backward with the idea of a summative assignment for which students reflected on who they are as writers, and we built a unit that provided students multiple opportunities to reflect on their own writing, engage with mentor texts, learn from their peers’ writing, and make choices about their learning along the way.

Here’s an overview of the two-to-three week process:

As a culture builder, a lesson in active listening, and a brainstorming activity, we began with peer interviews. Students asked each other questions about their memories of learning to write and the role of writing in their lives today. They recorded key words or phrases from their peers’ responses. Students then used the interview content to flash-draft responses to the question, Who I am as a writer?

Students explored mentor texts of published writers reflecting on why they write or read and identified strategies to then apply to their own writing. The idea of “reading like a writer” came from Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti of Moving Writers in their book Writing with Mentors. In a mini-lesson, we modeled the process of noticing and then naming strategies in our own words with a class model from short, accessible reflections by well-known authors. Students then explored other mentors in small groups, adding to our growing class list of strategies.

Students then personalized their learning by independently exploring an amassed list of mentors, including writers’ reflections, podcasts, TED Talks, and interviews with well-known writers and musicians. We continued to expand and refine our strategy list. After each successive round of exploring mentor texts, students returned to their own writing and tried a mentor strategy to revise what they had written. To ensure that students were meeting learning targets, we utilized exit passes as formative checks for understanding.

As the drafts took shape, teachers shared their own “Why I Write” drafts and had students locate strategies and offer feedback. Students then offered each other peer feedback on which strategies were working and which needed further attention.

Eventually, we turned to writing conferences during which students identified areas of revision and generated questions for the conference using a writer’s checklist. During the conferences, students took their own notes. Literacy specialists pushed into classes to help confer with students and ensure that each student received meaningful formative feedback.

On the day their writing was due, we held a celebration of writing. NCTE’s #WhyIWrite site reminded us that collectively, telling why we write “gives voice to who you are and enables you to give voice to the things that matter to you.” So we decided to frame our celebration around “raising the volume”. In a gallery walk, students perused each other’s writing, located memorable lines, and quoted each other to build a collage of words on the whiteboard under #WhyIWrite. Placing the markers in students’ hands compelled them to appreciate each other’s words and to call out the student who uses writing to cope with reality, the friend whose journals capture everyday musings, and the peer whose written words create rich, imaginative worlds.

The written products were genuine in their self-reflection, rich with strategies gleaned from the mentor texts, authentic in voice and expression. We read stories of academic triumphs, sacred family reading times, private chronicles of the intimacies of their daily lives, and beaming elementary teachers who inspired our students to see themselves as writers for the very first time. Most importantly, students expressed that their love of writing dramatically waned as they advanced through the grades. Their pieces echoed a resounding desire to regain the love of writing that they once had as younger students. This not only validated our work but reinforces the enormity of the task we face as English teachers. It is our responsibility to teach all students at all levels that writing matters. Our students are writers with stories to tell—stories that deserve to be heard. Hopefully, we have brought them one step closer to gaining the tools and confidence needed to believe in themselves once again as writers who can change the world.

Amy Miller (Twitter @FHSEnglishCT) is the English department leader and Meghan Jones (Twitter @FHSliteracy) is a literacy specialist and instructional coach at Farmington High School in Farmington, CT.

Textual Collaborations: Preparing Two-Year College English Faculty

This post is written by members Holly Hassel and Kelly Ritter.

Since two-year colleges have developed an independent identity as sites of education, professional organizations have sought to define the specific type of knowledge and training that leads to successful outcomes for instructors in these settings. The first Guidelines for Junior College English Teacher Training Programs were published in 1971, while the “Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty in Two-Year Colleges” were first approved by the TYCA Executive Committee in 2004 (Jensen and Toth 561). Each of these documents sought to distinguish what educational preparation best prepared instructors to work in two-year colleges.

In 2017, updated guidelines appear in both College English and Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Why both publications? They will help those who are hiring instructors and want guidance in evaluating credentials or those working toward developing internal professional development programs. The new document, “TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College” also engages graduate programs and faculty in the conversation in ways that prior statements did not.

