Category Archives: Thinking

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.


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).

Just in Case You Thought No One Was Listening . . .

This post, written by member Peg Grafwallner, is a reprint

peggrafwallnerLast month, I was in a junior classroom listening to students discuss the upcoming debate between the two candidates.  As students were sharing their feelings, albeit most of it echoing their parents’ political affiliation, I encouraged students to be alert and aware.

“You are living through history,” I told them.  “Be sure you are able to answer questions when your children, nieces, nephews, or neighbors ask you what it was like during the election of 2016.  You will be reading the history books years from now that are going to spin this election in a variety of ways; but, you are actually living through it!”

They half-halfheartedly nodded.

I looked at the teacher and asked, “May I share a personal story?”

“Of course,” he said.

“When my son was small he was writing a report on Apollo 13.  He came to me and asked me what I remembered.  I was only 10 at the time, but he was looking to me for an angle, an ‘eye-witness’ report from someone who was there.  Unfortunately, I was no help.  I didn’t remember or know anything.  He walked away dejectedly.”

I continued, “Someone will ask you what you remember about this election.  They will have read the history books, they will have watched the news reports, they will have read social media.  Then they will come to you and ask you for the truth.  What will you tell them?”

At this point, the nodding had purpose.  I looked at the teacher and he smiled at me.

This evening I received this email from the teacher.

Hi Peg,

I’m grading journals and came upon this entry that I think was sparked by your comment about this election being historical. Enjoy:

Earlier this week, I was told to watch the presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Initially, I thought about how I didn’t want to watch two adults make fools of their self on national television, however, it was brought to my attention that I am living through historically significant events right now. The things that are going on in the world right now will one day be part of a history lesson. Classes will be learning about the 2016 presidential race and the Syrian civil war and the terror attacks. I am becoming a living part of history. Since I have come to this realization, I have been paying more attention to what is going on in the world by watching the news, reading articles, and trying to understand what’s happening and why it’s happening. I do not want to be asked about some huge event that I lived through and have my only response be, “I didn’t know what was going on because I was always on social media.” One day I will be able to share my knowledge and someone will benefit from it. Because I am taking initiative to know what is going on in the world currently, I will not be dumbfounded when someone asks what is happening or wants to know my opinion.

So the next time we wonder if the nodding is only a form of apathetic agreement; think again.   Someone is listening.

Peg Grafwallner is an Instructional Coach and Reading Specialist at a large urban high school. Peg draws on her nearly 23 years of experience and expertise to focus on engagement, motivation and interventions to create student opportunities of learning and inquiry.  

Conference Conversations: Reflecting on the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta

This post was written by member Kate Walker. 

This photo was taken at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention when Kate pretended to be a Spelling Bee Champion.

Attending NCTE Conventions has become a favorite activity of mine, and not just because the event falls near my birthday. I love the serendipitous conversations in the airport with other attendees (you can usually identify English teachers by their comfortable shoes, cardigan sweaters, or canvas shoulder bags). I love the facilitated discussions during presentations about issues important to teachers from around the country and the world. I love the meaningful talks with strangers who have become instant friends while waiting in line to talk to a favorite author. Clearly, I like talking, but what I like even more are the meaningful connections these conversations create and how they eventually impact my students in a positive way.

When I meet people attending the Convention for the first time, I like to tell them the biggest secret of longtime convention attendees: the publishers in the Exhibit Hall want to have conversations with you. Real, meaningful conversations about the books you teach. For example, after telling a publisher I wanted to find a modern companion piece for Their Eyes Were Watching God, she pointed me to Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, which is also a bildungsroman exploring women’s friendships. (The accuracy of her suggestion prompted me to buy a few more copies of Another Brooklyn to pass along to students for choice reads.)

The NCTE Convention also allows me to talk to all kinds of writers: famous authors, new authors, academic writers, blog writers, and people hoping to someday have the time to sit down and write between all the grading and lesson planning. I fangirled about S. E. Hinton with e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, I talked to Sharon Draper about recent reads (and dropped off a copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for her), and I talked shop with Jim Burke about teaching seniors. These conversations would probably not have been possible for me at my first NCTE Convention, when I felt insecure about meeting authors. At the New York Convention in 2007, starstruck, I literally walked into Louise Erdrich when she left an escalator, and I couldn’t even summon words when I had Dave Barry sign a book for me. But NCTE Conventions have helped me understand the human side of authors I’d previously idolized–they, too, have favorite authors, have favorite books, and have classroom stories.

While talking to publishers and authors constitutes a huge reason I attend the NCTE Convention, ultimately, the conversations with other teachers are the reason I return year after year. Other teachers provide me with the best ideas. Sometimes a presenter introduces me to a new poem or article that worked well for their students, and sometimes an impromptu conversation with a teacher over lunch generates new ideas for writing exercises. Attending the Convention offers me professional development from the best resource: other teachers. So every year, around November, I gather my comfortable shoes, my cozy sweater, and my canvas shoulder bag, and I prepare to talk to anyone who’s willing to answer my various questions about becoming a better teacher.

Kate Walker teaches in State College, PA, and edits the Pennsylvania State Affiliate (PCTELA) blog.  She was the 2014 NCTE Secondary Teacher of Excellence for Pennsylvania.

This photo was taken at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention when Kate pretended to be a Spelling Bee Champion.