Category Archives: Literacy

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.

Teaching Composition Using Transcripts

This post is written by members Kate Artz, Danah Hashem, and Anne Mooney.

One of the biggest challenges of teaching composition to a new group of students often isn’t what they don’t know, but what they do know. Bad writing habits and rigid, formulaic structures can become a comfort zone for insecure student writers, holding them back from more authentic and effective writing. A potential strategy for helping students break out of those comfort zones is teaching the skills of composition through unfamiliar genres of writing. Written transcripts of audio compositions such as podcasts, speeches, or interviews are a particularly useful genre for helping students explore compositions in new and different ways. Using transcripts to teach composition enables students to make meaningful rhetorical decisions about how to write, what to include, and what to exclude from their writing.

Transcripts are compositions

We believe that transcripts of audio work hold equal value and weight to the original piece. In many cases, transcripts are treated like the silver medal consolation prize for those who are unable to access the real work, the audio work. A transcript can be a way of exploring more deeply the work being transcribed and requires an intricate set of rhetorical decisions in which the author carefully considers audience, goals, and genre.

The importance of being comfortable being uncomfortable.

By teaching transcripts as composition, we are allowing our students to take more risks with their learning. Because they are likely unfamiliar with the genre and the act of translating a piece from one mode to another, there will be less pressure to be perfect (they won’t easily recognize what perfect is). This not only promotes play, flexibility, and creativity, but it creates a more even starting point for our students. Students who often struggle may find themselves learning at a similar pace to their more advanced peers, and the students who are used to moving at a faster pace are prompted to slow down and carefully consider their writing process.

Valuing all of our students’ means of expression.

Having students produce work in this new genre promotes their unique ways of creating and expressing themselves. For students who struggle with more traditional writing, transcripts may offer them a new and meaningful way to engage in composing. Incorporating lessons and assignments that foreground transcript writing asks students to seriously undertake the task of creating alternative ways of approaching a particular composition. This prompts them to engage multiple modes, ways of thinking, and genres, creating more opportunities for authentic student voices.

Promoting inclusivity in the classroom.

By familiarizing our students with the process of transcript writing and its inherent value, we reaffirm that inclusivity and accessibility concerns are normal parts of the composing process. Students are clearly able to see how conveying a message in multiple modes, genres, and styles increases the audience and enriches the message.  Although a written transcript can’t always capture perfectly every aspect of an audio composition, there are also things a transcript can convey that audio cannot. Therefore, multiple modes and styles can support one another and can be taken together as part of one rich and complex composition, to the benefit of all audiences.

Often we approach inclusivity in the classroom from a teacher-centric perspective; however, using transcripts to teach composition places the responsibility and empowerment on students. This approach asks students to build and direct a culture of accessibility within their own learning communities. Incorporating more inclusive and accessible ways to experience compositions, by creating high-quality transcripts, becomes a creative, student-motivated endeavor.

Transcription in practice.

We have created an assignment that gives students an opportunity to explore some of the rhetorical complexities involved in transcription of audio pieces. As outlined in the assignment, after a discussion on the rhetorical strategies of transcription, students each create individual transcripts for a single piece. Once students have completed their transcripts, they can trade with a partner or work in groups in order to collaboratively consider the different approaches, understandings, and perspectives that led them to their different rhetorical choices. This simple activity enables students to understand and discuss the individual and often subtle choices that different authors make. Additionally, students will be able to explore the idea that no text is neutral; even the smallest rhetorical choice, from font choice to punctuation placement, expresses the perspective and intention of its author.

Audio Transcript Assignment

Prewriting Activity:

