Tag Archives: collaboration

What I’ve Learned about Being a Mentor

This post is written by member Karla Hilliard.

The breadth of a great mentor’s influence is immeasurable.

First there was Chuck Malone, our lead teacher and Obi-Wan. Chuck’s wisdom, wit, and intellect made him a mentor for the ages. Once during my first year of teaching, I tearfully entered Chuck’s office to say, “Ok, I taught my first novel. Now what?” Chuck was the calm blue sea in the turbulent waves of my first year in the classroom. His patience with a panicked first-year teacher deserves an award.

Then, there was Mr. Mooney, an intellectual, in-the-trenches teacher, who walked me under many, many conversational anvils. He questioned me, challenged me, and prodded me to explain my lessons, my reasoning, and my points of view. It was enlightening and it was annoying, and I couldn’t help but to become deeply reflective. Mooney was the best teacher I knew, so I emulated him, and I became an infinitely stronger, more intentional teacher because of him.

Later, there was Liz, a friend and colleague, someone I learned with and from. In our years of teaching together, it was our job to make meaning out of the reds, yellows, and greens of state assessments. We kept one another sane in the sea of spreadsheets and mandated “data driven instruction,” and we reminded one another that our students were not graphs and numbers, but the kids we loved.

And a few years ago, I met Jess, an amalgam of the best teacher mentors along the way. When we began teaching together, my own children were 4 and 2, and juggling my tiny tots and a demanding career was wearing me down. She said something I’ll never forget: “Our children watch us. We are showing them that we can make the world a better place.” Four years later, Jess and I have re-established the state affiliate for West Virginia, WVCTE, and my now 8-year-old says she wants to be just like me when she grows up. Jess was right. Cue the water works.

But now, going into Year 13 of teaching, I find myself with the shoe on the other foot. I teach in our school’s new STEAM Academy, and last summer three other teachers and I were tasked with building and implementing this academy by taking 80 students, our 4 classes of English, math, biology, and social studies, and preparing students for careers or education in STEAM fields.

I admit that when I realized that I’d been teaching for more years than my three colleagues combined, I was nervous. And it wasn’t because they lacked intelligence or charisma or empathy. They don’t—they’re awesome. I was nervous because I was suddenly in a new role—one that I hadn’t expected—that of the mentor, the sensei, the Obi-Wan.

We four STEAM Academy teachers were practically strangers, but I knew that if we were going to build this thing and build it right, we also needed to build a strong collaborative team and mindset.

But true collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience and time, deep reflection, and consideration. It takes building something important together and sharing our lives with one another. It takes dealing with our problems and issues by being open, honest, and transparent. It requires commitment and purpose, and most importantly, it requires strong relationships with one another. To do all of this, I knew, would require mentoring. And what I learned last year as we worked together to build this academy is that to be a mentor I had to …

Be a friend. Just like in our classrooms, we must grow authentic relationships built upon trust and mutual respect. I needed to listen, to share, to laugh, and to be open with my colleagues.

Ask questions. We ask our students deep, probing questions to lead them to their own insights and understandings. When my colleagues sought out my help or opinion, I tried to do what was done for me—to ask questions like, “Why did you select this [text/activity/assessment]? What do you want your students to learn from this? How do you imagine this playing out? Why is this lesson important?” Asking questions helped my colleagues and I have a conversation instead of a “class.”

Model and share. Sometimes our students need to see us think through a task or hear how we might approach a tricky piece of poetry. Colleagues who turn to us for guidance need to see effective teacher habits modeled and learn how we approach a difficult student, design a lesson or activity, put up with the paperwork, or create community and inspire ownership in our classrooms. By modeling and sharing openly with our colleagues, we can all learn a little something.

Every great teacher I know learned the tricks of the teacher trade from a great mentor. Those of us lucky enough to have been mentored have had the opportunity to listen, reflect, and refine—to transform our practice and improve our craft. I owe it to my colleagues who are looking for guidance to pass along what wisdom I’ve collected over the years, and I owe it to myself and my students to continue to be mentored by the great teachers around me.

Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy Honors English 10 and AP Literature and Composition in Berkeley County, West Virginia. She is the executive vice president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with me on Twitter at @karlahilliard!

