The Summer Reading Collage: A New Approach to Relevancy

This post is written by member Brittany Collins.

 As disparate experiences cohere and craft a single identity, so do collages comprise the varying parts of a “whole.” On a January morning in 2016, a roomful of first-year students stared at me eagerly, if skeptically, with papers heavy from glue-stick smudge and Scotch tape. My being at the front of their classroom was a change in their routine. I was invited to present a guest lecture and lesson on intersectionality in The House on Mango Street, which they had been reading for the past week, and my presence was preceded by a request for them to create a “collage of home” prior to our time together. “A collage?” they had whispered, “Like, the kind we made in elementary school?” With amusement and an appreciation for metaphor, I asked the following of students:

Please create an 8.5×11 inch collage that represents “home” to you. Feel free to draw, write, cut pictures out of magazines, or print from the internet—get creative and have fun! While creating your collage, consider the ways in which your home extends beyond your physical living space (though you may choose to include pictures of that, too), and do your best to portray those notions of home on paper. Ex: What does “home” smell, taste, or sound like? Who is “home” to you? What emotions represent home for you? Think of a time when you felt “at home”—what were you doing? Please do not put your name anywhere on your collage, as we will keep these pieces of artwork as anonymous as possible.

Creativity class

After a rumble of giggles spread around our room, students became serious as they tacked their creations to the whiteboard; without conversing, we toured our “Gallery of Home,” and when students settled back into their seats, I structured our debrief with a five-minute, guided free-write:

What did you notice about these collages—similarities, differences?

What can we learn about “home” from these collages?

How did it feel to create your collage? What was challenging?

 “I like to think of Cisneros’s novel as a literary collage because each vignette is like a snapshot or picture that can be appreciated on its own and in relation to the text as a whole,” I shared with students as they looked up from their pages. “What connections, if any, do you notice between your collages and The House on Mango Street?”

Because this was an international boarding school, students had varying perspectives on family and culture, tradition and expectation, that they shared in relation to Esperanza’s negotiation of those topics in Cisneros’s novel. The collages no longer seemed trite; instead, they seemed the vehicles through which students shared and reconsidered their lives; they provided a “way in” to differences and similarities.

Drawing from students’ comments, scribbled in purple Expo-marker in my hurried whiteboard penmanship, I shared closing remarks with my students-for-the-day:

All of us, as we grow, are faced with messages about who we are as individuals. It is important to consider the factors that shape us so that we can be more intentional and self-aware through our own processes of maturing—recognizing societal messages and beliefs that we may have internalized about our own identities and considering the ways in which our actions might subconsciously affect somebody else’s idea of themselves. What goes on outside of our homes has a direct impact on how we feel inside of our homes, both literally and figuratively, and this story inspires us to think critically about these internal and external worlds.

The discourse that permeated our classroom catalyzed close reading and community building, explicitly acknowledging the internal and external. Some students considered anew the identifiers that comprise their identities: “Can I say carrot lover?” one girl asked with a smile, while others shared caregiver, Korean, lacrosse player, and daughter and noted the multiplicity and inseparability of all that their “home[s]” and selves contain. Our depth of conversation seemed dependent on the aesthetic “ice-breaker” of collage—the controlled contemplation of the personal in public.

Relational and social-emotional learning are embedded in opportunities where the subjective enters the academic, and collage assignments are one way to scaffold this combination. As January snowstorms give way to sun rays, the spirit of my assignment endures. Whether in sixth grade or twelfth, returning to collage as an accessible art form freshens traditional literary pedagogy and provides another way to connect students with texts. To deepen summer reading and recall the classic (if banal) “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay, educators might use collaging as an analytical practice, asking students to identify key themes, conflicts, and characters in a novel before collecting, during their summer adventures, materials that relate to those identified topics. For example, if I were to fulfill this assignment for The Odyssey, I might collect pieces of my own summer “journey”—a road trip, or even my drive to work—and exhibit a road map, examples of “hospitality” (pictures from a hotel pamphlet, perhaps), a picture of my dog (my own Argos), or a picture of my grandmother, herself a great orator. The purpose of this assignment is not to discern how our times resemble a given book, but rather how that book resembles our times, no matter its date of publication. What of great literature endures? Is the human condition one of stasis or change? How do you connect with your summer reading? What in your life resembles its sentiments? These are the questions behind glue-stick smudge and Scotch tape.

Brittany Collins is the editor-in-chief of Voices & Visions, the only online literary journal to publish the visual and written works of students who attend women’s educational institutions worldwide. She studied English and education at Smith College, has experience teaching literature and writing in educational and extracurricular settings, and is a freelance writer with a focus on English education.