  • Give everyone a transcript for a common audio piece.
  • Read these transcripts individually and answer the following questions:
    • What do you expect the speaker(s) to sound like?
    • Do you expect music or sound effects? If so, what kind and how much?
    • What do you expect the tone of the audio piece to be?
  • Listen to the chosen audio piece.
  • Individually answer the following questions:
    • Was there anything in the audio file that you did not expect or that was distinctly different from the way you imagined it?
    • In what ways did the audio file meet your expectations based on what you read in the transcript?
    • What is something specific that the transcript author did that you found particularly effective or interesting?
  • Discuss answers as a large group.
  • Choose 3 audio clips. Below are some recommended categories to choose from (Suggested audio clip length: 1.5 to 3 minutes):
    • Radio commercials
    • Podcasts
    • TED talks
    • Famous recorded speeches
  • Divide the class into 3 groups with each group receiving one of the selected clips.
  • Individually, each student writes a transcript for the clip they have received. It is important that they do not discuss their process with their group members until after the transcript is written!
In-Class Activity:
  • Within their groups, have students get into pairs and swap transcripts with one another.
  • Read transcripts and annotate while reading.
  • Answer the following questions on a piece of paper that will be returned to the transcript’s author at the end of the discussion:
    • What is something specific that your partner did in their transcript that you found particularly effective or interesting?
    • What is something that your partner included in their transcript that you omitted in yours? Why do you think they may have made that choice?
    • What is something that your partner omitted in their transcript that you included in yours? Why do you think they may have made that choice?
    • What do you think the author’s rhetorical goal was overall?
    • If you could propose one potential change to your partner, what would it be and why?
  • Reassemble into groups and discuss answers within each group.
    • Students are encouraged to point to textual evidence in their partner’s transcripts.
    • Students are encouraged to explain their rhetorical choices and corresponding goals to their groupmates.
  • Students return annotated transcripts and question answers to transcript authors.
  • Allow authors to review comments and reflect on the impact of the choices they made.
  • Authors should submit answers to the following questions:
    • Would you adopt the change your partner recommended? Why or why not?
    • Did any part of your transcript have an unexpected impact on your partner? Explain.
    • What is one thing in your transcript that effectively did what you wanted it to? Explain.
    • What is one thing you might do differently if you were to rework this transcript? Explain.
    • Alternative options for responding to these questions:
      • Reflection Essay
      • Journal Entry
      • Blog Entry
      • Post-Class Discussion Forum

Although it can be intimidating to bring a new genre into the classroom, if we ask our students to take risks and push themselves outside their comfort zones, we must be willing to do the same. Students may not often compose transcripts; however, the rhetorical awareness and skills that transcription teaches are broadly applicable to a variety of situations calling for effective writing.


Kate Artz is a PhD student and Teaching Associate at University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, MA. Her academic and research interests include feminist and queer theory, digital and multimodal composition, creative writing pedagogy, and issues of accessibility in composition. Follow her on Twitter at @artz_kate or on her blog at

Danah Hashem teaches tenth-grade World Literature at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, MA, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, Middle Eastern literature, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog,

Anne Mooney teaches eleventh and twelfth grade English at Malden High School in Malden, MA; her academic interests of digital literacies and trauma theory have inspired both her classroom and her scholarship. Follow her on Twitter at @ammoons or on her blog,  


2017 Annual Convention Updates: Local Engagement Committee

The Annual Convention is only seven weeks away and NCTE volunteers and staff have been working tirelessly to ensure that the experience is meaningful for all who attend. This work includes everything from videotaping interviews with students who will be participating in our general sessions to providing top-notch customer service to ensure members have all their questions answered when registering to attend. Book donations from publishers are filling up NCTE’s warehouse, and community members from St. Louis are in discussion with volunteers about connecting to our event.

Alongside the content we have been planning since last fall, we have also enhanced engagement efforts to illustrate the anti-racist teaching work of our members.  Today we offer an updated look into the progress being made.

In August, members were invited to nominate themselves or others to join the Local Engagement Committee. Additionally, members of all NCTE caucuses were invited to join. Everyone who applied was asked to take part in carrying out this charge:

  1. Work carefully to understand the needs of local NCTE members and community stakeholders, then propose one or more OUTREACH activities or events to occur during the Convention in St. Louis. Identify what NCTE can do to promote equitable, just, responsive teaching and learning conditions and practices in St. Louis and Missouri.
  2. Propose one or more member-focused activities or events to occur during the Convention that meet member needs and desires to advocate for equitable teaching and learning conditions.
  3. Become well versed on long-established NCTE plans related to diversity, inclusivity, and equity, both for the St. Louis Convention and beyond.

Read the full charge here.

