Category Archives: Writing


Lost in the Past

This blog is written by seventh grader Grace Higgins, a student of NCTE member Joe Pizzo.

Joe Pizzo’s introduction:

When asked what techniques I use or lessons I teach to inspire depth in my students’ writing, such as Grace demonstrates in the following poem and explanation, I simply return to the main message of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: we do indeed write for sound, as well as for sense. I begin each of my integrated language arts classes with a “Do now” activity through which we learn a daily word and its definition. Next, my students write sentences of ten or more words and use the new word in those sentences. I must note that Grace has the unique ability to infuse poetry throughout her prose, no matter what the task happens to be. After reading a number of her original sentences that contained various poetic devices implemented with precision, I encouraged her to expand one of her sentences into a poem. She did so after some additional encouragement, and the result is typically impressive. As a writing teacher, my mission is both to inspire and to encourage my young writers. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry.”

Lost in the Past

The wind whispers, to the tune of an eternal brook, in my ear, the stories
that have slipped abruptly through my grasp.
My mind wanders,
then returns,
for I have remembered my adoration for the life in the reality,
set in my haven that provides my remembrance,
from the serene environment that wraps me tight,
like a snake vigorously squeezing its prey.
The sun shimmers, softly on the left side of my brain,
causing me to, like water to fire,
engulf its memories of days far from the moment.
Again, my mind lingers in memories
but as quickly as a forceful breath is drawn from my mouth,
I realize, like a mother recalling her flock, my dream
and return to the actuality of existence I call my haven of sanity.
Lightning crashes onto a tree,
in the forest beside my right hand,
and my mind flashes, like the flicker of a lightbulb,
to the purlieus of my youth
I have forgotten reality.
I am lost in the past.
—Grace Higgins

The present is a gift. However, many people do not experience this gift. The poem “Lost
in the Past” represents the feeling of not being able to live for today because the past holds one back. Without peace with the past, one cannot move forward in life. “My mind wanders, then returns, for I have remembered my adoration for the life in the reality” means that the person loves their life in the present but the past keeps haunting the person, therefore preventing progress in the present.

The inspiration for this poem came from both meeting people who struggle with
their past and seeing the pain and suffering they face every day. This inspiration then led to the idea to writing a poem about the daily struggles that hundreds of people face. The poem hopes to shed light on both these struggles and the burdens of the past.

After finishing the poem, my writing style has changed from a more immature, bouncy
style to a sophisticated, in-depth style. For instance, I used to write, “The room was colorful.” However, now I write sentences like, “The room flourished with colors of green and painting of days long past adorned the turquoise walls.¨ This experience has widened my expanse of writing styles, thus allowing me to play with unique writing styles and technique.

Grace Higgins is a 7th grade student from Chester, New Jersey who has achieved high honor roll every semester while at Black River Middle School.  In addition to being a dedicated student who loves to read and write, Grace participates in soccer, basketball, ski club, track, chorus, Girl Scouts, and the alter server ministry at Saint Lawrence Church.  Grace is known by her friends and family to be kind-hearted, helpful, and someone who lets her light shine in a way befitting of her name.  


I, Too, Am a Writer

This post is written by member Katie Kraushaar. 

Six years ago, if you had told me that I would be sharing my messy, work-in-progress writing with my 7th graders and listening as they gave me feedback, I would have laughed. Feedback? From my students? Who’s the teacher here?

But there I was, standing in front of 25 thirteen-year-olds, bemoaning the fact that the scene where my protagonist was supposed to meet a friend just wasn’t working.

I looked at my students. “I need some ideas. What do you think?” Hands started to raise, and conversations floated between writing partners as they excitedly discussed directions for my story. As students shared ideas, I furiously typed comments on my manuscript, trying to capture all of the possibilities. Later, I’d go back and rewrite the scene, weaving in Kate’s suggestion that my protagonist give herself a pep talk before meeting her new friend, as well as Izzy’s idea that she should be writing in her journal, a character trait that was important to the storyline.

These days, I am intentional about using the word writers when referring to my students and myself. This language makes it clear that, in this room, we write and learn together. It wasn’t always this way. Too often, the way writing is taught amplifies the division between the students and the teacher: one is there to teach, while the rest are there to be taught.

When I first started teaching, I was guilty of approaching writing this way because I did not call myself a writer. Sure, I wrote, but I wasn’t a writer.  Like many of our students, I associated the word with someone who had an agent and who spent hours workshopping manuscripts to shop around to publishing companies. The word “writer” was reserved for the elite few…not for teachers like me.

