Category Archives: Writing

Sneak Peek: July 2017 English Journal

This post is written by members Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, editors of English Journal.

The work of teaching illustrates the adage that change is a constant. Teaching is framed by many constants: schedules, rhythms, routines, and expectations based in national memory and local nostalgia. And teaching is also marked by change: different groups of students every year, not to mention every 42 minutes or so; different texts and expectations driven by technological and social innovations. Teachers practice in spaces of praxis, spaces of simultaneous constancy and change.

In our daily lives, we may become accustomed to living in flux while fixed in amber, but for many educators, summer offers a chance for reflection. Away from the days divided by bells and evenings filled with student papers to grade, teachers may have time to think about what to keep and what to change. With quiet space and time to read, teachers can consider new methods and explore new texts.

Authors in this issue stretch our imaginations and offer opportunities to reflect on what works. Themes featured involve enduring aspects of English classrooms, for example, teaching writing, which is examined from five perspectives. Authors in this issue emphasize authenticity in student writing, investigate teacher and peer responses to student writing, and analyze student and teacher perceptions of argumentative writing in the context of the Common Core. While all of the articles share the topic of writing, this constant is complemented by the lenses through which it is viewed. This issue offers a new approach to literature circles as well as articles that highlight the arts. Poetry, another staple of English classrooms, is amplified through spoken words, and video games extend our definitions of texts.

This issue, which is situated in decades of previous volumes of EJ, is focused on interactions of students and teachers as our lives intersect with one another and with classic and contemporary texts. We hope that the combination of constancy and change helps you find new perspectives on established practices, and imagine how democratic classrooms can prepare today’s learners to lead tomorrow’s world.

juliegorlewskidavidgorlewski2Former English teachers, Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski work with preservice and practicing educators, and with educational leaders, to create instructional opportunities that empower students with language.

What Happened to Carlos?

This post is written by member Erin O’Neill Armendarez, NCTE’s Higher Education Policy Analyst for New Mexico.

One semester years ago, after noticing a student’s uncharacteristic absence, I asked the students who usually sat next to him, “Where is Carlos?”

“Oh, he was deported, ma’am,” was the casual response. Deported? Wait. Carlos — not a US citizen?

From time to time, I still wonder about him.  Occasionally I find myself remembering an essay written by a student from Juarez, Mexico, who often crossed the border to visit family and friends. His essay described an afternoon in Mexico when suddenly the loud, staccato sound of automatic weapons fire sent the entire street into immediate panic. Finally summoning the courage to explore, my student encountered two strangers lying dead on the street, haloed in rings of blood.

“How did that make you feel?” I wrote in the margins of his essay, fumbling to prompt him toward some larger purpose. “I don’t know,” he said when we discussed it. “It just happened. It happens a lot.”

Right. Okay—pretty good structure, development, and punctuation — we will give the essay a pass.

With my nose to the grindstone teaching, I did not know much about the DACA program, New Mexico law with respect to undocumented students, or even why an undocumented person would not do the obvious thing —  get into the citizenship pipeline and out of the spotlight.

Now I find I have to think about these things, because I care about all the students who have a legal right to be in my classroom, about their ability to learn and their freedom to come to class without having to worry about whether their parents, grandparents, or siblings will be unlawfully questioned, apprehended, and taken to one of the nation’s detention centers before the evening meal.

After ICE raids in February 2017 coincided with “A Day without Immigrants” activities, absence spiked almost 148% in Las Cruces public elementary schools. Officials saw a connection and immediately made a public announcement that schools and buses are considered “sensitive” spaces where inquiries and arrests would not be made without a warrant or some other compelling reason.

Newer, tighter federal regulations probably will not cause families to voluntarily send their undocumented members back to wherever they came from, as the risk of returning for most far outweighs the risk of staying. Many families immigrated to avoid ongoing, life-threatening violence in their communities. Alternatively, they immigrated to avoid the desperation of poverty and to take advantage of the chance to work and to meaningfully contribute to a society where a stable, prosperous life might be possible. Nevertheless, this new climate of fear could keep students in the shadows indefinitely as they and their families do their best to avoid sudden detention or deportation.