“Words with Friends”: Creating Collaborative Writing Spaces for Girls and Women of Color

This post is written by 2017-2018 NCTE Lead Ambassador Raven Jones Stanbrough and her colleagues, Tuesda Roberts, Theda Gibbs Grey and Lorena Gutiérrez.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ―Octavia E. Butler

The above quote by the prolific Black writer Octavia E. Butler reminds us that creating a habit is an art that leads to persistence and progress. For us, as scholar-practitioners, one habit we have in common is writing. Despite the many people in our lives who affirm and support our ideas and thinking, there have been moments and times when we’ve struggled to believe in our own voices and writing abilities. Having first met and befriended one another as women of color who were doctoral students at Michigan State University (MSU), we understood that we needed to support each other’s lived experiences, narratives, and voices. Individually, we’ve experienced overwhelming moments that (un)intentionally allowed us to retreat to places and spaces where our relationship with writing ended, like a bad and emotional breakup—the kind in which we turn to our favorite flavor of ice cream or reckless shopping to cope with our loss. Like most breakups, sometimes it takes the wise counsel of a loved one to speak life over our situation(s), before we remember and remind ourselves, “Wait, I got this!”

We, the Fresh I.N.K. (Inspiring New Knowledge) Collective, offer this collaborative piece as a way for us to honor ourselves, each other, our families, our students, and our communities by becoming better women of habit through our writing and desires to hold one another accountable— even when challenges occur. In an effort to achieve this accountability, our goals are as follows: (1) to offer suggestions on why participating in writing support groups is beneficial, and (2) to outline ways in which other teacher-educators can encourage and support other female writers of color.


There are many different “spaces” in our schools—safe spaces, affirming spaces, drug-free zones, bully-free zones—the list goes on and on. But which protected spaces exist for educators? Where do educators assemble to create, connect, and explore what is possible?  Educators need spaces where they can communicate and create without the gaze of supervisors so they can authentically engage their selves and their work.  The writing collective to which I belong, Fresh I.N.K., is a space we have jointly created to serve the purposes we have deemed critical to our ability to thrive as cultural, intellectual, and powerful beings in the world of education.

Depending on the context, I am perceived as a woman sans culture, a token cultural representative, a means to an end, or an unexpected guest in contested territories.  The value this space holds for me is that it merges and amplifies aspects of who I am.  The sisterhood we have forged in Fresh I.N.K. works because our race, ethnicity, culture, language, what we have, and even what we have lost are not risk factors.  They are guideposts and lighthouses.  They are the worlds we explore and the worlds we share.

Writing groups benefit K–12 educators who are interested in creating transformative learning opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse girls because they can serve as think tanks and labs where knowledge becomes wisdom.  The intentional curation of group members who share a commitment to confronting their own biases and gaps of knowledge in relation to the intersectional identities of these girls impacts teachers and students alike.  Here are my tips to forming successful writing groups among educators:

  1. Allow yourselves to be impacted by your writing, reading, dialogue, and introspection before determining how the products of your efforts could impact culturally and linguistically diverse girls.  Practice writing about the topics you have avoided.  We know students instinctively sense when adults feign care, so take the time to be and to become more authentic in relation to this particular group of students.
  2. Be purposeful and accountable.  Give yourselves permission to be vulnerable and then help each other develop purposeful next steps.  Name your individual and collective goals, needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  Maintain lists of resources and identify who/what can guide you towards meeting your goals.  Share your progress and that of your students so the group can avoid descending into random talk and deficit-based narratives.


My relationship with writing began to blossom at an early age from the encouragement and love of my parents and many great teachers. My parents introduced me to Black excellence in writing inclusive of Langston Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, and Nikki Giovanni. Teachers affirmed my voice by giving me the tools to strengthen my writing and providing platforms to share my writing at school events, for which my parents happily helped me practice. This love for writing and my understanding of the historical and contemporary significance of writing and literacy in the Black community became the focus of my praxis and provided fuel throughout my doctoral program. However, at times doubt entered my relationship with writing, and I struggled with feelings of disconnection. Does what I have to say matter? In these moments my family, friends, mentors, and sister circle of writers brought me back. As I now enter my third year as an assistant professor, my village, including Fresh I.N.K, has provided nourishment in the form of affirmation that my voice does indeed matter. My sister writers also offer constructive feedback rooted in love that serves to make my writing stronger.

Writing collectives are not only important for faculty and researchers, but they are also important for girls in K–12 spaces. We wish for young girls of color whose voices are often unheard to be able to build and sustain positive relationships and identities as writers. As educators, it is paramount to their self-esteem and academic success to help girls of color build and sustain strong individual and collective relationships with writing. In order to do so:

  1. Support girls of color to build relationships and become familiar with women of color who are writers. Provide texts across genres that connect girls of color to the powerful writings of women of color (nonexhaustive author suggestions: Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson*(see note), Zora Neale Hurston).
  2. Allow girls of color to experience and engage in supportive writing groups. Help them seek and find refuge and friendship with other girls. Foster classroom communities where they can safely “share out” their writing, “shout out” and identify the strengths in other girls’ writing, and support each other by offering constructive feedback on areas for growth.


