Category Archives: Literature

Keeping a Record of the Reading Life

This post is written by member Molly Sutton Kiefer.

When I was young, I’d ask my father, a literature and composition professor, to give me reading challenges. As an upper elementary student, I spent one summer day plowing through 100 picture books. On Thanksgiving break from college, I brought a sack of books, which he balked at, and I said, “Challenge me to read one a day—you pick which ones—and if I make it, you can buy me a book.” I jokingly asked for the OED (Oxford-English Dictionary) I had my eye on in the bookstore where I worked.

I started keeping a record of my reading on my birthday in 2001. It was through these cream-colored journals that I began counting books for each year. 256. 211. When Good Reads came along, I went digital, logging each book, tracking little unformed thoughts, which became the foundation for professional book reviews. I kept marginalia in a conversation I was having with the future-self who loved re-reading.

I started teaching mostly high school freshmen, hoards of freshmen with puppy energy and stumbling prose. On Mondays, we read. The whole period. There were forms all freshmen teachers had in their rooms, little book reportish things on colored paper with rote questions. They’d staple the batch together, and earn fakeable points each semester.

The requirement set out by department was 600 pages a semester. Most students would reach that line and duly toe it. I made attempts at revealing my own reading self, at challenging my already-readers in the room, by keeping a tally of my own pages on the board. Some years, other children would step up and write their own name and the tallies would edge up. Another boy was too shy to participate, but at the end of the semester, I heard him mutter to his seatmate, “Only two thousand eight hundred sixty-three pages? I had over three thousand, easy.”

The thing was, the kids who loved to read would read. They didn’t need to fill in a chart to tell me this. The kids who didn’t, wouldn’t. They’d spin it, or refuse to turn in the sheets and those points would drop away from an already low-slung grade. We weren’t spreading the romance of reading in this way.

And I had begun to dull my own love for reading in my manic acquisition of pages, of book numbers. Good Reads began its own challenge: select a number of books you will read for the year! My log-in page would tell me where I was lining up. I would scurry to surge ahead and suddenly I wondered where my stopwatch was, why I wasn’t wearing cleats, and just where did the true love of reading go, anyway? The accomplishment of the goal had eclipsed the deliciousness of language, the breathless admiration of a muscular text. I had forgotten how to slow down.

Worse, I was perpetuating the habit with my students.

As educators, as parents, we model. To raise readers, we model reading. It’s a beautiful excuse for me to flounce onto the couch or, in the summer, the hammock and declare to my partner, “I am parenting right now.” And then get lost in the thick of the novel.

I began to model active reading with my own students. As part of my greet-at-the-door, I’d stand in the hallway with a book of poetry in hand. When my students silently read, rather than grade frantically, I’d perch on a stool in the front of the room, reading with a pen in hand, modeling the pleasure of marginalia. I told them about the books I kept with my friends from my MFA days, where we’d read the same book together and write notes in the margins specifically for a fellow reader—like writing letters as we read.

This summer, I began to keep a paper reading journal. I’m using a gorgeous herringbone Moleskine—we writers are particular about our materials—to show my students how valuable this book is to me. In it, I still jot down the small details side of things: dates, genres, name, author. I still keep data, and I’ll still keep data on my students. I have a binder that was once folders that was once loose sheets—reading logs that became carrots for some, daunting tasks for others. Two of my carrot-boys decided to make an informal book club and keep their own log of what they read together. I need the lists, because I need to know where to go from last month, the month before.

This year, I’m giving my students blank books to keep as their reading logs, and I’ll give them many examples of ways they can log. Some will stick with the lists because it works. Some will be like me and begin to copy quotes, write responses, fill it with words of their own. Others, like my carrot-boys, who also fill their days drawing elaborate scenes in the margins of their work—bows and arrows and robots and planets—I envision their turning this into a graphic log. Some will write skits, creating dialog between characters with unresolved issues, characters from other books climbing over the marginalia and into the pages of other books. Some will paint in watercolor and paste collages, words clipped from their mother’s discarded magazines, pasted along the curve of a mountain representing the plot line. Some will break out of the book-logs and rip out pieces of butcher paper and create enormous and intricate maps, scenes, lists. I had my creative writing students collect words and put them on paper, transfer them when they entered my classroom onto that paper and braced myself for observation days when the principal might stare at best-loved and most-hated words of teenagers.