Whatever we might believe about public rhetoric and federal policy with respect to undocumented immigrants, I hope we can all agree on this: children should be in school. To learn and to grow as they should, they also need to be cared for by stable families able to meet their basic needs.

Yes, our schools are already populated with too many children whose parents are US citizens struggling below the poverty line; too many children in our nation’s schools are exposed to horrifying trauma and crime. New Mexico hovers at the top of the national rankings for child poverty and for violence against children. However, addressing the needs of one group of children should not necessitate abandoning the needs of another group. Kids are kids.

The needs of all children should be prioritized. Children of refugees often have trouble learning and focusing in school. The American Psychological Association and other mental health agencies have convincingly documented the depression, anxiety, and PTSD suffered by refugee students scarred by past trauma and the constant threat of separation from loved ones. If that were not enough, many immigrant children are bullied at school because of obvious differences in dress or ethnicity.  Some suffer the humiliation of having their spoken English mocked by classmates.

Children have no power over their own legal status; they are completely dependent on the adults around them and on our legal system. For a variety of reasons, legal status can be virtually impossible to get for many family members of documented immigrants and US citizens. In the best of circumstances, for many it would (and in fact does) take decades. Meanwhile, for their children enrolled in classes in the United States, the very real possibility of deportation or detention (de facto imprisonment) looms.

As educators we are not able to solve all of these complex problems. But at the very least, we should be willing to welcome each and every student who is legally admitted to our classrooms, unlike an Albuquerque high school teacher who posted on Facebook that she believed undocumented students should be deported to “better serve American citizen students.”

Before posting, she probably did not think carefully enough about how her words would hurt her students, kids who were already hurting in ways she knew nothing about.

As educators we are constantly searching for the best ways to serve all of our students. Although it can be a struggle, we strive to offer the best possible educational opportunities to every single one, offering them a haven against violence, prejudice, and ignorance.

I understand educators will have varying opinions on this topic. My point is that until the recent ICE raids, I never thought carefully about the issues undocumented immigrants — including students — face beyond their struggles with our perplexing idiomatic expressions and our less than intuitive system for spelling in English.

Now I want to be sure that all of my students are able to attend all of their classes. I want to be sure they know they are truly welcome, respected by all in my classroom and on campus.

It is my job to support their dreams with high-quality educational experiences no matter where they came from or how they got here. While I do not know where they have been, I know what they might become if given a chance.

Erin O’Neill Armendarez teaches writing courses at New Mexico State University Alamogordo, a community college in southcentral New Mexico. 

Please read NCTE’s 2015 Resolution on the Dignity and Education of Immigrant, Undocumented and Unaccompanied Youth.

Listing the Difference

This post is written by member Donna Brown.

As educators, we are constantly being asked to do more and perform better.  These expectations are an energy drainer that leads us to question ourselves.  Why do we teach? Are we truly making a difference?  Do policymakers really have the best interests of educators and students? These questions and many more can lead us to a place of negative thinking. I often find myself falling into this rut from time to time. Meeno Rami suggests that we take stock of energy drainers and find ways to refuel ourselves as teachers.  We can choose our attitude and how we interact with others.  I realized that how I take in information and store it in my mind controls my attitude.

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A tip that has helped me when I get to feeling negative, drained, or overwhelmed is to make lists.  The lists are not just what I need to do, but what I have done.  There are so many things that we do as teachers automatically, but do not give ourselves credit for.  We always have our “To Do” list.  The “To Do” list for me was an energy drainer.  I found that I always created a list that contained many tasks that no one could really accomplish in one day.  In order to make it a positive experience, I started a list for “I did this today. . . . ”  At the end of each day, I would take a few minutes and reflect on where I made a difference.
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For example:

  • I recommended three books to a reluctant reader and he took one.
  • I helped a parent relax through an email.
  • I taught an awesome lesson using persuasive texts.
  • I discussed writing with 14 kids today.
  • I said encouraging words to a colleague who is struggling.
  • I walked away from a debate that could take away my energy.

I would then sit back and reflect on what I have done. My lists are a positive reminder that my work matters to many people and that I make a difference.

