Category Archives: Literacy

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.

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.


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.

August is Family Fun Month!

The month of August typically signifies the last few weeks of summer before students and teachers return to school. Encourage family relationship building by participating in family activities throughout the month of August. Here are some suggestions!

Wild and Crazy Words
Make writing a little “wild and crazy” by ditching the pen and paper and using unique materials that will make your kids really smile while they’re having fun.

Explore and Write About Nature
In this activity, children look closely at living things in their natural environments and then make books about what they see.

Follow the Word Trail: Organize a Treasure Hunt
Create a treasure hunt out of word-puzzle clues hidden around the home or yard.

Creating Family Timelines
Children can interview family members and make an illustrated timeline of the most important family events and memories.

What else can you do as a family before school starts back up?

Profound: What Literacy Can Accomplish For Life

Dear members,

The NCTE statement posted yesterday reflects our commitment and deliberate intent to assure and inform you that the Executive Director and Presidential Team were gathering, processing, and conscientiously apprising you of our initial attention and concern about the NAACP’s travel advisory.

What follows is my response to the membership, not explaining why we must continue on into Missouri; rather, what follows illustrates and describes why we must move forward not only to Missouri but also to all states in this Union. Our leadership has made and will always make every effort to assure our safety. Be assured, our visible presence supporting teachers and students must never stop for any iteration of exclusion, oppression, or special interests.

Jocelyn A. Chadwick, PhD
YOUR Program Chair, NCTE 2017

There are many Missouris, many places where our children and educators live and work and must traverse sometimes harsh, difficult, and ever-changing milieus. NCTE’s mission and vision of providing learning pathways—moments and opportunities—to foment lifelong literacy dare not slow down, dare not stop, dare not be daunted by anything, ever. We move forward.

I’d like to offer an example from work I’ve been doing with Missouri teachers as part of this fall’s Annual Convention. The project described below will form the core of one of our keynote presentations, bringing the voices of students into the room with one of our beloved authors—a dialogue that will illustrate the very reason why all of us gather each year to grow in this work.

The following quotes are from four classes of Missouri 6th- and 7th-grade students, most students of color, whose amazing teacher and school allowed me to collaborate and work with 60 students as they embarked on reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. This same reading and discussion/writing session will occur again in October with different Missouri students and their teacher reading Another Brooklyn.

The Objective: To focus on sustained critical reading, thinking, and writing skills, utilizing a piece of literature. To encourage students to complete the text.

Until we began this instructional learning approach, the students had not completed an entire novel.

The Process: This summer, every Friday for five weeks, the students and I discussed what they had read, what questions they wanted to ask me—any questions regarding the text itself, and peripheral connections. Prior to each week, I prepared a PPT with primary sources illustrative of historical events, figurative language, vocabulary, geographical locations, even botanical references: The Negro Motorist Green Book, the Great Migration, Johnny Pumps, the dangers of lead poisoning, birch trees, South vs North, poll tax, civil protest, benign/benevolent racism, dialect, the American Dream, and Woodson’s panoply of writers, thinkers, and literary genres, especially, poetry, for example.

Literary Themes: the power of words, writing, reading, using ones imagination.

Social/Cultural Themes: family, sense of self, looking beyond ones own uniqueness and difference to explore and experience new relationships/cultures, death, nuclear and divided families, the import of names.

During the week, prior to each Friday, Mr. Devitt, their teacher, working with reading and analysis tools I provided coupled with his amazing instruction, the students read and discussed. The students sent me videos of their collaborative conversations and responded to questions I posed about the text—verbally and written.

Example of students’ comments:

“Has anyone close to you died?

“What was your family life like in the South?”

“Do you lower your eyes when a white person talks to you?” Why not?

“What was growing up in the South like for you?”

“Do you read a lot like Jackie? “Do you write, too?” Show us some of your writing.

“I guess bad things happen to all people. Maybe that helps us learn?”

“We had a debate and talked about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.”

“Americans are nice people but we just have to get better at what we do. Her grandparents do alot for their taking care of the children. I think I like it.”

“They called their grandpop daddy because there is not the father in their life.”

“It [the novel] doesn’t relate to any parent I know because Jacqueline’s mom is selfish.”

Result: The students not only read and utilized the Socratic method of inquiry and deep analysis, but also they completed the entire text. For many of them, Woodson’s novel was the very first book they completed. These students, and the ones to participate in October, created questions to ask Ms. Woodson. Woodson, her style of narrative, and her keen ability to weave so much into a text mesmerized and inspired the students.

Assessment: PROFOUND. Over the many years I have been teaching high school and college students (undergraduates and graduates), I have never, never described any experience with students as profound. And I have had the privilege of working with phenomenal teachers and students. That said, the students in this first phase of collaboration on a Woodson text, dug deep; they read, discussed, reflected, inquired, wrestled with the text and its implications as they viewed its relation to them. Metamorphosis transpired among us all.

This is what NCTE does best. The Missouri Affiliate, Mr. Devitt—and the teacher to come in October—the students and we worked together. The students were most assuredly not the same as they were at the beginning of the session. I was not the same. Mr. Devitt was not the same. And we are the better for it.