An Invitation to Dream Big

This post is written by members Christine McCartney and Jacqueline Hesse.

 What is it you are passionate about as an educator? As a person?

Is it social justice? Civic engagement? Making the world a kinder place?

Teachers’ passions are often situated within big ideas that extend far beyond the walls of our classrooms and the confines of curriculum. The challenge we face is to create spaces for our work and our students’ work to transcend those boundaries.

As English teachers at Excelsior Academy, a New York state P-TECH school, our dream was to help our students carve a space for themselves as global citizens, while also considering their own capacity to impact our local community. Over the last three years, our vision has evolved as we invite our students to consider local issues of social justice and equity.

Once a flourishing city on the Hudson River, Newburgh has been experiencing the decades-long effects of deindustrialization. The loss of industry and its impact on the local economy have left our city with an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, and high poverty levels. However, local businesses, community leaders, and organizations in Newburgh have been working diligently to better our city. While we wholeheartedly support the needed revitalization efforts, we worry about gentrification pushing out our students and their families, who may not be able to remain in a city where rents are steadily increasing. We also fear that efforts to improve the city might overlook the interests and voices of the residents who are already here. We need to invite our students to learn about the changes our city is experiencing and find a way to insert their voices in the ongoing conversations about the future of Newburgh.

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To do so, we knew we needed to dream big. We created a global service learning program that provides students with the leadership skills they need in order to act as project managers for local community impact projects in Newburgh. Before implementing their projects, students in Global to Local will travel to a foreign country to study grassroots organizations working to better their communities. This June [2017], our first cohort will travel to Ecuador to volunteer at Casa Victoria, an organization that provides after-school homework help and hot meals to under-served youth in San Roque, a struggling section of Quito. Our students will work with young students, teaching them basic robotics, bringing books for their library, and building an outdoor learning center. When they return to Newburgh, they will research issues and build partnerships to create their own grassroots change in our city. The program, which blends project-based learning and inquiry with volunteer work and occurs both inside and outside of the ELA classroom, is an opportunity for us to re-position ourselves as learners alongside our students, who are already seeing the impact of this work before even stepping foot on a plane:

Brendin: Rather than taking a passive role in our lives, we make an effort to change our community for the better and improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

Jason: Through any experience in life, we learn new perspectives from others which shift our thinking.

Maribel: As students, we often find that volunteering creates a sense of empowerment because it allows people to influence and motivate others to do something about their issue of interest.

The process of making this dream a reality hasn’t been simple. We have written countless grant applications and waited two years to take our first research trip until we could secure the funding through Fund for Teachers. We cried with a student who was one of the strongest and most dedicated leaders in our program as we faced the fact that she couldn’t come to Ecuador because she was undocumented and therefore unable to obtain a passport. We have struggled, at times, to manage the complicated logistics of fundraising for and planning an overseas trip while teaching full-time. We know we will have to help our students navigate the roadblocks they will encounter as they take on roles as change agents in our city, but we hope that we serve as role models of persistence and optimism.

We have learned that the best ideas are continually evolving, involve inviting students to the table, and require the tenacity to tackle difficult and sometimes controversial issues that affect our students and our city. When we think about the work we have undertaken to make this a reality, we often come back to the amazingly resilient young people with whom we work. They are the reason we have the courage to dream big.

Christine McCartney, NCTE member since 2013, started her teaching career by volunteering to teach writing in an all-male maximum security prison in New York through the Bard Prison Initiative; that experience was the beginning of her journey as a social justice educator. As a high school English teacher for over a decade in Newburgh, a Fulbright alumni, and a codirector of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, Christine is wedded to working to make her community a better place.

 Jacqueline Hesse, NCTE member since 2005, teaches ninth- and tenth-grade ELA at Excelsior Academy, a New York State P-TECH school, in Newburgh. She enjoys volunteering alongside her students and admires their devotion to their community. Jackie is also a teacher consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project.

Affiliate Super Power

Over 100 affiliate leaders from 39 different affiliates gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, last weekend. They came to learn from each other and from experts on topics pertinent to NCTE, NCTE affiliates and, most important, to their members and would-be members. Four NCTE presidents (and two former presidents), a few Policy Analysts, the 2017 Cohort of Early Career Educators of Color, and some NCTE staff members joined them.

The Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English Language Arts blog, anticipated the meeting with Friday Five: Reasons We’re Excited for the NCTE Affiliate Meeting. Reasons 2 and 5 capture the feeling:

“Informal conversations between affiliates. This, like those informal conversations at conferences, is often where we find out best ideas. Collaborations and conversations with other educators in other states is the goal here, and we’re excited to see what ideas the synergy of our conversations generate.”