This mindset is damaging. It is what made me spend the first few years of my teaching career turning to the comfort of pre-made graphic organizers and canned, prescriptive ways of teaching writing, turning the art of putting words on a page into a paint-by-numbers activity.

It is what made me clutch my own words close to my chest, scared to share my writing with my students for fear that they would see my imperfections and declare me unfit to teach English. It is what ultimately made my teaching of writing inauthentic, unmemorable, and frankly, ineffective.

Six years later, I am comfortable calling myself a writer, both to my students and to myself. This simple statement is one that resonates. It dismantles the pedestal writing is often placed on and makes it accessible for anyone who has something to say. It gives students the confidence to say, “I, too, am a writer.”

This revolutionized my approach to the teaching of writing. When we began gathering ideas for our realistic fiction stories, instead of spending time searching the Internet for graphic organizers, I filled pages in my journal with my own ideas and noted my process. I shared my approach with my writers and invited them to experiment with different methods of discovering story ideas.

As we began drafting, predictably, we learned that writing a story is anything but easy. We hit many snags: ideas that didn’t go anywhere, phrases that just wouldn’t sing, the long distance between what’s in the head and what ends up on the page.

In the past, these struggles would have elicited rubric-based criticism that emphasized my role as an evaluator. However, because I write, feedback looks less like an “I say, you do” process and more like a conversation between two people who are on a journey together.

I am able to nod my head in solidarity when students describe a difficulty and say, “Oh, me too. I’ve had trouble with that before. Let’s figure this out together.” Because I write, I am empathetic, not just sympathetic. Telling my students that I deal with the very same issues they do allows both of us to put our heads together as fellow writers to determine a best course of action.

When we published our realistic fiction stories, we took time to share them, savoring the chance to read each other’s words. In the past, I might have skipped this step, instead gathering up the stories to critique and grade. However, because I see myself as a writer too, we take time to celebrate. We honor our work because writing is hard. Writers need this encouragement. They need to know that their words matter and that someone has read them. This perspective is only possible because I write.

The truth about writing is that it is never finished. And we are never completely finished “becoming” writers, no matter how many years of practice we have or degrees we hold. Every time I pick up a pen, I remember that writing is hard. This knowledge follows me into the classroom when I watch my writers work to put words on the page, and weaves itself into every interaction I have with them.

In the classroom of a teacher who calls herself a writer, writing is no longer a remote act reserved for the creative few. Writing is for everyone with something to say, and anyone who writes is a writer. A freeing truth for both students and teachers alike.

Katie Kraushaar is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher in St. Louis, MO. In addition to her seven years in the classroom, Katie is a Teacher Consultant for the Gateway Writing Project, a satellite of the National Writing Project. Connect with Katie through her blog and on Twitter.

Student Athletes and Writing Transfer

This post is written by member Michael Rifenburg. 

michaelrifenburgWhen I stepped in my first-year writing classroom this year at the University of North Georgia, I found students separated into groups. Softball players to my right, baseball players in the room’s center, cross-country and soccer players to my left.

I have taught first-year writing courses for only a decade, but this semester I’m with a class populated much differently than others I have taught.

Twenty-five of my twenty-six students are student athletes.

It’s not by chance. I worked with the athletics department and the athletics advisor to fill my class. And I have a plan for how best to develop their writing skills.

I am using research on transfer, which conceptualizes how learners take knowledge from one context and apply it to another. Writing transfer research has gained traction recently, and I am structuring my course around prior knowledge and metacognition—both of which are central to successful writing transfer.

In 2006, Kathleen Blake Yancey and two co-researchers (all at Florida State) received a CCCC research grant to study transfer. A year later Yancey connected with two graduate students at Florida State, Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak. Shortly thereafter, Robertson and Taczak began dissertations on transfer. All three participated in the Elon University Research Seminar called Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer and began moving toward a book-length study of transfer.

The three authored Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, which was recently awarded a CCCC Research Impact Award.

In their book, they sketch a curriculum called Teaching for Transfer (TFT), which connects with students’ prior knowledge and uses structured metacognitive assignments.

Prior knowledge and metacognition link with my research on student athlete literacy. For the past decade, I’ve worked with student athlete writers. My work culminated in a book, The Embodied Playbook: Writing Practices of Student-Athletes, forthcoming from Utah State University Press.

Sports require a high level of literacy, most clearly seen in how players learn and run scripted plays. Think about the sketching of football or basketball plays you might have seen, the lines, arrows, and shapes dictating physical action. When student athletes enter my class, they bring experience in engaging with this form of text. Transfer research asks me to leverage this form of prior knowledge into curricular work.

Additionally, student athletes refine their sports literacy through watching film on their performance and reflecting on successes and failures. I’ve sat in on numerous film sessions where coaches and players watched clip after clip in hopes of bettering subsequent performance. Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak believe this reflection is crucial to developing as a writer.