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The questions of valuing our work will always be here.  As educators, we know that many people do not understand the needs or realities of teaching.  Those who make the laws and influence some of our day-to-day work do not see the entire picture as passionately as we do. We cannot allow the perspective of others to cause us to lose hope educating the students we see each day.  Negativity is always present. This is part of the world we live in; however, we can structure our own day and choose to live positively, making a difference to future generations.

Donna Brown is a Humanities Instructional Coach in Clear Creek ISD located near Houston, Texas.  She supports ELA staff in elementary and secondary schools.  Donna also is the Technology Chairperson for Texas Teachers of ELA and offers professional development to schools on ELA, instructional coaching, and best instructional practices.  Twitter @DonnaBr105

MLA 8: We Are Here, But Should We Have Come?

(American Attitudes toward the New Version of the Popular Documentation Style)

This post is written by member Beth Gulley.

I’m spending my sabbatical year teaching in Xi’an, China. As part of my work here, the faculty invited me to present something at an international workshop on comparative language education.  I wanted to speak on a topic important to US  teachers that would have relevance to the Chinese and European audience. I remembered that before I left the United States in August, faculty were wrestling with the new MLA guidelines. While I am teaching writing to English majors here in China, research and documentation seem to be absent from the textbook and other teaching materials. Teaching documentation could be a meaningful topic. I resolved to find out how American teachers thought the transition to MLA 8 was going.

In February 2017, I sent a query out to the Conference of Basic Writing listserv, the TYCA listerv, the Kansas Association of Teachers of English (KATE) Facebook page, and the Comp I listserv at my own institution—Johnson County Community College. (These are NCTE affiliate groups except for my own college.) I invited colleagues to send me answers to four questions:

1) Are you teaching MLA 8 to your students? If so, what level of
students are you teaching it to?
2) How are students responding to the change? Is MLA 8 easier or
harder for them to use than MLA 7?
3) What advice would you give to someone who was teaching MLA 8
for the first time?
4) What is the value of teaching a documentation style?

Shortly after I posed the questions, I received responses from all four of the places I asked the questions. In all, I collected nineteen responses that I could use; plus, three people responded just to say hello to me. Of course, English teachers are the best people in the world, and they often engage in the conversation in meaningful ways that do not in any way follow directions. Everyone wanted to share advice and resources, most people shared what they thought the value of teaching documentation was, but some people did not answer the question about how students are responding to the change.

In response to question one—Are you teaching MLA 8?—fifteen people said yes. Two people said they were teaching APA instead. Two people said they were still teaching MLA 7. The most important thing to me is that no one in the United States said they don’t believe in teaching documentation at all. The level of students learning MLA 8 included first-year composition students, basic writing students, English language learners, and high school students.

Fewer people responded directly to question two about students’ responses to the change. Of the people who answered, eight said they thought MLA 8 was easier for students. One said MLA 8 was harder for students. Four people were not teaching MLA 8. Six people did not answer the question. The main reason people thought MLA 8 worked better for students was because MLA 8 is more forgiving. The idea of the containers seems to connect with students as well. It doesn’t hurt that all the citation machines and writing center handouts were recently updated, too.

The richest part of the survey results were the answers to questions three and four. In fact, I was so honored and excited by the resources people shared with me that I built a website to house them so I could share them (MLA 8: We Are Here, but Should We Have Come?). In addition to the resources that are already there, I would be happy to add new ones that people share with me. The resources included handouts, presentations, lesson plans, and templates. One of my favorite lesson plans asked students to translate a works cited page from MLA 7 into MLA 8 after finding the sources from the page. Another teacher made pads of the MLA Practice Template for her students to use while working on their research papers.

After going through the responses, I found excellent arguments for teaching a documentation style. Mainly, in doing so we teach the values of our discipline—importance of authors, the location in a text, precise language. We help students think about the rhetoric of the citation as a way to evaluate their sources. We teach them academic honesty, to be excellent in small things, to use their handbooks, and to be organized. The complete list is on the resources website.

In the United States, we universally teach students to document their sources, but in China, teachers seem more apt to expect students to figure out documentation on their own. Despite this fact, my presentation was well received. Thank you to everyone who shared with me.

Beth Gulley teaches composition and basic writing at Johnson County Community College. She is currently using her sabbatical to teach English in Xi’an, China.