This summer, I learned this: marginalia need not stop in the margins. Reading logs need not exist between parallel lines.

Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary and three poetry chapbooks. She is publisher at Tinderbox Editions, and her work appears in Orion, The Rumpus, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She lives and teaches in Minnesota

A Book Ban Like No Other

A few weeks ago a newspaper editor from the Panhandle of Florida contacted the Intellectual Freedom Center with a challenge. Following the September school board meeting, the superintendent of the Dixie District Schools issued an Administrative Directive to all the district school directors and principals. The directive stated,

“As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community. However, I do realize that AP and Dual Enrollment classes may have set reading requirements that requirements that contain questionable materials that the local district does not have control over. These will be the only materials allowed to be used in our district, provided they do not substantially violate community standards.”

I’ve never seen such a comprehensive book banning!

As I understand it, a parental complaint about Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying may have been what instigated such a ridiculous directive, one  that flies in the face of three existing district policies on curriculum development, selection of texts, and reconsideration of texts.

NCTE wrote the superintendent and school board a letter standing up for The Students’ Right to Read, pointing out flaws in the directive, and noting that the action, which didn’t follow three school board policies, thereby undermined all the school board’s policies that could, it seems, be ignored at the will of the superintendent and school board. Many other letters were sent, by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCTE signed on this one), the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, and the Florida Library Association. At the October 10 School Board Meeting, students spoke against the ban and the high school English department chair and teacher’s union president, Lindsey Whittington, made a strong plea for the Board to rescind the directive.

Despite all this, one member of the board replied, “We’ll take this stuff into consideration.”

While they’re considering, the Facebook page of the Dixie County Advocate is aflame with comments from members of the community whose views the directive does not represent. Golly, what an authentic purpose for writing!

Here are a few comment from the page:

“Banning books only makes kids want to read them even more. So I guess we should thank these jerks for encouraging our young people to read instead of being upset about them working so hard to dumb down our children. My grandchildren will be able to read whatever they want because I will buy them those forbidden books.”—Penny Williams

“As a high school student it angered me when they read the email to us. What HIGH SCHOOL student doesn’t know about ‘profanity, curiosity or inappropriate subject matter’? Please name one. I would understand if his was elementary students but high school come on. We are gonna learn about it one way or another!”

“This is insanity! My child loves to read and I often buy her books that are not available at school or the local library. I remember having to get her an ‘adult’ library card because she wanted to read books with more substance when she little. This is a slap in the face to parents who want their children to be literate and educated rather than locked in a box!”—Melanie Amrell

“Banning or restricting access to ‘challenged’ or ‘explicit’ material is such a deviation from the philosophy of American education and even of the Dixie County School Board, see link. The students of Dixie District Schools deserve equal access to instructional material approved by federal and state guidelines and not be subjected to the censorship of a few local officials hoping to reinforce their personal/moral agenda. If a directive like this is allowed then the district has no hope of producing truly competitive, well rounded individuals.”—Dylan

Well, you get the idea.

There has been no resolution as of this writing.

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.

Road to Convention and Beyond: What OUR Students and I Have Been Sharing


We write to live
And live to write
Our eyes on the prize
It’s still in sight
We got something to say
And we won’t speak quietly
We come from the heart
We’re the Red Poet Society                     


“We have to read the hard stories because how will we know what life is really like?”

“This is the first book I have ever read.”

“Really like? How will we know if the literature we read is real to us and how and where we live if we don’t read it?”

“Will Jacqueline Woodson be able to see us ask our questions?”

“Our teacher helps us to understand.”

“Do you read like that character?”

“We have a voice and we think.”

“Do you find yourself when you write?”
(Students to Jimmy Santiago Baca)

“Shakespeare wrote that character wrong!”

“Do you think racism is in the DNA? I mean, can anyone ever really leave the family and change?” (Hartford Students to Chadwick)

While the symbolic theme of the 2017 Convention is The Next Chapter, what inspired that symbol and image is the overall theme and the call for proposals: “Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission.”