The TFT curriculum introduces students to eleven key terms; I adopted the eight found on our class website: genre, exigence, audience, rhetorical situations, reflection, context, discourse community, and knowledge. We began by looking at the first four terms. I moved students through a quick presentation I created titled “Athletics & Writing,” which includes images from my book: e.g., a defensive football play, a head basketball coach drawing a play. I showed commonalities between writing a play and writing an academic paper. Both are rhetorical situations reliant on audience, exigence, and genre.

I then brought students’ attention the first writing assignments: a 500-word mini-paper in which they pick one of the four key terms, explain how the term is defined in Keith Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents”—anthologized in Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’s Writing about Writing—and then state how understanding this term will help them in future writing contexts.

To scaffold into this assignment, students worked in groups. Together they answered the questions aloud; individually they composed their answers on a shared Google doc:

  • What is Grant-Davie’s most important point about exigence? About audience?
  • Think about competing in a game for your sport. Who are the different kinds of audiences watching and responding to how you compete? What expectations do these audiences have for how you compete?
  • Think about a paper you wrote for a class last semester. Now look at the three questions Grant-Davie gives [What is the discourse about? Why is the discourse needed? What is the discourse trying to accomplish?]. Answer these three questions in regard to your previous paper.

The initial question related to the mini-paper, the second called on student athletes’ prior knowledge about audience, and the third planted a seed for the second writing assignment, a 1,500-word rhetorical analysis of a previous writing assignment taken from Chapter 3 of Writing about Writing. The questions help student athletes see that both writing an essay and writing a sports play require writers to respond to ever-shifting rhetorical situations.

Our many, many students bring with them unique ways of knowing and being. When we work to connect with their prior knowledge of writing, whatever the context, and structure our curriculum with moments of reflection, we help develop them more fully as literate persons.

Michael Rifenburg is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. For the past decade, he has worked with and written about student athlete literacy at two different Division I schools and one Division II school.

Teaching Resistance in Unjust Times

This post is written by NCTE Historian Jonna Perillo. 

jonnaperrilloLike many of you, I took pleasure in reading the many reports that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had risen in sales by 10,000 percent in the weeks following the election. If there was any good news to be found, knowing that many more Americans were reading Orwell’s critique of “newspeak” and authoritarian rule was it.

As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I wondered how many of those readers were teachers. 1984 has long been canonical high school reading, but even short novels often have been sacrificed in the expediency game of standardized curricula and testing. My not so secret hope is that English teachers are going off the rails, assigning Orwell’s work as a necessary act of resistance against both political “doublethink” and a mindless approach to teaching.

It would mark an important change if so. I have heard from many teachers over the last several months—some I know, many I don’t—that they strive to be apolitical in their work. They see how some of texts they teach respond to world events, but some teachers try not to entertain explicitly political conversations even so. This wasn’t always the way.

During both world wars, teachers were required to politicize their work. In a 1942 document entitled “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) outlined the ways in which English instruction should work as a tool of resistance against the enemy and a means to promote a sense of national unity.

Some of this work was ideological and restrictive. Teachers were expected to assign “patriotic literature” that “proclaimed” and “interpreted” (but did not critique or examine the limitations of) democratic life. Yet they were also expected to be more inclusive and to teach works that recognized “the rights and contributions of minorities in this country . . . and those loyal aliens who may be under suspicion at the moment because of descent from enemy nations.”[1] Textbook adoptions and district curricular plans indicate that this happened less often than it should have, but NCTE’s goal for diversity was important nevertheless.

Recently, I have heard many stories of young students who have asked their teachers why the president hates them. In communities across the nation, students suddenly feel under attack. To this, what do we say? What is the role of the English teacher in unjust times?

We live in a different historical moment from that of the mid-twentieth century, one in which politics in the classroom feels both more complex and riskier. But as the skyrocketing sales of 1984 might indicate, more and more, many find avoiding politics an untenable position to hold.

Reading another classic by Orwell, his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” offers humanities teachers a compelling tool for change. In it, Orwell dissects how language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” “Bad hombres” is not just a juvenile phrase; its linguistic carelessness captures the laziness of the totalizing and inaccurate assumptions it describes.

Orwell shows that language is often used in a “curiously dishonest way” to produce “a reduced state of consciousness . . . [and] political conformity.” Say the phrase “alternative facts” often enough, he would argue, and people just might believe such a thing could exist. Readers and listeners must always be on guard for flat metaphors and empty, recycled phrases that are purposely devoid of meaning. All discourage real thought.

