Category Archives: Reading

Diversifying Our Professional Literature

This post is written by member Rose Peterson. 

rosepetersonI cracked the cover of the school’s grammar textbook, frantically hoping to find something I could salvage for the next day’s required weekly grammar lesson. I located the section on capitalization, a skill that had proven to be a struggle for my students. I was stunned by the answers to Section 12:

  1. Arctic
  2. Irish, Norse
  3. Scandinavian, Celtic
  4. Icelandic, pro-Norwegian

Textbook bias was no longer a distant problem when I looked from the brown faces of my students down to the whitewashed answers in my grammar textbook. In today’s public schools, black students represent approximately 26 percent of students, 50 percent of students here in Milwaukee, and 99 percent of students in my classes, but the majority of curricular materials continue to cater to white audiences. I firmly closed the cover, and thus began my journey of creating meaningful work for my kids from scratch.

The next logical step on this journey was turning to professional literature. While there is something to be gained from everything read, I find reading professional literature to be stickier now that I am teaching in an urban setting. I get excited about what teachers elsewhere are doing with their kids, and I leap to implement those ideas in my own classroom, forgetting that my kids are still learning how to “do school,” to write one-paragraph journals in 10 minutes, to be quiet for longer than 15 seconds at a time. Everything requires serious adaptation. It is exhausting enough to be an urban educator at all—to remain patient in the face of serious behavioral issues, to attend countless IEP meetings and expulsion hearings, to withstand district pressure about failure rates—but creating, or at least adapting, appropriate curriculum on top of the unique everyday strain is the added weight that drives urban teachers back into the comprehension questions in textbooks.

Nonetheless, my frustration is just a glimpse of the reality my kids experience daily when they try to reconcile their experiences in black communities with the white world that dominates the media. They, too, must adapt everything. Nothing is ready-made for young black kids other than the way of the streets.

As the critically conscious, culturally compassionate NCTE members we are, we have done a great job of advocating for adding diverse texts to our classroom libraries, for offering kids alternative realities to those the world may project. What we sometimes forget, though, is that while we fill gaps in young adult literature, many cultural gaps are ever widening in professional literature. We have authors like Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson bringing diverse experiences to classroom libraries across the country. Where are equivalent champions of diversity in the realm of professional literature? There are no Penny Kittles or Kelly Gallaghers or Jeff Wilhelms or Donalyn Millers of the hood.

There may be the occasional book—For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, or classics by authors like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—but other than that, the genre is sparsely populated. We see a handful of rotated lessons, the most popular of which relies upon Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. While the album is truly brilliant, this heavily used lesson concept is not enough. First, as any other teacher, urban teachers have dozens of weeks to fill, and a single album is not enough material to engage students for an entire school year. We need more ideas and inspiration for relevant, culturally responsive curriculum than a single album. Secondly, while this lesson is intended to be relevant to urban students’ lives, my kids do not even listen to Kendrick Lamar. They listen to Lud Foe and Bless Team and Lil Boosie. Well-intentioned as it may be, this “social justice lesson plan” ends up being yet another thing urban teachers have to adapt.

I am not in search of a copy-and-paste curriculum; I am in search of inspiration and ideas that come from a place of understanding about black urban students to help me teach them in ways that help them reach their potential instead of assuming they’re already there.

I want to know it can happen. I want to know I am not crazy for believing in my kids. I want to believe that independent reading and writing workshop and multigenre research projects and self-guided learning can work with my urban, black kids. I want to know I am not the only one struggling to figure out how. In order for this to happen, we must diversify our professional literature just as we have diversified our classroom libraries to reflect the experiences of teachers in diverse environments.

Black kids already know that this world is not kind to them. As their teachers, the least we can do is ensure that our professional literature helps us make our English classrooms welcoming and relevant to their lives.

Rose Peterson is a first-year English teacher at an urban high school in Milwaukee. Follow her @therosepeterson.

“Imagine” – Freedom to Read Week

In the U.S., we celebrate Banned Books Week in late September/early October—this year on September 24-30, 2017. But the Book and Periodical Council of Canada celebrates Freedom to Read Week during this time of the year. We’re in the midst of this celebration now—the week began on February 26 and runs through March 4, 2017.

The Book and Periodical Council’s statement on Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Read speaks to many NCTE’s positions intellectual freedom:

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right…and freedom to read is part of that precious heritage…The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others… Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.”

“Books are the plane, the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are HOME.”
—Anna Quindlen



Making a Deep Connection

This post is written by member Aaron McNabb. 

aaronmcnabbAs an educator, selecting a book to read for class can be a difficult task. There are so many questions to answer: is it a good fit for my students? What themes do I want to teach? Will my students connect with the story? This barely scratches the surface, and of course there are many other questions that a special education teacher must ask.

Getting struggling readers interested is challenge number one. I wanted a book that students would connect with, that has a strong protagonist, and that is ultimately an interesting story. Fortunately, I found a book that meets many of the criteria I had in mind: The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir by Farah Ahmedi.


Ahmedi experiences unimaginable challenges that many of us in the western world would never encounter. She becomes disabled after stepping on a landmine, and then lives under Taliban rule. During the war between the Mujahideen and Taliban, she loses her family in a mortar attack. To save her life she seeks refuge in Pakistan, but unfortunately, living in a United Nations refugee camp is nearly as dangerous as living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ultimately, she comes to the United States, but that brings on a host of other challenges.

