Category Archives: Reading

#NCTEchat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature

Hosted by: Jim Brooks, @TeachGoodThings


#nctechat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature Feb. 19 8pm ET

Join us for a lively conversation about the challenging texts we choose to use in the classroom. Here are the questions we’ll discuss:

Q1 How do you select the texts you teach your students?

Q2 When is a text “controversial”?

Q3 What strategies have you found useful for exploring these texts in class?

Q4 How have you seen students benefit from grappling with controversial texts?

Q5 What supports do you find you need to teach such texts well?

Q6 How do you talk with parents / guardians / admin about the texts you use in class?

Q7 What’s one text that you’d like to learn how to teach and why?

Jim Brooks, host of #NCTEchat "Teaching Controversial Works of Literature" Jim Brooks is the language arts department chair at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, NC.  Among his many teaching accolades, he was the 2008 recipient of the NCTE Media Literacy Award.

NCTE Citizenship Campaign, February Focus: Black History Month

handsonglobeThe following post was written by members of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

February—Black History Month—offers an opportunity to encourage good citizenship when it comes to issues surrounding race while still meeting your content standards. To encourage personal citizenship1, discuss with students how they can be friends with and support peers from backgrounds different from their own. Their everyday interactions with people are a way of being a good citizen.

To help students be participatory citizens, have them look at the history of laws and/or current laws and policies that may be unfair to people of color or of different faiths. When it comes to justice-oriented citizenship, students could be asked to analyze and think critically about the laws and policies they looked at before and come up with a variety of solutions.

Grades K–5

For students at this younger age, we think it’s important to encourage them to maintain friendships with children outside their race or religion. Have class discussions about what it means to be a good friend and why it can be a good thing to have friends who are different from you.

Books to consider: The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson or Across the Alley by Richard Michelson

Grades 6–8

Middle school is an age where friendships can be complicated. It’s a great time to discuss with students how they choose friends. At this age they can start to think critically about whether or not their friend group is diverse and why. In addition to thinking about friendship you can have students conduct a mini research project. They can look through their curriculum and see how many black or nonwhite authors they have read in class, or people they have learned about in history, science, or math. This is a great way to look at your own curriculum and see who is represented and to consider why. Students can continue with the research project from the participatory citizen activity above and discuss and analyze their findings. They can determine whether or not they think there is an issue and write an argumentative paper as to why there is or isn’t. Perhaps if they all think there is an issue, they can come up with ways to fix it.

Book to consider: Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper

Grades 9–12

In high school students are being asked to do more critical thinking and analysis. Consider having your students examine your school’s dress code. Is it fair to people of all races? Genders? Why or why not? Can they write a proposal for a revised dress code if it isn’t? A research project looking at a person of color would be a great project too. You can use a nonfiction anchor text to help students write the paper while still working on reading skills.

Books to consider:

Other Ideas from


  1. As in our previous post, we draw on the three types of citizens proposed by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne in their article “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy” (American Educational Research Journal, Summer 2004, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 237-269): personally responsible citizens, participatory citizens, and justice-oriented citizens.


Frederick Douglass

Why I Think It’s Important to Know Frederick Douglass

The following post is written by NCTE member Scott Filkins. 

As I prepared to read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography with my 11th-grade students this fall, I thought through what I value about his work, both to frame how I would teach it and to make these ideas part of the conversation about why we read certain texts in a class called “American Literature.”

  • First, it’s an important historical document. Most of my students have not read a first-hand account of slavery, and they have much to learn from the writing of someone who lived under America’s most depraved institution.
  • Second, it’s a memoir of a key American figure. Deeply entwined with the historical significance of the work is its value as the story of a particular man who survived slavery and went on to devote his life to work for its abolition.
  • Third, his autobiography is a literary work rich with potential for discussion of the power of language. Even students who are reluctant to talk about an author’s word choice or sentence structure are easily convinced of the value of this work with a text as beautifully and carefully written as Douglass’s.

These reasons are more than sufficient, both to justify the work’s inclusion in the textual dialogue we call American literature and to give our specific conversations of his autobiography focus and meaning. But the past few times I’ve taught the book (thanks to my endlessly smart colleagues) I’ve been focusing on Douglass’s work as an example of political activism, writing for change. I feel foolish that this isn’t the approach I took in the past, given that ending massive human injustice was in fact Douglass’s goal in writing it.

It turns out that it’s not easy to make this focus central to our study, though. Students have trouble imagining what a historical audience reading the work would have had to feel, think, and believe in order to be convinced that slavery is antithetical to American values.

“How is it not completely obvious that slavery is inhumane?” they wonder. “Why would you have to do all this to persuade someone that this kind of inequality is unethical?” The enormity of these questions energizes students’ study of the text and brings them to appreciate the complex and disturbing significance of the very fact that it had to be written.

Knowing Frederick Douglass as a political activist who used his considerable literate gifts–as a writer, as a reader of other texts, and most importantly, as a reader of his fellow human beings–to make change in the world for the benefit of others is, it turns out, the most important outcome of our shared reading experience with his autobiography.