As I basked in the warmth of southern California and the welcoming arms of family and friends, I faced numerous challenges post-breakup with graduate school, including difficulty in finding a job where I could use my expertise; needing to write and publish; and figuring out who I was beyond the doctoral program. And the list goes on. I was overwhelmed by feelings of failure and disappointment day after day as I filled out another job application and attempted to writeIt was not until I began writing with the Fresh I.N.K. crew that I was able to work through these challenges.

During our weekly meetings, we prioritize the first 20 minutes for personal check-ins. We take turns sharing about our lives and families, accomplishments and challenges of that week. Without judgment and fear.  We understand the importance of checking in about our personal lives because who we are (mind, body, and soul) and what we experience are deeply woven into our writing. In those meetings after graduate school, my Fresh I.N.K. sisters did not let me dwell on the hopelessness of my situation; rather, they showered me with words of encouragement (and prayer), reminded me that the challenges I faced were exactly where I needed to be, and claimed my success for the future in their loving, charismatic, and no-nonsense way. All of this translated into writing and academic success.

Having a joint space for us to write as women of color has meant bringing my whole self: the Latina mother, hermana, daughter, partner, academic, and writer in me to my writing and scholarship. In our writing group, we keep each other accountable for uplifting each other, owning our greatness, and speaking truth to power in our writing, teaching, and research.

Lastly, in the midst of a world full of selfies, look-alikes, and wannabes, girls of color are often socialized and taught to be the people other people want them to be. Messages about what they should wear, how thin they should be, how straight their hair should be, and what they should do with their bodies abound in social media. Below I offer tips for K–12 teachers to consider when encouraging girls of color to write.

  1. Those who teach writing to girls of color need to be examples of collaboration, worthiness, advocacy, and support for women of color.
  2. Those who teach writing to girls of color need to teach them how to own their greatness and walk in their purpose.


If it were not for Theda, Lorena, and Tuesda, I would have gone insane in graduate school. Period! They were all in the same cohort and a year ahead of me in our doctoral program. Their advice, hugs, and conversations kept me from dropping out and poppin’ off at a few colleagues and professors, especially since I was the only Black woman or person in a lot of my courses. During one of our conversations as we were carpooling back to our hometown of Detroit, I told Theda about one of my professors not grading one of my assignments because she said my writing “does not meet the academic standards for the course” and that I should “make an appointment with the writing center.” This same professor also accused me and another person of color in the class of “forming a clique.” She tried it! After I emailed the professor to discuss the writing assignment and derogatory comments, she never met with me. Instead, she had her co-teaching colleague schedule an appointment with me. I was devastated and deflated. For several weeks that followed, I lost my voice. I lost Raven. I broke up with writing. I did not speak in class because I did not trust my professors or colleagues. It took my Fresh I.N.K. sisters, family, and other close friends to remind me that I was and am a wonderful writer and that I deserved to be in graduate school.

For me, connecting with my Fresh I.N.K. sisters is not just about writing, it is about advocacy, community, and love. It is about seeing them interact with my two-year-old daughter, Zuri Hudson, and ask her about what is going on in her busy and curious life. It is also about recognizing that, as women of color, we have the ability to rise above severe adversities and triumph over challenges. Furthermore, it is about discussing how we can show up and show out for other girls and women of color. In closing, I offer my suggestions for K–12 teachers and others to support young girls of color with their voices and writing.

  1. Provide opportunities for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit. Octavia Butler reminds us that “. . . habit is persistence in practice.” In order for young girls and women of color to make writing a habit, they need time and space to tell their stories and use their voices.
  2. Teach young girls and women of color to “reclaim. . . [their] time.” Recently, Rep. Maxine Waters (a.k.a. Auntie Maxine) (D-California) made several people proud with yet another verbal victory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mwcCZq1gcE). During a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, Waters questioned Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin regarding a letter she sent him in May that he did not respond to. When Mnuchin failed to directly address her inquiry, Waters repeatedly stated, “Reclaiming my time!” Young girls of color and women of color in K–12 classrooms do not deserve to have their time wasted with teachers who do not care about them, their lived experiences, or writing prowess. Instead, K–12 teachers should create spaces and opportunities for young girls of color to write about an array of topics that are of interest to them—even  bad break-ups.


Tuesda Roberts is an assistant professor of Multicultural Education at Missouri State University.  Her research engages the sociocultural roles and impacts of teachers with a focus on urban schooling.  She is a fan of red velvet cake, hails from the proud lines of Roberts and Chappells, and will always be Carol’s daughter.