“It feels like Thanksgiving in the summer! The energy and excitement of meeting other teachers and making connections in the summer is like attending the annual NCTE conference. We’re grateful to be a part of this organization and to add our voice to the conversation.”

Author, former English teacher and affiliate person, Sharon Draper reminded us we all possess super powers.

And calling upon our super powers, we listened, laughed, discussed, and worked our way through the weekend, documenting what we saw, heard, and said on Twitter to the hashtag #NCTEaffiliate.

I invite you to join and keep the conversation going!

Appreciating the Treasures of Teaching

This post is written by member Nicole Erb.

I am a reasonably organized person, but from the pile of boxes and binders of old teaching paraphernalia I’ve collected, you might never know it. These materials, many of which I shuffled across state lines and through multiple school districts, finally demanded my attention as my husband and I arranged our belongings after moving into a new house last month. On a cool spring afternoon, I commenced the bittersweet task of sorting through my classroom memories.

Amidst outdated student rosters, forgotten PD resources, and neglected lessons, an unexpected treasure waited to be rediscovered. As I glanced at the next sheet to be filed or discarded, the words at the top of the page transported me back to my first years of teaching. “Dear Ms. Shelpman, I would like to thank you for all that you have done for me,” the letter began, and I read the rest of the letter slowly, savoring the words from a favorite former student.

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Though this young woman had never officially been in my class, as an actress in the musicals I choreographed and as a participant in the ballroom club I started, she was still my student and appreciated me as an important mentor in her high school education. I remembered receiving this letter in the last week of her junior year, days before I left my first teaching position to move across the country. This letter, along with a framed photo of the two of us, is one of the best teacher gifts I have ever received.

While I treasured her appreciation immensely at the time, revisiting this letter showed me how much more I needed these words now. As a district project associate, I do not currently have a classroom of my own, and I often reflect on my teaching years, considering what I would change and how I could have been a better educator. These reflections bring a mixture of both pride and discouragement; for every classroom success I remember, I cannot help but recall the students I know I did not reach. A particularly difficult end of my last school year had given my doubts and worries extra weight, but this letter provided a powerful reminder of why I became a teacher in the first place—to make a difference in my students’ lives. As I consider how to best serve students in the next stage of my career, I am grateful for the wonderful memories that this letter has rekindled.

During my first year of teaching, my colleagues advised me to make a “happy box” to save treasures like this gift. Though I failed to heed their advice at the time, the mementos I recently rediscovered now safely rest in a special place, and I echo my mentors’ message about the importance of protecting these treasures. The end of the school year, though exhilarating, can also be daunting, with reminders of shortcomings, of intentions never realized, of growing pressures for the next year.  I encourage educators to celebrate their successes by gathering, revisiting, and rediscovering the precious treasures that capture the joys of teaching.

My student left me with the following quote by Robert Frost: “There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” I know that this student has gone far since her high school days, and it is now my turn to thank her for everything she has done for me.

Nicole Erb is a district project associate for the Education Achievement Authority in Detroit. She previously taught in Indiana and Massachusetts, and she remains an English teacher at heart. Nicole has been an NCTE member since 2010. (linkedin.com/in/nicolemarieerb)

Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

sportsThis week in the United States, Major League Baseball holds their All-Star game. Harness students’ interest in sports and incorporate them into the classroom!

Developing Contemporary Literacies through Sports: A Guide for the English Classroom shares meaningful and productive ways to engage students in reading, writing, and other literacy practices. It’s a collection of lessons and commentaries–from established teachers, teacher educators, scholars, and authors–and its companion website provide numerous resources that support teachers in developing students’ contemporary literacies through sports.

Tune in to this podcast episode to hear about works of sports fiction and nonfiction that explore issues of identity and belonging, courage and equal rights, and changes over time in American history and culture.

We’ve all heard the expression “poetry in motion”. This activity gets children writing poems about grace and movement using photos of athletes.

In “Swish! Pow! Whack! Teaching Onomatopoeia Through Sports Poetry” students explore poetry about sports, looking closely at the use of onomatopoeia. After viewing a segment of a sporting event, students create their own onomatopoeic sports poems.

Through the retelling of the 1941 baseball season, children will see two legendary players as characters in “Batter Up! Telling Sports Stories With Trading Cards” and can create trading cards that highlight these players.

Invite students to look at different online baseball trivia questions to see how they are written. Then, as part of this activity, have children write their own questions and play a trivia game.

How do you incorporate sports into the literacy classroom?