Category Archives: Learning Communities

What I’ve Learned about Being a Mentor

This post is written by member Karla Hilliard.

The breadth of a great mentor’s influence is immeasurable.

First there was Chuck Malone, our lead teacher and Obi-Wan. Chuck’s wisdom, wit, and intellect made him a mentor for the ages. Once during my first year of teaching, I tearfully entered Chuck’s office to say, “Ok, I taught my first novel. Now what?” Chuck was the calm blue sea in the turbulent waves of my first year in the classroom. His patience with a panicked first-year teacher deserves an award.

Then, there was Mr. Mooney, an intellectual, in-the-trenches teacher, who walked me under many, many conversational anvils. He questioned me, challenged me, and prodded me to explain my lessons, my reasoning, and my points of view. It was enlightening and it was annoying, and I couldn’t help but to become deeply reflective. Mooney was the best teacher I knew, so I emulated him, and I became an infinitely stronger, more intentional teacher because of him.

Later, there was Liz, a friend and colleague, someone I learned with and from. In our years of teaching together, it was our job to make meaning out of the reds, yellows, and greens of state assessments. We kept one another sane in the sea of spreadsheets and mandated “data driven instruction,” and we reminded one another that our students were not graphs and numbers, but the kids we loved.

And a few years ago, I met Jess, an amalgam of the best teacher mentors along the way. When we began teaching together, my own children were 4 and 2, and juggling my tiny tots and a demanding career was wearing me down. She said something I’ll never forget: “Our children watch us. We are showing them that we can make the world a better place.” Four years later, Jess and I have re-established the state affiliate for West Virginia, WVCTE, and my now 8-year-old says she wants to be just like me when she grows up. Jess was right. Cue the water works.

But now, going into Year 13 of teaching, I find myself with the shoe on the other foot. I teach in our school’s new STEAM Academy, and last summer three other teachers and I were tasked with building and implementing this academy by taking 80 students, our 4 classes of English, math, biology, and social studies, and preparing students for careers or education in STEAM fields.

I admit that when I realized that I’d been teaching for more years than my three colleagues combined, I was nervous. And it wasn’t because they lacked intelligence or charisma or empathy. They don’t—they’re awesome. I was nervous because I was suddenly in a new role—one that I hadn’t expected—that of the mentor, the sensei, the Obi-Wan.

We four STEAM Academy teachers were practically strangers, but I knew that if we were going to build this thing and build it right, we also needed to build a strong collaborative team and mindset.

But true collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience and time, deep reflection, and consideration. It takes building something important together and sharing our lives with one another. It takes dealing with our problems and issues by being open, honest, and transparent. It requires commitment and purpose, and most importantly, it requires strong relationships with one another. To do all of this, I knew, would require mentoring. And what I learned last year as we worked together to build this academy is that to be a mentor I had to …

Be a friend. Just like in our classrooms, we must grow authentic relationships built upon trust and mutual respect. I needed to listen, to share, to laugh, and to be open with my colleagues.

Ask questions. We ask our students deep, probing questions to lead them to their own insights and understandings. When my colleagues sought out my help or opinion, I tried to do what was done for me—to ask questions like, “Why did you select this [text/activity/assessment]? What do you want your students to learn from this? How do you imagine this playing out? Why is this lesson important?” Asking questions helped my colleagues and I have a conversation instead of a “class.”

Model and share. Sometimes our students need to see us think through a task or hear how we might approach a tricky piece of poetry. Colleagues who turn to us for guidance need to see effective teacher habits modeled and learn how we approach a difficult student, design a lesson or activity, put up with the paperwork, or create community and inspire ownership in our classrooms. By modeling and sharing openly with our colleagues, we can all learn a little something.

Every great teacher I know learned the tricks of the teacher trade from a great mentor. Those of us lucky enough to have been mentored have had the opportunity to listen, reflect, and refine—to transform our practice and improve our craft. I owe it to my colleagues who are looking for guidance to pass along what wisdom I’ve collected over the years, and I owe it to myself and my students to continue to be mentored by the great teachers around me.

Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy Honors English 10 and AP Literature and Composition in Berkeley County, West Virginia. She is the executive vice president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with me on Twitter at @karlahilliard!

Planning for Back to School

Now that Labor Day has passed, it’s time to think about back to school resources.  Here are a few things I am planning to do to get a head start now to help to make this a fabulous school year!

  • Creating/Maintaining a Classroom Library
    To help my students get motivated to read, I try to have timeless favorites in my classroom library as well as add new titles. has two podcast series that provide book suggestions. Several NCTE journals also review new texts in every issue.
  • Staying Current with Trends in Education
    By reading other’s posts and participating in discussions on the NCTE Connected Community and on the Literacy & NCTE blog, I feel like I can gain easy access to each other’s best ideas.
  • Finding or Become a Mentor
    Being provided with a mentor as a teacher is a wonderful benefit. Sometimes, teachers may need to find their own mentor or teacher with whom they can work and learn. The English Journal column “Mentoring Matters” has a focus on effective ways to support new English teachers and student teachers and is a great resource to all teachers. Check out this column!
  • Plan for Professional Development
    Now would be a good time to register for the NCTE Annual Convention! Join thousands of educators, experts, authors, administrators, publishers, and others in St. Louis, Missouri, for the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention! November 16-19, 2017

What else are you doing to plan for the upcoming semester?


Building Confianza

This post was written by Trisha Collopy, a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

When I spoke to Steven Alvarez in June, he had been watching videos of recent racist rants caught on cell  phones, most directed at people speaking Spanish in public spaces. The incidents left him shaking his head.

“In my research, I’ve never met a family of adults who didn’t want to learn English,” he said. “Parents understand the pressure” to help their kids with homework and ensure they aren’t stuck on a low-wage job track.

Alvarez is the author of a new book for NCTE, Community Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School Programs, in which he discusses his work with two programs for English language learners in Kentucky: the KUL after-school club for high-school students and Valle del Bluegrass library, which offered extensive bilingual programming.

Alvarez’s own family history is a time capsule of the English-only approach and its effect on families. His father, growing up in the 1950s in Arizona near the Mexican border, had teachers who would hit him when he spoke Spanish in class. As a result, Alvarez and his siblings were raised speaking English—and Alvarez had to relearn Spanish in college.

“In my own family, we went from Spanish-dominant to English in one generation, and that’s the emerging trend,” Alvarez says.

“There are lots of arguments about why immigrants don’t learn English, but immigrants are learning English faster now than they ever have.”

“Historically it has been a three-generation process,” he says. But now the transition is happening so rapidly that immigrant parents struggle to talk to their English-only children.

“Taco Literacy”

Alvarez, who now teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, and coordinates the college’s first-year writing program, has distilled his work with after-school programs to a classroom approach that leans heavily on ethnography and personal writing.

A “Taco Literacy” course he taught at the University of Kentucky took off in a big way, attracting national media attention from the Huffington Post and Univision. The upper-division writing class explored the region’s changing demographics through research into local food culture. It sent students out in the community to meet owners of food trucks and taquerias, and brought journalists, food critics, and the owner of a tortilla factory into the classroom as guest speakers.

“It was the coolest class I ever taught, mostly because students in class got to know each other,” Alvarez says. “They got to eat together, got talking about food, looking at the local community, learning about their local environment.”

The class got students out of their dorms and into the community, sometimes in Latinx neighborhoods where English was no longer the dominant language.  Students blogged and shared a common Instagram hashtag #tacoliteracy (students had individual accounts) so they could follow each other’s food adventures during the semester. They slipped between languages when learning how to order from Spanish-language menus. They talked to professional food writers about branding and social media and how a food writer got his first job at the local newspaper.

Alvarez says a similar class on local foodways could be adapted to any community. And he says this kind of ethnographic research allows students to complete lots of low-stakes writing, interviewing, field notes, and other research, and build, revise and edit that into more polished projects in English.

“The reality is that academic language is not anybody’s home language,” Alvarez adds. “It takes years to learn.”