I prefaced our study of the book by making sure that students in my class had a solid background on the history and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An understanding of the Taliban, Sharia law, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and UN refugee camps was going to be necessary to understand the book. To become acquainted with the setting and historical context, we read articles about these topics, looked at maps, watched video clips, and examined pictures.

It was eye opening for my students to learn about Sharia law, particularly about how women are treated under such circumstances. According to Ahmedi, after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, women were required to wear chadaris (or burqas) while in public. The students were shaken to learn that women were denied education, were not allowed to drive, and were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort.

After class one day a student expressed to me how lucky she felt to have access to an education. This wasn’t just a comment to appease me; this struck a deep nerve in her. It’s these exchanges in a classroom that make teaching so worthwhile.

While reading the book, my students marveled at Farah Ahmedi’s resilience and connected to her struggle. One student was a childhood cancer survivor who missed critical years of literacy development in kindergarten and first grade. She was a struggling reader, but Farah’s story brought out a confidence I had not yet seen. She started participating in readings and discussions for the first time all year.

On January 28, President Trump signed an executive order that banned refugees from entering the Unites States. The following Monday students came back to school and were shocked by the news. Coincidentally, we were reading about the vetting process that Farah was experiencing while trying to seek refugee status in America. We discussed how people like Farah were being barred from entering the United States. Emotions ran high in my class, but it was a pleasure watching the passion and connection these students were making between the real world and the memoir they were reading.

We finished the book several days later. Over the course of the reading, students formed a strong emotional attachment to Farah and her story. They wanted to know more and more about her and started asking me questions I could not answer. We looked her up on the Internet and found her website. Ultimately we discovered that she does motivational speeches to students across the country. This was the beginning of our effort to bring Farah to our school. We are fundraising now and getting closer to the goal.

Aaron McNabb is a seventh-grade special education teacher. He teaches English in a pull-out and inclusive model at the Amesbury Middle School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This is his ninth year working with students with disabilities.

24 most popular books for the African American Read-In

Each February since 1990, communities across the country have gathered to celebrate the African American Read-In. Gathering in schools, libraries, community centers, churches, and homes, people come together to read and discuss the writing of African American authors. After each event, hosts are encouraged to fill out a “report card” that details how many people attended the event and what books were read.

According to reports from the last several years, these twenty-four titles were the most frequently read. We’ll post an updated list of the most popular books from #aari17 after the report cards are all submitted in March.

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot: Rise Up at the Grammar Reimagined Workshop

This post is written by member Sean Ruday.

seanrudayOne reason I absolutely love the hit musical Hamilton is the show’s optimistic message and continued focus on realizing one’s potential; statements like “rise up,” “I’m not throwing away my shot,” and “I’m passionately surpassing every expectation” convey powerful ideas about setting and achieving goals.

This message of potential and achievement is also at the heart of what I believe about effective grammar instruction: I feel grammar instruction should provide students with an awareness of the ways grammatical concepts can reshape and enhance a piece of writing. In other words, teaching grammar effectively can help students see grammatical concepts as a way for their writing to “rise up” past where it previously was. To achieve this goal, we teachers can help students develop deep and metacognitive understandings of how published authors use specific grammatical concepts in their works, why those concepts are important to the published pieces in which they appear, and how students themselves can apply these grammatical strategies to the works they create.

I’ve traveled around the country sharing ideas about effective grammar instruction, presenting at conferences and delivering keynote speeches and workshops for school districts. During these experiences, I’ve been struck by teachers’ desires for innovative and effective strategies that help students develop deep understandings of key grammatical concepts and apply those concepts to their own works. In response to these interests, I’m holding a day-long workshop on grammar instruction on July 21, 2017, in Charlottesville, VA, on the grounds of the University of Virginia. This workshop, called Grammar Reimagined, is designed to provide teachers with practical and innovative ideas they can use to reimagine the grammar instruction in their classrooms. The workshop registration fee of $150 includes a signed copy of one of my books on grammar instruction (The Common Core Grammar Toolkit for Grades 3–5 or The Common Core Grammar Toolkit for Grades 6–8), a catered lunch, and admission to a full day of workshop sessions. Here is the agenda for the workshop:

  • 9:30–10:00 a.m. Check-in and welcome
  • 10:00–11:30 a.m. Opening Session: “The Grammar Toolkit—Metacognition and Grammar Instruction”
  • 11:30 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Lunch
  • 12:15–1:45 p.m. Session Two: “Grammar Remixed—Mentor Texts and Activities for Lasting Understanding of Grammatical Concepts”
  • 1:45–2:00 p.m. Break
  • 2:00–3:30 p.m. Session Three: “Focus on Assessment—How Can Teachers Best Assess Students’ Knowledge of the Grammar Toolkit?”

The graphic below illustrates some ways that this workshop can help teachers enhance their grammar instruction:



To register for the Grammar Reimagined workshop, please visit this link:

Sean Ruday, assistant professor of English education at Longwood University, began his teaching career at a public school in Brooklyn, NY, and has taught English and language arts at public and private schools in New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Sean has written six books on English language arts instruction, all published by Routledge Eye on Education. His Twitter handle is @SeanRuday.