With the rapid collapse of tenure-track lines in English departments nationwide, graduate program directors (and other graduate faculty members who mentor candidates) have slowly come to realize that faculty positions outside the idealized R1 campus are what their students will likely hold. More slowly still, arguably, these advisors have come to realize the value of making positions at two-year colleges visible. But the traditional graduate program does very little to train students for this work. As Kelly considered these professional realities, she concluded that publishing the updated guidelines in College English not only makes (more) visible the history and value of training and expertise among two-year college faculty; it also lays bare the chasm that has long existed between graduate program training in English, particularly literary studies, and the work done at two-year colleges nationwide. As editor of CE, Kelly wanted to make this division known to readers. But perhaps more important than exposing this lack of training and calling for a renewed interest in preparing graduate students for two-year college work, Kelly wanted to make a larger statement about who reads our journals and why. The cooperative relationship between TETYC and CE (and CCC) has always been a strength of those journals; creating more dialogue between these audiences–and a more openly welcoming gesture toward the two-year audience to indeed find itself in the pages of CE is part of making that larger statement.

For Holly, the publication of the guidelines is both a responsibility of the journal and an opportunity to contribute to the growing body of literature on how graduate education in English MA and PhD programs can evolve to meet the needs of this time and place in higher education. Anchoring the September 2017 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College (a special issue focused on graduate preparation for two-year college English teachers), then, the new guidelines are poised to speak to audiences across the range of college English, writing, and humanities programs. The 2004 guidelines outline areas of formal preparation (for example, literature, grammar, composition theory and pedagogy, rhetoric and rhetorical theory, research methods, the adult learner, and teaching reading) and characteristics of effective two-year college faculty—being reflective, flexible, and understanding of diversity; participating in professional communities; collaborating with colleagues; and creating a student-centered learning environment. By contrast, the most recent “Guidelines for Preparation” more squarely calls on graduate programs to partner explicitly and in spirit with two-year college institutions in preparing instructors to work in open-admissions institutions.

In this way, the new statement is a road map for teacher-scholars in all sectors of higher education to recognize and make visible the specific conditions of two-year colleges as sites of employment, to highlight their value as potential employers of MA- or PhD-holding graduates in English programs, and to adjust their programs in curricular and professional work that will prepare their students to be educators who participate in the various organizations within the profession and engage in ongoing development throughout their careers.

What has further inspired College English and Teaching English in the Two-Year College to highlight these new guidelines statements, however, is the imperative for the field of English studies itself to come to terms with some critical realities:

  • The definition of academic labor is shifting; the very shape of the labor force itself has dramatically evolved, as readers know, with anywhere from 60% to 80% non-tenure-track faculty among its ranks, depending upon which figure from any number of studies that one wishes to use.
  • Two-year colleges, like four-year colleges and universities, operate under significant reliance upon non-tenure-track labor; four-year institutions have recently become more cognizant of this labor force and thus should (in our view) see less separation from our two-year colleagues, not more.
  • Additionally, the concerns of four-year faculty—student agency, curricular development, revision, and innovation, shared governance, intellectual freedom, fair working conditions, cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity, to name just a few—are also the concerns of two-year faculty.

It’s impossible to know whether this partnership between us as journal editors and the two issues will bear fruit. Reading audiences are funny things—they appear and recede, they celebrate, they criticize, they evolve. At any one time a reader might be picking up both the CE and TETYC issues and connecting the dots. Or it might be a historian, some years down the road, who pulls each of our issues out of the (probably electronic) archive and says, Hey, what’s this? Part of providing this annotation, this exegesis, regarding our collaborative work is to anticipate that future moment and provide a narrative for it.

But writing here, as we have, is also a way to talk through and to readers of the present, to challenge all of us to ask what kind of relationships can and should exist between two-year and four-year faculty, programs, and professional development? Who do we want our future faculty to be, and how do we want them to enter a story that has long had many tellers with sometimes competing agendas? We can’t answer these questions for all of us, but perhaps knitting the history and purposes of TYCA into the fabric of CE is a place to start.

Works Cited

Calhoon-Dillahunt, Carolyn, Darin L. Jensen, Sarah Z. Johnson, Howard Tinberg, and Christie Toth. TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College. College English. Vol. 79, no. 6, July 2017, 550–60.

Jensen, Darin L.,  and Christie Toth. “Unknown Knowns: The Past, Present, and Future of Graduate Preparation for Two-Year College English Faculty.” College English, vol. 79, no. 6, July 2017, 561–92.

“TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College,” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 45, no. 1, Sept 2017, pp. 8–19.

TYCA. “Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty at Two-Year Colleges.” Two-Year College English Association. 2004.

Holly Hassel is a professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, a two-year college. Twitter: @prof_hassel



 Kelly Ritter is Associate Dean for Curricula and Academic Policy and professor of English and Writing Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In Honor of This Year’s National Day on Writing, Write for Civic Action!