Telling Stories, Building Community

“High-stakes standardized testing,” says Alvarez, “really fractures ways of building community.”

His work in the classroom and with after-school programs is an antidote to that, a way of bringing students and teachers back into relationship with each other.

He admits that the relationship-building takes time. In Community Literacies en Confianza, he suggests small steps teachers can take: holding parent-teacher conferences in community spaces, bringing in outside speakers, assigning students to create oral histories and ethnographies.

“The most important thing to think about is the communities that students build outside of the classroom, build around shared experiences,” he says.  Because it’s in those spaces that the real learning begins.

Read more about Alvarez’s work in the article “Building Confianza—Trust—Outside the Classroom” in the September 2017 Council Chronicle.

Read a sample chapter or order the book.

Check out Alvarez’s On Demand Web seminar: “Confidence in Community Literacies: Bilingual Writers Reading the World

Alvarez discusses his book in Community Literacies en Confianza, Part I and Community Literacies en Confianza, Part II. 

“Words with Friends”: Creating Collaborative Writing Spaces for Girls and Women of Color

This post is written by 2017-2018 NCTE Lead Ambassador Raven Jones Stanbrough and her colleagues, Tuesda Roberts, Theda Gibbs Grey and Lorena Gutiérrez.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ―Octavia E. Butler

The above quote by the prolific Black writer Octavia E. Butler reminds us that creating a habit is an art that leads to persistence and progress. For us, as scholar-practitioners, one habit we have in common is writing. Despite the many people in our lives who affirm and support our ideas and thinking, there have been moments and times when we’ve struggled to believe in our own voices and writing abilities. Having first met and befriended one another as women of color who were doctoral students at Michigan State University (MSU), we understood that we needed to support each other’s lived experiences, narratives, and voices. Individually, we’ve experienced overwhelming moments that (un)intentionally allowed us to retreat to places and spaces where our relationship with writing ended, like a bad and emotional breakup—the kind in which we turn to our favorite flavor of ice cream or reckless shopping to cope with our loss. Like most breakups, sometimes it takes the wise counsel of a loved one to speak life over our situation(s), before we remember and remind ourselves, “Wait, I got this!”

We, the Fresh I.N.K. (Inspiring New Knowledge) Collective, offer this collaborative piece as a way for us to honor ourselves, each other, our families, our students, and our communities by becoming better women of habit through our writing and desires to hold one another accountable— even when challenges occur. In an effort to achieve this accountability, our goals are as follows: (1) to offer suggestions on why participating in writing support groups is beneficial, and (2) to outline ways in which other teacher-educators can encourage and support other female writers of color.


There are many different “spaces” in our schools—safe spaces, affirming spaces, drug-free zones, bully-free zones—the list goes on and on. But which protected spaces exist for educators? Where do educators assemble to create, connect, and explore what is possible?  Educators need spaces where they can communicate and create without the gaze of supervisors so they can authentically engage their selves and their work.  The writing collective to which I belong, Fresh I.N.K., is a space we have jointly created to serve the purposes we have deemed critical to our ability to thrive as cultural, intellectual, and powerful beings in the world of education.

Depending on the context, I am perceived as a woman sans culture, a token cultural representative, a means to an end, or an unexpected guest in contested territories.  The value this space holds for me is that it merges and amplifies aspects of who I am.  The sisterhood we have forged in Fresh I.N.K. works because our race, ethnicity, culture, language, what we have, and even what we have lost are not risk factors.  They are guideposts and lighthouses.  They are the worlds we explore and the worlds we share.

Writing groups benefit K–12 educators who are interested in creating transformative learning opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse girls because they can serve as think tanks and labs where knowledge becomes wisdom.  The intentional curation of group members who share a commitment to confronting their own biases and gaps of knowledge in relation to the intersectional identities of these girls impacts teachers and students alike.  Here are my tips to forming successful writing groups among educators:

  1. Allow yourselves to be impacted by your writing, reading, dialogue, and introspection before determining how the products of your efforts could impact culturally and linguistically diverse girls.  Practice writing about the topics you have avoided.  We know students instinctively sense when adults feign care, so take the time to be and to become more authentic in relation to this particular group of students.
  2. Be purposeful and accountable.  Give yourselves permission to be vulnerable and then help each other develop purposeful next steps.  Name your individual and collective goals, needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  Maintain lists of resources and identify who/what can guide you towards meeting your goals.  Share your progress and that of your students so the group can avoid descending into random talk and deficit-based narratives.