The Committee currently includes the following members:

Local Engagement Committee Co-Chairs

Alfredo Luján, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Middle Section Rep-at-Large, NCTE Executive Committee
Valerie Taylor, Austin, Texas, Secondary Section Rep-at-Large, NCTE Executive Committee
Jeanette Toomer, New York, New York, College Section

Local Engagement Committee Members

Damián Baca (Tucson, Arizona), Melissa Biehl (Chesterfield, Missouri), Mollie Blackburn (Columbus, Ohio), Barri Bumgarner (Columbia, Missouri), Heather Coffey (Charlotte, North Carolina), Susan Crosby (St. Louis, Missouri), Bob Fecho (New York, New York), Lorena Germán (Austin, Texas), Lauren Gonzales (El Paso, Texas), Charles Gonzalez (Buffalo, New York), Julie Gorlewski (Richmond, Virginia), Tracy Hinds (St. Louis, Missouri), Laura Kay Jagles (Sante Fe, New Mexico), Rick Joseph (Royal Oak, Michigan), Richard Meyer (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Cornelius Minor (Brooklyn, New York), Jennifer Paulsen (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Leilya Pitre (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Keisha Rembert (Plainfield, Illinois), Julia Torres (Denver, Colorado), Velma Valadez (St. Louis, Missouri), Allen Webb (Kalamazoo, Michigan), Julie Zurgable (Rochester Hills, Michigan)

The work of the committee is ongoing. They spent many hours in meetings in September and will do so throughout October. Here are some of the things they have put in motion so far:

A New Roundtable Session
This session will take place on Friday. Three topics will be discussed: police brutality, characters of color in children’s literature, and “taking a knee” as political protest (social and historical contexts).

Planning is underway for two workshops that will address curricular resources and the theme of ending racism.

Taking Action
Plans are underway for a public display of solidarity. Both a petition and organized protest are under discussion.

A Town Hall
A panel discussion is being assembled for Friday afternoon. Confirmed speakers will include St. Louis NAACP president Adolphus Pruitt; Superintendent of University City (Missouri) Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley; a Missouri student; and leaders of various groups within NCTE.

Events external to the Convention are also being planned, and possibilities currently under development include visits to St. Louis schools, opportunities to connect visiting authors with St. Louis students, film screenings, and workshops.

Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick has been on the phone every day with meeting planners, community leaders, teachers, and convention center staff in order to:

  • Allocate staff and funding resources to provide support for new projects like the Local Engagement Committee.
  • Secure a discounted shuttle service to and from the airport.
  • Build a relationship with the St. Louis NAACP whose president, Adolphus Pruitt, will speak at the Convention.
  • Arrange for adding more convention space to hold local engagement committee activities and for permits to carry out the evolving ideas of members and organizational leadership

Everything described above is new or improved upon for the Convention this year based on changes we knew we needed to make in early August. That’s much to pull together in a short time! But long before August, this year’s convention General Sessions, featured panels, and sessions were already focused on how we privilege student voices and literacy skills. Inclusion, empowerment, lifelong literacy, and the power of language were key components of this year’s program from the start, and we believe these recent additions will make the experience all the richer.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more updates. We are so grateful for the time and effort staff and volunteers are putting forth right now. I have every confidence this will be a powerful and inspiring experience for us all.

Fostering Dialogue in the Classroom: Lessons Learned While Teaching Cultural Literacy

This post is written by member Ruth Li.

In teaching, I aim to cultivate in students an understanding of literacy as a form of civic participation. Yet in my daily interactions with students, creating a balance between engagement and control has been a constant challenge.

To invite a space for generative, yet genuine intellectual inquiry, it is important to balance guidance and freedom in equilibrium: to offer a foundation for ideas, yet open up multiple possible pathways and positions for students to pursue. In navigating these tensions, I have constructed journal topics based on essential questions that are sufficiently broad to allow a variety of entry points as well as backgrounds and experiences; for example, while teaching Cultural Literacy by E. D. Hirsch: “In what ways do our cultures affect who we are?”

In a similar sense, while experimenting with various formats for discussion prompts and procedures, I have found that planning and posing each question for the class to discuss in turn can be stifling in its structure. On the other hand, providing a few potential issues for exploration can be liberating in enabling learners to delve into unexpected topics and ponder unique perspectives. As a discussion flows organically, the most rewarding moments have arisen when students posed original questions to each other in a dynamic dialogue, blurring the lines between the roles of teacher and student. In opening up opinions and weaving new webs of ideas and insights rather than following a predetermined path, learners are able to attain agency and contribute constructively to the conversation.

Students are, after all, social creatures, agentive and interactive beings, whose combined consciousness coalesces into constellations of complexity. In contrast with a framework of passive reception, in the Freirean sense, learners transform their own experience as much as they are transformed by it. In a process of actively constructing knowledge through collaboration in the Piagetian sense, students navigate the negotiations between the self and the other as pluralities proliferate, ideas intersect, and contentions collide. Dialogue, therefore, liberates the pedagogical praxis.