Not many educational organizations, like NCTE, in our contemporary climate claim to operate in this fashion. The Missouri Affiliate, two willing and invested teachers, and NCTE embarked on a journey along an instructional pathway few had ever experienced. My first attempt at such an approach occurred at Harvard on two occasions—but for a single day. This learning opportunity evolved over weeks.

As Mr. Devitt stated more than once, his students expressed to him their awe of our earnestly caring about them, listening to them. I promised the students I would come to visit with them on 13 November. That is a promise I cannot wait to fulfill.

The Summer Reading Collage: A New Approach to Relevancy

This post is written by member Brittany Collins.

 As disparate experiences cohere and craft a single identity, so do collages comprise the varying parts of a “whole.” On a January morning in 2016, a roomful of first-year students stared at me eagerly, if skeptically, with papers heavy from glue-stick smudge and Scotch tape. My being at the front of their classroom was a change in their routine. I was invited to present a guest lecture and lesson on intersectionality in The House on Mango Street, which they had been reading for the past week, and my presence was preceded by a request for them to create a “collage of home” prior to our time together. “A collage?” they had whispered, “Like, the kind we made in elementary school?” With amusement and an appreciation for metaphor, I asked the following of students:

Please create an 8.5×11 inch collage that represents “home” to you. Feel free to draw, write, cut pictures out of magazines, or print from the internet—get creative and have fun! While creating your collage, consider the ways in which your home extends beyond your physical living space (though you may choose to include pictures of that, too), and do your best to portray those notions of home on paper. Ex: What does “home” smell, taste, or sound like? Who is “home” to you? What emotions represent home for you? Think of a time when you felt “at home”—what were you doing? Please do not put your name anywhere on your collage, as we will keep these pieces of artwork as anonymous as possible.

Creativity class

After a rumble of giggles spread around our room, students became serious as they tacked their creations to the whiteboard; without conversing, we toured our “Gallery of Home,” and when students settled back into their seats, I structured our debrief with a five-minute, guided free-write:

What did you notice about these collages—similarities, differences?

What can we learn about “home” from these collages?

How did it feel to create your collage? What was challenging?

 “I like to think of Cisneros’s novel as a literary collage because each vignette is like a snapshot or picture that can be appreciated on its own and in relation to the text as a whole,” I shared with students as they looked up from their pages. “What connections, if any, do you notice between your collages and The House on Mango Street?”

Because this was an international boarding school, students had varying perspectives on family and culture, tradition and expectation, that they shared in relation to Esperanza’s negotiation of those topics in Cisneros’s novel. The collages no longer seemed trite; instead, they seemed the vehicles through which students shared and reconsidered their lives; they provided a “way in” to differences and similarities.

Drawing from students’ comments, scribbled in purple Expo-marker in my hurried whiteboard penmanship, I shared closing remarks with my students-for-the-day:

All of us, as we grow, are faced with messages about who we are as individuals. It is important to consider the factors that shape us so that we can be more intentional and self-aware through our own processes of maturing—recognizing societal messages and beliefs that we may have internalized about our own identities and considering the ways in which our actions might subconsciously affect somebody else’s idea of themselves. What goes on outside of our homes has a direct impact on how we feel inside of our homes, both literally and figuratively, and this story inspires us to think critically about these internal and external worlds.

The discourse that permeated our classroom catalyzed close reading and community building, explicitly acknowledging the internal and external. Some students considered anew the identifiers that comprise their identities: “Can I say carrot lover?” one girl asked with a smile, while others shared caregiver, Korean, lacrosse player, and daughter and noted the multiplicity and inseparability of all that their “home[s]” and selves contain. Our depth of conversation seemed dependent on the aesthetic “ice-breaker” of collage—the controlled contemplation of the personal in public.

Relational and social-emotional learning are embedded in opportunities where the subjective enters the academic, and collage assignments are one way to scaffold this combination. As January snowstorms give way to sun rays, the spirit of my assignment endures. Whether in sixth grade or twelfth, returning to collage as an accessible art form freshens traditional literary pedagogy and provides another way to connect students with texts. To deepen summer reading and recall the classic (if banal) “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay, educators might use collaging as an analytical practice, asking students to identify key themes, conflicts, and characters in a novel before collecting, during their summer adventures, materials that relate to those identified topics. For example, if I were to fulfill this assignment for The Odyssey, I might collect pieces of my own summer “journey”—a road trip, or even my drive to work—and exhibit a road map, examples of “hospitality” (pictures from a hotel pamphlet, perhaps), a picture of my dog (my own Argos), or a picture of my grandmother, herself a great orator. The purpose of this assignment is not to discern how our times resemble a given book, but rather how that book resembles our times, no matter its date of publication. What of great literature endures? Is the human condition one of stasis or change? How do you connect with your summer reading? What in your life resembles its sentiments? These are the questions behind glue-stick smudge and Scotch tape.

Brittany Collins is the editor-in-chief of Voices & Visions, the only online literary journal to publish the visual and written works of students who attend women’s educational institutions worldwide. She studied English and education at Smith College, has experience teaching literature and writing in educational and extracurricular settings, and is a freelance writer with a focus on English education.