My relationship with writing began to blossom at an early age from the encouragement and love of my parents and many great teachers. My parents introduced me to Black excellence in writing inclusive of Langston Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, and Nikki Giovanni. Teachers affirmed my voice by giving me the tools to strengthen my writing and providing platforms to share my writing at school events, for which my parents happily helped me practice. This love for writing and my understanding of the historical and contemporary significance of writing and literacy in the Black community became the focus of my praxis and provided fuel throughout my doctoral program. However, at times doubt entered my relationship with writing, and I struggled with feelings of disconnection. Does what I have to say matter? In these moments my family, friends, mentors, and sister circle of writers brought me back. As I now enter my third year as an assistant professor, my village, including Fresh I.N.K, has provided nourishment in the form of affirmation that my voice does indeed matter. My sister writers also offer constructive feedback rooted in love that serves to make my writing stronger.

Writing collectives are not only important for faculty and researchers, but they are also important for girls in K–12 spaces. We wish for young girls of color whose voices are often unheard to be able to build and sustain positive relationships and identities as writers. As educators, it is paramount to their self-esteem and academic success to help girls of color build and sustain strong individual and collective relationships with writing. In order to do so:

  1. Support girls of color to build relationships and become familiar with women of color who are writers. Provide texts across genres that connect girls of color to the powerful writings of women of color (nonexhaustive author suggestions: Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson*(see note), Zora Neale Hurston).
  2. Allow girls of color to experience and engage in supportive writing groups. Help them seek and find refuge and friendship with other girls. Foster classroom communities where they can safely “share out” their writing, “shout out” and identify the strengths in other girls’ writing, and support each other by offering constructive feedback on areas for growth.


As I basked in the warmth of southern California and the welcoming arms of family and friends, I faced numerous challenges post-breakup with graduate school, including difficulty in finding a job where I could use my expertise; needing to write and publish; and figuring out who I was beyond the doctoral program. And the list goes on. I was overwhelmed by feelings of failure and disappointment day after day as I filled out another job application and attempted to writeIt was not until I began writing with the Fresh I.N.K. crew that I was able to work through these challenges.

During our weekly meetings, we prioritize the first 20 minutes for personal check-ins. We take turns sharing about our lives and families, accomplishments and challenges of that week. Without judgment and fear.  We understand the importance of checking in about our personal lives because who we are (mind, body, and soul) and what we experience are deeply woven into our writing. In those meetings after graduate school, my Fresh I.N.K. sisters did not let me dwell on the hopelessness of my situation; rather, they showered me with words of encouragement (and prayer), reminded me that the challenges I faced were exactly where I needed to be, and claimed my success for the future in their loving, charismatic, and no-nonsense way. All of this translated into writing and academic success.

Having a joint space for us to write as women of color has meant bringing my whole self: the Latina mother, hermana, daughter, partner, academic, and writer in me to my writing and scholarship. In our writing group, we keep each other accountable for uplifting each other, owning our greatness, and speaking truth to power in our writing, teaching, and research.

Lastly, in the midst of a world full of selfies, look-alikes, and wannabes, girls of color are often socialized and taught to be the people other people want them to be. Messages about what they should wear, how thin they should be, how straight their hair should be, and what they should do with their bodies abound in social media. Below I offer tips for K–12 teachers to consider when encouraging girls of color to write.

  1. Those who teach writing to girls of color need to be examples of collaboration, worthiness, advocacy, and support for women of color.
  2. Those who teach writing to girls of color need to teach them how to own their greatness and walk in their purpose.