In contrast, Orwell positions the language-conscious writer as a “rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’” Ours is an especially important time for students to read a rich tradition of rebellious writing in this country—fiction and nonfiction—and to see how both the ideas and the expression of those ideas differ from the status quo.

Orwell implicitly challenges the kind of easy, patriotic sentiment that was central to the politicization of teaching during World War II. But it also reminds of us why NCTE’s push toward inclusion, at a time concurrent with Jim Crow laws and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, was a meaningful statement of resistance. What might such meaningful statements look like now? And to whom should our students be addressing them?

I suspect the return to 1984 is a sign of Americans’ search for a resistance handbook. Teachers, especially, have needed such a thing for a long time. If our current political climate is useful for anything, it might compel us to consider just how much has been lost in a laser focus on standardization that has asked teachers to conform to expedient, simplistic ideas about language, reading, and writing.

No student should feel like their president hates them. But all students should feel like their teachers are their allies. The most important way we can do this is to enable our students to become more adept and aware thinkers and people. Teaching English is all the more meaningful a pursuit in these unjust times.

[1] National Council of Teachers of English Planning Commission, “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” box 1, record series 15/73/803, NCTE Archives, Urbana, IL.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

Digital Storytelling

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 


Several years ago, in search of a truly meaningful way to use the tablets and laptops that had become a standard item in my students’ backpacks, I began to research digital storytelling. I considered video essays, podcasts, digital poems, blogging, and social media, spending hours on false starts as I explored the different tools available. I considered developing projects around iMovie, but felt it would be too time consuming to use given the constraints of my English curriculum. Blogging and Tweeting were appealing options, but as my students and I had already done quite a bit with those mediums, I put them aside in search of something that would be new to them and me.

As I thought back to my first year of associate teaching with Monica Edinger, I remembered a project she led in her fourth-grade classroom using Comic Life. It was easy to download a free trial of the app to my laptop and even easier to sort through their modular and customizable templates, fonts, captions, and word art. I based my first Comic Life project on a story I had written earlier and found myself surprised at how many “writing” skills I relied on in order to tell a primarily visual story. My hours spent in Comic Life reminded me that I need not always use pencil and paper (or word processing) in order to encourage my students to improve and refine their writing skills. Indeed, despite this being a digital project, I still spent quite a bit of mental energy on plot development, pacing, tone, organization, and language. It was clear I had found a winning concept, as the program allowed me to develop a digital storytelling project that supported and reinforced the foundational writing skills in my curriculum.

This year I will lead my students through a digital storytelling project for the third time. After reading several novels as a class, my fifth graders choose one protagonist and write a script in which they imagine what happens to that character after the novel ends. After brainstorming potential settings for their scripts (summer camp and college dorms are always favorites), students develop a realistic storyline and spend a few class periods planning out plots and dialogue.

Once their drafting is complete, I ask students to choose two settings or backgrounds for their scripts, which they draw on paper. They also draw their characters, which we refer to as “paper dolls” in order to discourage the notion that these characters must look hyper realistic. In order to appeal to a variety of artistic sensibilities, I invite students to draw by hand, print images from the Internet, or combine both mediums to create a collaged background.

With scripts, settings, and characters ready to go, students then begin using Comic Life. We work on iPads, but I know from experience that the program is just as user friendly on tablets as it is on the Web. Though in my first year of the project I spent class time on a Comic Life tutorial, I’ve since abandoned that in favor of letting my fifth graders take a problem-solving approach to the app. I demonstrate only how to create, name, and save a new file, then let students figure out how to change graphics and color schemes, resize frames and images, and play with photo filters. It is, of course, no surprise that they quickly become experts, occasionally coming to me for more nuanced challenges but primarily helping one another solve problems.

As they move their characters through scenes and add speech bubbles to incorporate dialogue, students begin to make connections between digital and traditional storytelling. For example, questions about making changes from their original written script in order to fit the parameters of the digital medium become opportunities for me to remind them that they make changes to their written work all the time, and we call that drafting, editing, or revising. Even when working in a digital format, students are still relying on the traditional writing process of collecting ideas, drafting a story, revising and editing that story, and ultimately publishing a final product.

In our increasingly technology-driven classrooms, digital storytelling holds an important place alongside more traditional creative writing projects. Students are regularly exposed to new digital tools, and they flock to non-traditional texts in the form of graphic novels and blogs. Between technology classes during the day and access to the internet at night, students are developing a new set of digital abilities, and ignoring them is a missed opportunity for English teachers. The timing is perfect to introduce digital projects that encourage our students to expand not only the idea of what it means to write a story,  but also the question of what tools will be useful to them in doing just that.

Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.