To engage and empower our own and others’ voices, to welcome a diversity of perspectives within the context of civil discourse, to encourage civic participation in the Ciceronian ideal of democracy for which Hirsch has argued, to resist conclusiveness while opening up to the complexities of experience: these are the aims toward which we as citizens must continue to live and strive in the classroom and in the world.

Ruth Li has taught high school English for the past three years in charter schools in Utah and Florida. She will join the Ph.D. program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the fall.

Entry Points: Moving Students toward Literacy

This post is by member Lauren Nizol.

What do students truly need from us to engage in literacy? As an academic interventionist of students who have difficulty engaging in reading and writing, I am often reflecting on this question.

While unpacking my room this year, I stumbled across senior pictures and notes from students. Reading over the notes of gratitude reminded me of just how important it is to be present as an educator.

By present, I mean our students need us to connect with them. And by connections, I don’t necessarily mean that students and teachers know each other’s deep, dark secrets or even the nuances of our personal lives. Students need to know they are supported and cared for when walking into their teacher’s room. When I consider just how vulnerable and risky it is for some of my students to be readers and writers, this notion of presence is not just good practice—it’s practically nonnegotiable when it comes to literacy instruction.

An Invitation

Being a strong presence with my students has shown me just how far this one simple factor can take a struggling reader or writer. Low skill levels can actually appear as apathy, disruption, and avoidance on the surface, and especially if this relationship is nonexistent. Through building this rapport, I have been able to determine which students need my targeted and intentional support. Furthermore, this rapport has led me to determine what kind of support my students need.

One thing I’ve observed is that many underperforming students do not feel a part of the literacies going on in our classrooms. Literacy is a mammoth exchange of ideas, and we assume that many of our students know how to enter this conversation by the time they reach the secondary level. Yet, many of these students need an invitation to the conversation because reading and writing can be very intimidating for students who feel as if they don’t belong in an English classroom. That is why taking extra efforts at the start of the year to build and nurture positive connections between students and teachers is so vital.

Entry Points

While instruction and curriculum are critical parts of the classroom, establishing a positive classroom environment is ultimately what shapes instruction and curriculum. If the environment is not ideal, it doesn’t matter how competent, well-learned, or experienced a teacher is—students who struggle need to have a connection to their teacher. When students feel connected to their teachers and peers, they are more willing to take risks as readers and writers. The first week is always a rush, but building community in week one is the best way to connect with students who are disengaged with school.

Greeting students by name at the door is a simple entry point. At the start of the year, I took attendance while students entered my room. This prevented any mispronunciation mishaps and gave me a chance to ask them how their day was going. New teachers are often told to “stand firm” the first day. Yet, this can be intimidating for kids who don’t know how to “do school.” A warm welcome is your first entry point toward establishing a positive relationship.

Creating small groups rather than rows also helps students feel comfortable for speaking and listening tasks. Students are more willing to speak and offer ideas to the group when they feel recognized by the group. I often mixed up the seating chart, so it was the norm that students were exposed to many perspectives and voices. During instructional time, this arrangement allowed for strategies like “think-pair-share” to take root. In addition, by the time we reached a class discussion of a text, students were much more ready to share their ideas.

Small-group seating also supported the reading and writing routines that I wanted to establish during workshop time. I found that many students were hesitant to ask for support or clarification after a traditional “sit and get” lecture. Yet, when I shifted away from lectures to mini-lessons, I saw a marked increase in engagement.

After the lesson, we transitioned to workshop time, and I circulated around my classroom checking in with students for understanding and creating a comfortable space to ask questions. For disengaged students, creating such a space is the most important entry point to boost their achievement. In addition, when struggling readers and writers hear their peers asking for support, they are more likely to ask as well. Normalizing support and fostering a classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing that they need help is an entry point that will move all readers and writers, not just those who are disengaged, struggling, or at risk.


At our opening professional development, students from our district presented data from a student survey about staff-student relationships. Though students expressed how knowing their teachers well was important, many explained that a simple smile or greeting goes a long way. One student even said, “We don’t need you going on about your life for 20 minutes. We just need to know you care about us.”

Working with students who resist reading and writing may be the biggest challenge some teachers will face in their career—I know it was for me. However, by growing a supportive relationship with their students, teachers can invite disengaged readers and writers into the conversation. Creating a comfortable space and environment for learning is the driving factor in student growth and achievement. And it all starts with a smile and warm greeting.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge, and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in history, English, and secondary education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Master’s in English education at Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.