If it were not for Theda, Lorena, and Tuesda, I would have gone insane in graduate school. Period! They were all in the same cohort and a year ahead of me in our doctoral program. Their advice, hugs, and conversations kept me from dropping out and poppin’ off at a few colleagues and professors, especially since I was the only Black woman or person in a lot of my courses. During one of our conversations as we were carpooling back to our hometown of Detroit, I told Theda about one of my professors not grading one of my assignments because she said my writing “does not meet the academic standards for the course” and that I should “make an appointment with the writing center.” This same professor also accused me and another person of color in the class of “forming a clique.” She tried it! After I emailed the professor to discuss the writing assignment and derogatory comments, she never met with me. Instead, she had her co-teaching colleague schedule an appointment with me. I was devastated and deflated. For several weeks that followed, I lost my voice. I lost Raven. I broke up with writing. I did not speak in class because I did not trust my professors or colleagues. It took my Fresh I.N.K. sisters, family, and other close friends to remind me that I was and am a wonderful writer and that I deserved to be in graduate school.

For me, connecting with my Fresh I.N.K. sisters is not just about writing, it is about advocacy, community, and love. It is about seeing them interact with my two-year-old daughter, Zuri Hudson, and ask her about what is going on in her busy and curious life. It is also about recognizing that, as women of color, we have the ability to rise above severe adversities and triumph over challenges. Furthermore, it is about discussing how we can show up and show out for other girls and women of color. In closing, I offer my suggestions for K–12 teachers and others to support young girls of color with their voices and writing.

  1. Provide opportunities for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit. Octavia Butler reminds us that “. . . habit is persistence in practice.” In order for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit, they need time and space to tell their stories and use their voices.
  2. Teach young girls and women of color to “reclaim. . . [their] time.” Recently, Rep. Maxine Waters (a.k.a. Auntie Maxine) (D-California) made several people proud with yet another verbal victory ( During a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, Waters questioned Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin regarding a letter she sent him in May that he did not respond to. When Mnuchin failed to directly address her inquiry, Waters repeatedly stated, “Reclaiming my time!” Young girls of color and women of color in K–12 classrooms do not deserve to have their time wasted with teachers who do not care about them, their lived experiences, or writing prowess. Instead, K–12 teachers should create spaces and opportunities for young girls of color to write about an array of topics that are of interest to them—even  bad break-ups.


Tuesda Roberts is an assistant professor of Multicultural Education at Missouri State University.  Her research engages the sociocultural roles and impacts of teachers with a focus on urban schooling.  She is a fan of red velvet cake, hails from the proud lines of Roberts and Chappells, and will always be Carol’s daughter.

Theda Gibbs Grey is a proud Detroit native and currently an assistant professor of reading in the Ohio University Department of Teacher Education. Through her teaching, research, and practice, she is committed to creating more equitable learning spaces that embrace the literacies of Black middle and high school students.

Lorena Gutiérrez is a postdoctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research highlights the ways Latinx migrant and seasonal farmworkers survive and thrive in their educational pursuits in spite of the inequities they face in K–12 schools. Her research is rooted in learning with migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the Midwest, her own experiences in growing up bilingual in Colton, California, and the heritage of farm work that her abuelo cultivated in El Agostadero, Jalisco, Mexico. Twitter handle: @Lore_Gutierrez 

Raven Jones Stanbrough is a Detroit native and a K–12 product of Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Jones Stanbrough is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and the co-founder of The Zuri Reads Initiative, an effort to provide and organize literacy-related events and resources for Detroit-area children, students, and families. Twitter handle: @RavenForevamore

 Note: Jacqueline Woodson will be the keynote speaker for the Saturday General Session at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention. 

Building a Vibrant Classroom Library without Breaking the Bank

This post is written by member Haley Moehlis.

The research is clear: if we want students to read, we must provide time, choice, access, and support.  Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, Teri Lesesne, and Pernille Ripp all provide valuable insight on how to foster thriving independent reading practices, and each expresses the importance of both a diverse classroom library and a teacher who can put the right book in a kid’s hand. But how do we build those libraries without draining our own pocketbooks?

