Category Archives: Writing

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. 

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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.

Freedom for Student Press

Discussion of press rights has been much in the news of late. Journalists, even to some extent student journalists, are protected by the First Amendment of the United States:

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Good journalists, of course, investigate because they want to find the underlying cause of an issue. For student journalists, particularly, this has sometimes been a problem.

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), whose mission is

“to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience…”

explains student journalists’ rights in this video:

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC)  advocates for student journalists

Students want to be heard on the social and political issues, including issues of local school policy, directly affecting their lives….Students learn journalism best under a light touch of guidance from a well-trained adviser, not the heavy hand of government “spin control.” Every K-12 student should have the benefit of a sensible free-expression policy modeled on the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, protecting the right to engage in lawful, non-disruptive speech.

NCTE supports press freedom for student journalists as well through the:

NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write,
Resolution on Students’ Right of Expression, and, if you ratify it,
• A new NCTE Resolution on Legislation to Protect the Rights of Student Journalists

The Power of Song, or Is It Really the Lyrics?

Close-up a Heap of dirty utensil in the kitchen sink.He leaves his dishes in the sink, thinking leprechauns put them in the dishwasher. She wants to talk during the football game and stalks off when clearly that play is more important to him than listening to her.

Imagine if couples “sang” their arguments rather than actually fighting. Such is the theme of the hilarious film Band-Aid, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. A squabbling couple create a band, invite their neighbor to be the drummer, and proceed to sing their irritations and frustrations to each other.

While strumming their guitars, the couple have to dig deep and really think in order to convert their frustrations into poetry and song. In doing so, they de-escalate and temper their anger while at the same time creating music that others can relate to and enjoy.

In a tribute to Frank Sinatra, who could not read music, George Will wrote, “Before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” So, for Frank Sinatra, the words mattered first, not the music. Will continues that Sinatra sang songs from the “Great American Songbook,” a compilation of songs written by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, and others. He compared the lyrics of Mercer’s “Summer Wind” (“Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you; I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind”) to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I would argue a better comparison would be Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (“As the miller told his tale/that her face, at first just ghostly/turned a whiter shade of pale”) or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” (“Remember me to one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine.”)

Poetry has a natural musical cadence and demands to be read aloud, particularly William Shakespeare:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Does that phrase stand alone in its beauty? Does it need music? Or is the human voice, with its own modulated tones, sufficient? Music, however, enhances poetry and words and add a new dimension.

So, on this Valentine’s Day of sonnets and roses and crooning club singers, let us remember the power of words and lyrics and song and how important they are to each other. Or not.

CCCC 2017: Cultivating Capacity, Creating Change

This post is written by CCCC Associate Chair Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt. 

2017 cccc logoIt’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since I developed the call for the 68th Annual Convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I started with a concept—“cultivate”—and a vision of using the convention space to engage as a conference in working exchanges.

In the time between, over 1,900 proposals were submitted and later peer reviewed by a smart, thoughtful, and generous group of Stage I and Stage II reviewers. Using the reviewers’ feedback and scores—and capitalizing on the amount of space available in Portland’s beautiful Oregon Convention Center—I selected nearly 700 concurrent sessions, roundtables, poster sessions, and workshops for the program. Then, through summer and fall, the complex work of scheduling began, adding Special Interest Groups (SIGs), Standing Group–sponsored sessions, committee meetings, and other activities into the mix.

An innovation for CCCC 2017 is featured “Cultivate” programming. I have introduced two new types of highly interactive sessions: Cultivate sessions and Think Tank sessions. Two or three such sessions are showcased in each time block throughout the convention. These facilitated sessions, selected from over 85 member-generated proposals received in a fall secondary call, are designed to provide space for members to “cultivate capacity” and “create change” around organizational, professional, or disciplinary issues or concerns. I urge attendees to participate in one—or several!

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This year’s Action Hub, a large open space in the Pre-Function E area, near the exhibit hall, enables attendees to participate in organized activities, peruse various informational displays, or simply meet at open tables to talk and work together. See the app or the program for more specific details.

Conventiongoers also have the opportunity to “Cs the Day,” attend SIG and Caucus meetings, engage with the Computer Connection and Digital Pedagogy Posters, play in the Gaming Lounge, visit the exhibit hall, celebrate colleagues’ achievements at the Awards Recognition Reception, and much more!

Needless to say, with more than 50 Cultivate or Think Tank sessions, concurrent sessions, roundtables, and peer-reviewed poster sessions from which to select in every session time slot and a wide array of other activities taking place before, after, and during the regular convention schedule each day, the hardest part of negotiating CCCC 2017 for many of you will be choosing from among the many high-interest options happening at the same time.

jose-antonio-vargasAnd that’s not all! To maintain the convention energy from beginning to end, I’ve planned a full day of activities for Saturday as well. Saturday’s General Session will feature keynote speaker Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, filmmaker, and media entrepreneur whose work centers on the changing American identity and US immigration reform. Vargas’s work embodies “cultivating capacity, creating change” through writing and digital media. After Saturday’s concurrent sessions, which feature topics related to high school–college connections, library partnerships, writing/literacy pedagogy, and two-year colleges, a selection of free, half-day postconvention workshops will be available to all convention registrants. Also, in an effort to bring CCCC to a broader audience, including area high school teachers and adjunct and contingent faculty, special Saturday-only convention rates of $85 will be offered.

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Few spaces are more generative and regenerative than conferences; they are sites of possibility and productivity. And what better place than Portland, the city that embodies the notion of environmental sustainability, to work together to find answers about how to sustain ourselves? I invite you to CCCC 2017, March 15–18, 2017, and look forward to the opportunity not only to learn together and enjoy some camaraderie, but also to build our capacity, individually and collectively, to address the issues we face and to create conditions for change, in higher education and beyond.

Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt, CCCC Associate Chair, is the program chair for CCCC 2017 in Portland, Oregon. She teaches English at Yakima Valley College in Washington state. Carolyn can be contacted at ccalhoon@yvcc.edu or cccc2017programchair@gmail.com