We find ourselves at an interesting moment in time and history in that education—anchored in lifelong literacy—as an imperative for ALL children. We who are privileged to teach ELA, with all of its myriad iterations, find ourselves on a newer, different path of teaching and learning from our predecessors. The key factor in this new and energizing teaching context lies in our STUDENTS, as the Red Poet Society makes quite clear. I continue to be in awe of their energy, passion, and belief in what you and I know so very well: the absolute power of language. This blog update aims to provide our membership with a snapshot of what we will experience at Convention, yes, but I am also seeking to distinguish between our well-seasoned perceptions of today’s students—those post–9/11 and post—Great Recession—whose perspectives and tendencies do not always fit the oft-cited norms. Consequently, the more I have worked with these students, the more I am adapting and learning with them. Essentially, a kind of blending has occurred—I still see the literature, composition, rhetoric, and other ELA components in front of me—canonical and modern—but I “arrange,” “style,” and “deliver,” reading my new audience constantly. This new reading and adapting and delivering now includes NCTE—all of us.

I have always found secondary students to be interesting and dynamic because I began my career as a secondary teacher. However, since 2012, I am finding elementary, middle, and secondary students to be uncodifiable, unstereotypical, probative, opinionated, boundlessly energetic, deliberative, skeptical, and yet, fearless. The students exhibit all of these traits, I have surmised, because for so many of them, regardless of where they live, how they live, what they look like, our time, events, and present upheavals have forged them into an entirely different generation, as research by so many sociologists and psychologists indicates.

Rural, urban, suburban, wealthy, poor, variegated ethnicities, religions, geographical regions, languages, and more, public school, private school, charter school—these are the students with whom I and our keynoters have been spending our time. I have been in classrooms with students around the country in person and virtually, collaborating with administrators and fellow teachers. Oakland, Houston, Hartford, Belmont, St. Louis, Denver, Fredericksburg, New Kent, Cambridge, Hardwick, Sterling, El Paso—these are cities with schools where I have spent the greater part of last and this year, meeting with students and collaborating with their teachers regarding curricular resources and my presence for our 2017 Convention. Along the way—long before I was even nominated for vice president and during the actual preparation for Convention, our teachers, their students, and many administrators and communities have all had a most profound effect and affect on my understanding of why I teach and for the first time, a profound impact on me, personally. Differences, similarities, anticipations, expectations, assumptions, surprises, and much elation and learning has taken place—and not one of us has been left the same. This effect is a keenly good thing.

The students have not only accepted me into their classrooms, but more importantly, these students have privileged my sharing with them and their sharing with me through literature, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, listening, and technology. They have much to express. They do read; they will read when we help them connect the dots they require—relevance to who they are, where they are, and when they are. The text can be Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry, Jacqueline Woodson’s prose, Mark Twain’s historical novels, Gareth Hinds’s graphic texts, or Leland Melvin’s autobiography. Texts can be the music of Duke Ellington, a letter of Malcom X’s, a speech of Dr. King’s, a play of Shakespeare, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade. They will read. And they have opinions with hundreds of questions. I know. This has been a significant portion of my life since last November.

What has also struck me has been how many of our students today have what I describe as old eyes—they have already seen and experienced and, some, are constantly surrounded by so much, while still so tenderly young. They have dreams; they have aspirations; some are more voiced—others a bit furtive at our beginning. But to a one, each student expresses initial disbelief that we, NCTE, do care, that we do see them. They ask me why I care; I tell them. They email me; they have an open inquiry forum when we are in class—we are symbiotic.

These students know, and now believe beyond a shadow of doubt, that I will continue to be there with them and their teachers long after Convention. They know that NCTE will be there, too. In so many ways, these students, since 2012, are teaching me that they require more—they require our listening and responding in ways that may at this time not be in books, articles, white papers. Making myself available to them under different circumstances—text, email, looking at their videos, sending questions to answer and I respond—these are different learning/instructional pathways that for me that technology is making possible. The personal touch, too, is still very important. In my case, an African-American-woman-scholar-southerner, now northerner, who wants to listen and interact, learn, laugh, and be curious with them—this is important.

As ELA educators of every ilk, we must rethink, re-envision ourselves, and see our students: listen to them, confer with them, inquire with them, explore and discover with them, thereby, disrupting and exploding the notion of schools as prefabricated prisons from which they will never escape. We must revel in knowledge with them. We are the best and most sustained models they have in education. NCTE holds this place, represents this real ability to recast our classrooms, recapture our agency, enable our students’ agency for life. Our taking up this twenty-first-century mantle individually and as members of NCTE is our mission for the Next Chapter.

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.