I only hope that everyone gets the chance to know him this way.


Scott Filkins teaches in the Champaign Unit 4 Schools. He co-directs the University of Illinois Writing Project and is a doctoral student at Illinois in curriculum and instruction.  Scott is the author of the NCTE publication Beyond Standardized Truth: Improving Teaching and Learning through Inquiry-Based Reading Assessment (2012).

Pairing Texts for Deepening Reading Comprehension

This post is written by member Kim Essenburg. 

kimessenburgpairing“I was disappointed because when the librarian talked in class about this book, I thought it was fantasy, but it wasn’t,” complained a tenth-grade student several years ago in an independent reading conference. The book was Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, and his comment puzzled me, because I too had heard the librarian’s book talk and knew from it that the YA novel was historical fiction set in sixteenth-century Europe about a dwarf. . . . Oh, a dwarf! The student didn’t know that dwarfism is an actual medical condition; being familiar only with the dwarves of Middle Earth, he assumed that wizards and dragons would show up sooner or later!

This incident dramatized for me what happens when limited knowledge of the world stymies reading comprehension. What can we do to facilitate the rich reading comprehension that comes from robust background knowledge, that ignites the imagination, and that leads to building new ideas through synthesizing and extending thinking?

Pairing a text with an image, a video, an audio, or another text is one way—and it also supports diverse learners and ELLs.

For instance, this week my tenth graders read “The Guitar” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The targeted poetic devices were alliteration, assonance, and consonance. The repeated, unstopped “s” and “l” sounds imitate the continuous flow of music, reinforcing the words “monotonously” and “impossible to silence it.” The poem also revisits the device of figurative images introduced the day before, personifying the wind weeping over ambiguous images, but ones that evoke loss, longing, and pointlessness—“southern sands / yearning for white camellias,” “arrow without target / evening without morning / and the first dead bird / on the branch.”

However, if students have never heard a classical Spanish guitar, this will all be gobbledygook to them. There’s no aural image playing in the ear of their minds, and no visual image of the five fingers plucking the strings to provoke both the music and the final metaphor.

So I begin the class by showing a YouTube video of classical Spanish guitar. Students listen to the wistful but beautiful monotony of it. They see the five fingers relentlessly plucking the strings.

Class continues with direct instruction on assonance and consonance, independent and group annotations, and then the fun of trying it ourselves—writing a poem about a musical instrument that evokes a powerful emotion in us and using figurative images and musical devices to evoke the same emotion in a reader.

What else might pairing for deeper understanding look like? It can be as simple as showing an image of a field of poppies when reading “In Flanders Fields,” or as complex as pairing the Holocaust memoir Night with the movie Hotel Rwanda and the Time article “What Makes Us Moral” to move the discussion beyond a particular incident of disregard for human dignity to the recurring pattern of human behavior and what we can do about it.

What can you pair with the literature you teach to scaffold rich understanding for your students?

Kim Essenburg has been teaching middle and high school English at international schools in Japan for almost 30 years. She loves reading, writing, and playing volleyball.

They Can, but They Don’t.

This post is written by member Mark Condon. 

markcondonI read this morning in Lu Ann McNabb’s NCTE blog about an effort in Michigan to sue the governor and state educational officials. The plaintiffs argue that the governor and the state’s education officials had “denied students their constitutional right to literacy.”

The habits, skill sets, and inclination needed to take on the challenges in Lifelong Learning is the overarching goal of the good education. That’s at least the spirit to which so many Americans pay lip service. That grand set of human capabilities, not a test score above a certain number, really should be our target.

 Literacy is then the foundation for children building such a life of learning and participation in the personal, civic and academic issues of their times. Educating children in such a way that kids drop-out or grad-out without being fully and actively literate is arguably a breach of contract between the schools and the populations they claim to serve.

Let’s be clear. Teaching reading and writing, which is what we do, are not the same as teaching children TO READ and TO WRITE. To read and write are to fully embrace all of the possibilities of literacy and actually and actively DO personally fulfilling reading and writing. So, patting ourselves on the back for educating children when so few continue to read and grow in breadth and depth of understanding of the complexities of life on earth after their formal schooling has ended is self-delusion.

We place shackles on teachers, requiring them to spend all their time teaching children reading and writing. We do this without even bring up the expectation that we’ll teach the children TO READ or TO WRITE, meaning to fully understand the WHY of literacy. To read and write is to actively inquire, to pursue answers to their own questions throughout life, and then to proudly share their discoveries and perspectives. It seems that even once we establish that a child can read and write, we utterly disregard whether the child is inclined to ever do so, resulting in a growing population of aliterates.

They could if they wanted to. They just don’t. We call that an education?

I’m not sure that declaring literacy to be an inalienable right is the answer to getting out of the corner into which we’ve painted ourselves, but it might be a start.

Mark Condon has classroom experience in elementary, middle and high schools. He has prepared new teachers and reading specialists for 31 years at the University of Louisville. Mark has consulted in Malawi and South Africa and with five native American tribes’ schools. He works with bilingual translators creating narrations of English books for the free, online Unite for Literacy library of picture books for new readers.