The following post was written by Nicole Mirra and is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

In response to many of the recent controversies, injustices, and tragedies that have rocked our nation, folks are consistently turning to education in order to raise awareness and spark action. It seems that news organizations and nonprofit groups are offering resources weekly, whether in response to white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, NFL #TakeAKnee protests, or the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The reason for these outpouring of resources is simple—we know that young people turn to their teachers for guidance as they seek to make sense of what is happening in the country. As a society, we look to schools to process national events and to imbue the next generation with the knowledge, compassion, and values to do better than the ones that came before and make our nation better, kinder, wiser.

As a result, it is crucial that we teachers recognize ourselves as powerful civic agents, not only in the classroom but also in our daily lives. Ironically, at the same time that we ask teachers to help young people understand national events, we also often insist that they avoid wading into controversial waters and present a completely neutral, objective face to young people. As previous NCTE resources have explained, there is no apolitical classroom—everything we do in the classroom, from how we manage relationships with students to what texts we teach, transmits a political message to students about the nature of democratic life.

So let’s be conscious about kind of society we want for our students and ourselves. Let’s reflect not only on our classroom practices, but also on ways we can advocate for public education, our students, and our communities in our capacity as citizens.

In honor of the National Day on Writing, which is coming up on October 20, consider the various ways that you can write for civic action:

1. Make your practice public: Write a blog entry for NCTE! Contribute to the NCTE Village! Tell the world about how you are shaping the next generation of citizens in your classroom by sharing instructional strategies, curriculum resources, or examples of student work.

2. Write to your elected representatives: Tell the folks who represent you about the issues that matter most to you and your students! Here are some short webinars courtesy of the NCTE Studies in Literacy and Multimedia (SLAM) Assembly that can help you get started:

a. SLAM School: Letter-Writing;

b. SLAM School: Contacting Your Representatives.

3. Get involved in NCTE Advocacy: Take a look at the NCTE Resources for Taking Action and Action You Can Do At Home and commit to one small action in order to make your voice heard on the issues that affect your classroom

While teaching is the most crucial civic action that most of us engage in on a daily basis, there is much more that we can do to make our voices heard at the local and national level. Writing is a powerful way for us to share our expertise with a wider audience and insist that educators have a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our students, our schools, and our communities.

The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report, Part II

(Adapted from the book Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.

Prior to my research efforts at the Jackson Police Department,[i]  I had always heard that police could not write, that police reports were worthless documents, and that no one should ever trust what a cop wrote down. It was also well known in my academic and social circles that police reports were not allowed in court because of how poorly they were written (a misnomer). My initial research into police writing revealed similar sentiments. Prosecutors, police chiefs, defense attorneys, and even officers all complained to me about how poorly police reports are written. I heard this anecdotally in casual conversations and in formal interviews with police chiefs, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The mountain of texts dedicated to improving officer report writing skills demonstrates the problems associated with report writing. Names like How to Really Really Write those Boring Police Reports, Plain English for Cops, Painless Police Report Writing, and my favorite, The Best Police Report Writing Book with Samples: Written for Police by Police, This is not an English Lesson, say a lot about how reports are viewed by officers and superiors. Report writing is seen as boring, difficult, convoluted, painful, and overly concerned with grammar. The manuals typical solutions are templates and simplified demands to include the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why of every encounter. They largely avoid the context of police writing as a rhetorical situation fraught with complicated audience needs and multiple, often conflicting, purposes.

It became clear after reviewing police academy materials and sitting in two different report-training sessions that report writing was always discussed from a deficit model. Police cadets were instructed on how to write a coherent paragraph and use the correct word for a specific meaning. They were also instructed on how to organize the report, detailing the events chronologically. However, the majority of the police academy training I researched was spent on ground-fighting tactics, shooting practice, crime-scene investigation, and multiple-choice test preparation. At the police academy in Arkansas, only 8 hours out of 430 were devoted to report writing (Seawright).

When I asked officers, lawyers, supervisors and others what made a police report a “poor report,” the answers varied wildly. Officers seemed to think that poor grammar created poor reports. Supervisors and chiefs complained about a lack of professionalism in reports. Stephen Mathes, the police chief at Jackson Police Department, complained that “basic grammar” just was not present in police reports. He noted,

We are not just taking a raw recruit and trying to teach them law and                                               police tactics but basic grammar in some instances. . . . [I]f a defense attorney                             picked up a report that was poorly written they are automatically going to                                   say, here is a person I can attack. I can attack credibility.