How Students Helped to Discover the Relevancy of Poetry in the 21st Century

 This post is written by member Christopher Margolin.

Teachers tend to teach poetry because they feel it has supposed to be in the curriculum. They believe that students need to be familiar with sonnets, haikus, and acrostics, but what they neglect to do is allow their students the freedom to simply explore — and write poetry themselves. They spoon-feed old, outdated pieces that have not been relevant in decades, focusing on the dead white guy, or the poets they feel will strike a chord. They teach lessons from rote memory or out of textbooks. They do not watch for the yawns. Instead of partnering with their students to find out what might actually be of interest, they stifle their creativity and ruin poetry for the majority of students.

I am guilty of all the above.

I came out of college as an expert in sixteenth-to nineteenth-century British poetry, and when I started teaching, I thought these were the necessary poems for all students. I wanted them to hear the rich language, dive into the hefty topics, and talk about the importance of blah blah blah. I was excited about it, as were a few random students, but they didn’t really understand what I was talking about. Showing them poems by John Donne, or William Blake, or Samuel Coleridge didn’t inspire any real emotions, but I taught them all the same — because I liked them. The choice of texts had absolutely nothing to do with my students, and it showed on their faces — which I only noticed after a handful of years of digging through the obscure.

A few years ago, one of my students asked me to prove the relevancy of poetry in the twenty-first century. That’s when I realized I didn’t really know any current poets. I knew the laureates and a handful of current pieces I had read in different journals, and I could cite reasons why I found poetry to be important, but the challenge left me questioning how important the poems I had been teaching were in today’s world. Therefore, I stopped. And did some research. I had heard about Button Poetry, and I spent time sifting through YouTube videos of performance pieces and slam poetry competitions. I watched through five seasons of Def Poetry Jam and fell in love.

My students and I started a Twitter account (@poetryquestion) and began to send tweets to literally thousands of artists, poets, musicians, actors, authors, and anyone else we felt might offer 140 characters on how they felt about poetry in the modern world. Then our campaign started to work. We received more than 300 responses. Not only did we get responses, but we also had people reaching out to talk with my students. This was inspiring. This was what my students needed. Instead of staring at words they did not understand, they had real people talking to them — people they knew, people they enjoyed, and people who were relevant.

I had my students open up their Chromebooks, go to YouTube, type in “Button Poetry,” and hit play on whichever video popped up first. I told them to click on every poem they could find. They watched countless videos and wrote down what hit them the hardest. Then they filled my whiteboard with 183 names of poets. After that, they began to write their own poems. They wrote about the abuse they suffered, or family vacations, or fears, or joys, or teenage life, or school, or whatever made sense to them in the moment. They wrote, and they did not stop.

In addition to Twitter conversations with a number of the poets they had discovered, my students Skyped with Joel Madden of Good Charlotte and with Saul Williams. We held Twitter interviews with Marc Maron, Taylor Mali, and so many more. Alexander Dang and Clementine von Radics visited our classroom to perform.

And the students kept writing. They kept putting their emotions on paper and crafting them into performance pieces. I did not teach them how to format anything. Instead, I just told them to write. I told them to watch more poetry. I told them that we, as a class, valued their words and their lives, and that this would be a comfortable, judgment-free environment, — and they listened. They were one another’s allies and shoulders to cry on, and people with whom they could laugh and cheer on throughout the process. By the end of the unit, every student in every class had shared their poems with their peers, and some even went to a local poetry slam to share with complete strangers.

If we pay attention to the needs of our students, if we give them the freedom to explore and talk and watch and listen and teach themselves, they become excited. They want to learn. They want to write. They want to collaborate. But they only want these things if teachers stop giving the rote-memory rubbish and instead partner with them, enjoy their content, facilitate rather than lecture, and help to prove the relevancy of words in the twenty-first century.

Chris Margolin is the Vancouver Public Schools’ Curriculum Specialist for Secondary English Language Arts, Advanced Placement, College in the High Schools, and Running Start. He spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, working not only with students, but also as a member of the district curriculum design team, developing the district’s Creative Writing course. He currently resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife and daughter.