Theda Gibbs Grey is a proud Detroit native and currently an assistant professor of reading in the Ohio University Department of Teacher Education. Through her teaching, research, and practice, she is committed to creating more equitable learning spaces that embrace the literacies of Black middle and high school students.

Lorena Gutiérrez is a postdoctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research highlights the ways Latinx migrant and seasonal farmworkers survive and thrive in their educational pursuits in spite of the inequities they face in K–12 schools. Her research is rooted in learning with migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the Midwest, her own experiences in growing up bilingual in Colton, California, and the heritage of farm work that her abuelo cultivated in El Agostadero, Jalisco, Mexico. Twitter handle: @Lore_Gutierrez 

Raven Jones Stanbrough is a Detroit native and a K–12 product of Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Jones Stanbrough is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and the co-founder of The Zuri Reads Initiative, an effort to provide and organize literacy-related events and resources for Detroit-area children, students, and families. Twitter handle: @RavenForevamore

 Note: Jacqueline Woodson will be the keynote speaker for the Saturday General Session at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention. 

Connecting Families to What Is Happening in Schools

literacyAs educators, we understand the shifts we are making in our own practices. It’s important to think about how these changes are being communicated to families. What is essential to share? It seems best to keep it simple. Better yet, our challenge is to show not tell as we involve families in the literacy learning happenings within our schools on an ongoing basis.

Here’s a group of educators that didn’t need to tell families about the importance of reading and writing more complex texts across the disciplines because they are showing it:

  • Meet third-grade teacher, Bev Gallagher. She made notebooking a regular part of her instructional practices. These notebooks will become a treasured part of each child’s school career long after third grade.
  • Julie Wollman, a ReadWriteThink.org and NCTE author, shows us how to get started with family message journals as a means for students to write to an authentic audience about their learning.
  • Because the ways we teach writing are often quite different from the ways most of our students’ parents learned to write, it is important to think about productive ways to get families involved as strong allies for excellent writing instruction. The authors of “Inviting Parents In: Expanding Our Community Base to Support Writing” describe workshops and other methods for getting parents productively involved in their children’s literacy development.
  • Watch as a parent who is in a Community of Practice with teachers shares what it means to learn, talk, and design activities as a full CoP member with teachers.

Join us over at ReadWriteThink.org on the Parent & Afterschool Resources site for engaging ways to introduce children to reading or to encourage teens to write. Need some age-appropriate book suggestions or rainy day activities? These materials are your answer—all of them created by experts to be fun, educational, and easy to use outside of school.

What role do parents and families play in your school?

Dispelling the Myth That Intelligence = Instant and Easy

This is a guest post by Robert Ward

A startling number of students believe that if you are smart, correct answers and brilliant ideas come quickly and with little exertion. They think intelligence equals “instant and easy.”

Consequently, they also assume that students who pause, ponder, or take pains of any sort must not be brainy. They even equate scholarly labor, multiple attempts, and waiting with weakness and incompetence.

Struggling and Stellar Students Require Growth Mindset

This fixed mindset concerning intelligence is problematic for both low-performing and advanced students because these misconceptions are alternately used to judge others and oneself, and aren’t helpful in either case.  Instead, teachers must cultivate in every student a growth mindset that grants measure and grace to oneself and extends a generosity of spirit to others.

Harsh criticism toward those who struggle academically is not only unkind, it overshadows the tangible benefits of trying, travailing, and tackling any task that is nowhere near easy—and these arduous endeavors vary from person to person and from subject to subject, including the arts and physical education. Because all children will (and should) frequently find themselves in formidable or unfamiliar situations, where the tasks before them are at once complex, worthwhile, and personally meaningful, lessons in the advantages of growth mindset are crucial and transformative.

Intelligence = Attention, Effort, Time, and Thought

Emphasize to every student that acting intelligently usually entails extensive attention, effort, time, and thought. In fact, those who ardently observe, strategically strive, earnestly invest, and carefully contemplate are the same students who not only achieve academically but who thrive emotionally. Most often, innate intelligence had very little to do with it.

As has been noted by Carol Dweck, it is important to also realize that effort alone is not enough. Students must be taught and given praise for using processes and action plans that change the mere act of trying hard into purposeful perseverance that pays off.

Intelligence = Patience, Persistence, and Practice

In one way, instant access to information, media, and “gratification” is doing a disservice to our youth, many of whom do not know what patience is—they just know they do not like it. Sorry, but one cannot always “fast forward to the good part,” especially when a teacher is trying to show students that every bit of a discussion, text, lesson, or film is the good part and a vital piece of the whole!