However, the lawyers I spoke with complained that their most serious concern regarding police reports was the amount of information that was often left out. Two hours after my interview with the Jackson police chief, I sat in the office of Chad Rucker, a local defense attorney, who stressed the importance of the police-officer narrative over grammar in report writing. He emphasized, “Only in telling the story can all the details of the case come to light. Grammar does not matter. It could be written phonetically for all I care, just put down everything that happened.”

So in a matter of hours, a police chief told me that grammar really mattered to defense lawyers, and a defense lawyer told me he could not care less about grammar in reports. How was it that the police report genre could elicit such varied and contradicting expectations from its readers?

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

[i] Jackson Police Department is an alias.

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication. 

Building Bridges between Readers and Authors

This post is written by member Amy Estersohn.

One way to help students connect with books is to engage with the authors who write them. Here are five easy ways for the readers and writers you see every day to learn more about the names on the spines in the library.

Look up an author’s website.

This is not only good for fun facts about authors, but it’s also an opportunity to learn about an author’s past and future books, professional life, and upcoming author appearances.  If authors are active on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, their websites are a good place to start.  Did you know that teen author e. lockhart and nonfiction picture book author Emily Jenkins are the same person?

Connect with independent bookstores and libraries.

Independent bookstores and libraries are terrific resources for learning about author events.  Some bookstores and libraries may hold major author events and author panels, while others may have programs like “Comic-Con,” where comic book fans and creators congregate.

Do you want books signed by YA celebrities like John Green, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black?  That’s easy if you know where to look.  Check out the signed book inventory from Odyssey Bookshop in western Massachusetts and Books of Wonder.  You can also call these bookstores to see if a favorite author has stopped by to sign books!

Become part of the fan community and make an online presence for your reading life.

Write fan letters, create fan art, and make fan fiction based on favorite books and series. Some fans use blog platforms like Tumblr to talk to authors (check out Maggie Stiefvater’s tumblr as an example of an author engaging with fans) and other authors will post fan art to their website, like Gina Damico.

I’ve also experienced authors reaching out to readers.  Some authors have offered via Twitter to Skype with book clubs where their book was a selection, and one award-winning author offered to Skype with our book club after she saw an announcement online that we were reading her book!

Attend festivals and conferences.

If you have ever been to a national conference like NCTE or ALAN, you already know that it’s an enormous author party, drawing authors from around the globe together for a few days. There are also smaller events, like the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival or a #nErDcamp event.  Some of my favorite author memories include attending #nErDcamp Long Island eating a turkey sandwich in a middle school cafeteria next to one of my students’ favorite authors.  A conference doesn’t have to be big or far away to be rewarding.

Use what you learn in lessons with students.

Authors can be honest about their writing process in front of a crowd, and a lot of what I learn from listening to authors becomes part of the wisdom I pass on to students.For example, Jason Reynolds watches a lot of movies when he is writing. Steve Sheinkin wrote an entire book because he saw a photograph of a filing cabinet and started asking questions. Janet Taylor Lisle writes by sound rather than image. Kelly Barnhill writes in her head as she runs and can remember up to two pages at a time. The author of a book that won two major awards mentioned how painful the writing process for the book was, that it constantly felt like the book was going to kill her before she finished a draft. These writers remind us that there is more than one way to write and no one right way to do it.

Make engagement personally meaningful to you and your students.

If I am going to an event, I look at the author list carefully, plan out the authors I know I want to see and talk to, and think about what I want to say before I get starstruck or too nervous.  I also have little games.  For example, I collect signed copies of books that I think will win a Printz or a Newbery Award.  If an autographing line is short, I will sometimes ask authors to include an encouraging note to young writers in their personalizations. I have some lovely notes from Newbery medalists that were written just to my students.

If you’re taking students to an author event, consider passing along the following bits of advice: Bring a sticky note so you can handwrite your name neatly and an author can personalize it.  Depending on the event, the line might be 100 people long or it might be zero people long.  Some authors will ask lots of questions and engage in conversation with every reader in a line, while others might be more efficient in keeping the line moving.  Asking for a selfie is okay, but don’t ask for free books or free stuff—that’s not the author’s job to give out stuff for free!

Authors are the silent partners in helping our readers grow.  By helping students know them better, we are adding to the conversations we are having with students and the conversations that students are having with the world.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York. She blogs at Teaching Transition and is on twitter @HMX_MSE.