Before we even begin to collect books for our libraries, we must first decide what we want the library to look like and why we want to have one.  For me, my library needs to be a living, breathing, evolving collection that reflects the readers in my room.  It’s my responsibility to stock the shelves with books that meet the needs and interests of my students. Knowing what my students want and need helps me ask for and acquire books to better serve them.

I’ve built my library through a combination of my personal contributions, donations, and grants. The key for me has been two-fold: a clear and consistent rationale for a diverse classroom library and student testimonials about how access to that library has helped them grow as learners and readers. Each time I ask for donations, I clearly communicate those two touchstones.  I hope these practical ideas can help you build a vibrant library in your classroom.

Personal Contributions

Budget no more than $25 a month to spend on books for students.  That might be one hard cover new release or it might be as many as 10 books if you’re more intentional.  Used book stores are excellent sources for gently used high-interest titles at a fraction of the price.  Discount book sellers also help stretch the dollar.  Book Depot and Thrift Books offer books at deeply discounted rates, sometimes as low as 50 cents!  Thrift stores are another gem for inexpensive books.

Invitation to Parents

Write a letter to parents explaining what they can expect from the class’s independent reading component. Invite them to help curate a library reflective of our young people.  I include a link to my book wish list on Amazon and encourage parents to donate a book in their child’s name. When they do, I place a shiny little sticker inside the book jacket indicating it was donated in their student’s name. In that way, the library isn’t mine, but ours. Most parents don’t donate, but those who do are invaluable.

My city has two huge used book sales each year: The Planned Parenthood Book Sale and the Right to Life Book Sale.  They happen in tandem. A week in advance of the sales, I send parents an email with a list of topics and titles we’d like to add to our library and encourage them to pick up a few books to donate, if they feel inclined.  Many do.

Share your wish list at parent-teacher conferences, too.

Friends and Family

Ask friends and family to donate.  This has provided valuable diversity to my shelves.  I don’t have any knowledge or interest in sports.  However, my friend Cody knows a great deal about them and is an avid reader.  He eagerly hands over books when he’s finished.  Again, a simple sticker inside the cover reinforces that the community believes reading is valuable.  Sometimes people scrawl a little inscription about what the book meant to them.  In that way, books aren’t dead things, they’re transactional and connective.

Use the holidays to draw on the kindness of friends and family.  Again, I share my book wish list.  I can generally add between 10 and 15 books a year that way.

Another fruitful source has been my book club.  Most members buy the book.  Not every title will be a good fit for my students, but many are.  My book club readily passes on books after we’ve discussed them, making it possible for several students to read a book simultaneously and form organic book clubs of their own.

The Generosity of Strangers

One locally owned bookstore allows me to put out a flyer near the register twice a year—August and December. It’s amazing how many people choose to contribute. Ask your local bookstore if they’d be willing to do the same.

I make a point to stop at any garage sale that has books. If there are titles my students would like, I ask the seller if he/she would be willing to donate to my classroom library.  No one has ever said no.

Social media makes the world small. Put out a call for books and why you need them.  Ask friends to share the post.  Books will pour in!

School Funds and Grants

Asking for money isn’t easy, but when it benefits our students, it’s necessary. It’s hard to say no to a teacher who puts her students first and leads with passion and research.  Building principals often have access to slush funds.  Does your school have a foundation that might sign off on a proposal for your library? Are there district grants available? Ask. The worst that can happen is that someone will say no.

Student Donation

The classroom library belongs to students, not to the teacher. When students see it as theirs, they donate. I have several voracious readers who purchase and devour the most popular paperbacks. Many happily add the book to the library once they’re finished.

Building a vibrant classroom library is challenging, but not impossible, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. A clear vision, a willingness to ask for help, and patience are all it takes. Building a community of readers is everyone’s business. Open your door. Share your message. Talk about your library and what it means for students every chance you get. The books will come.

Haley Moehlis is a high school English teacher and serves on the executive board of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English as the outreach coordinator. She is an avid reader, writer, and fervent defender of the Oxford comma. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband and their three boys.