As far as persistence, too many students liken commitment to folly. Dedicating oneself to something that may or may not materialize for quite some time unfortunately seems a fool’s errand to students transfixed by “instant and easy.”

If practice makes perfect, what does a woeful lack of routine and repetition make? Well informed educators have long progressed beyond drill-and-kill, but students still need to see and embrace the benefits of preparation and purposeful iteration, as well as see how that type of adherence directly serves them, both in the long and short run.

The value of showing students patience, persistence, and practice in action cannot be overstated. All students must witness these positive, productive qualities in real time and over time. They should view firsthand what it takes, as well as how long it sometimes takes, to see results.

Intelligence = Conversation, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Class discussions are fruitful in modeling the distinct advantages of a growth mindset. Often it takes the germ of an idea from one student to spark a more thorough or profound answer from another. In fact, it may take several insights, opinions, and pieces of evidence for an entire class or a small collaborative group to arrive at a complete answer or compelling theory.

Explicitly point out to students that no one has to go it alone or have every answer (and certainly not immediately). Also, provide opportunities to prove that two or more heads in true collaboration are often better than one.

In order for students to become resourceful and independent, first equip them with a wealth of dependable strategies. Then create structured practice—both individual and collaborative—augmented by those trusty systems and scaffolds. This is the basis by which working intelligently replaces merely working hard.

Also, reinforce that help and feedback are always available and that accessing these supports is an ordinary aspect of intelligence. Cultivating the openness to accept and seek out advice and assistance is a hallmark of a growth mindset. Encourage your students to avail themselves of the resources offered so they develop the initiative and drive to advocate for themselves instead of silently waiting for someone to come to them.

Intentional effort, endurance, and assistance can be made familiar, fruitful, and fulfilling when combined with the reliability and reassurance of a growth mindset.

Empower all of your students with these qualities that exemplify true intelligence!

Robert Ward is currently in his twenty-fourth year of teaching English at public middle schools in Los Angeles. He is also a blogger and is the author of three books for teachers and parents. Follow Robert on Twitter @RewardingEdu

Collaboration, Innovation, and Contextualization: Enduring Themes in an Era of Digital Literacy

This post, written by members Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, is a reprint of “From the Editors” from the January 2017 English Journal.

ejjan17coverOne of the benefits of editing English Journal is that we are entrusted with bound copies of every issue ever printed. These journals, displayed in shelves in the journal office, remind us of the constancy and the relentless change that marks our field. Times have changed; that is certain. In some ways, contemporary classrooms would be unrecognizable to educators teaching English in 1911, when the journal was established. And yet many of the debates and challenges prevalent in classrooms 100 years ago remain relevant today. Our work still centers on learners, teacher, and texts.

This remarkable collection of articles, curated by Suzanne Miller and David Bruce, attests to the complexity of this work as well as our need to adapt and evolve even as we sustain our principles and vision. Throughout this issue, the guest editors and authors remind us that we consume and produce various kinds of media on a daily basis.
Acts of consumption and production are mutually influential; what we consume affects what (and how) we produce, and what we produce affects what (and how) we consume. Moreover, contributors inspire us to extend our own learning in order to model for students the importance of stretching past comfortable practices and materials.

As we read and thought about the articles, with a century’s worth of EJ infusing the air that we breathed, three themes emerged. These themes reflect the intersections of innovation and tradition, and are as present in the bound journals as they are in the 21st century literacies emphasized in this issue. The first theme is collaboration. Teachers and students thrive in environments when collaborative opportunities abound. Multimodal literacies are particularly well-suited for students and teachers to become partnered in the learning process, and for teachers to experience the joys and frustrations of exploring new media and technologies. The second theme, innovation, is generally associated with bold new initiatives. While such initiatives are seductive, it is instructive to note that the word “innovation” is not defined strictly as a product; it is also a process – a process that builds upon what already exists. The third theme we noted is contextualization. Now, as always, the contexts in which teaching and learning occurs are critical. As our lives, inside and outside of the classroom, become increasingly digital, we must maintain our focus on learners and teachers as embodied human and social creatures.

We deeply appreciate the generosity of Suzanne Miller and David Bruce in developing this special issue. We trust that readers will be inspired, exhilarated, and revitalized by the ideas shared throughout. Educators who embrace the principles of collaboration, innovation, and contextualization flourished in 1911 and, with luck, will be flourishing still in 3011.

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.



DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on professional dispositions. Both are former secondary English teachers and members of NCTE.