The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students

This is an excerpt from the article “Revealing the Human and the Writer: The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students” by Latrise P. Johnson and Hannah Sullivan, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Research in the Teaching of English, and for which the authors received the 2020 Alan C. Purves Award. 

Using a critical stance on place, literacy, and humanity in order to examine how the literacy learning and practices of ELA classrooms/schools might (de)humanize and (de)culturize Black students, this study examines the writing pedagogy of a professor who taught a semester-long creative writing class for students at West High School. Through a humanizing approach to teaching writing, the professor and students engaged in writing and being in ways that honored—as well as centered and supported—their individual, cultural, and writerly identities. This article offers ways that teachers of writing might tap into Black intellectual traditions and invite students to use writing as a way to connect to what they do and learn while at school.

Historical perspectives of Black conceptions of literacy position Black people as demanders, creators, funders, and maintainers of educational institutions that have (a) provided literacy for all; (b) apprised individuals of and prepared them for the dominating culture’s institutions; (c) counteracted the pernicious and venal images of African Americans prevalent in popular culture; and (d) engendered group solidarity and commitment to uplift (Harris, 1992).
These perspectives are reflected in texts that historicize and imagine the lives of Black people, as well as in the contemporary composition of authentic portraits of Black people that challenge monolithic, dominant, and damaging narratives. The production and centering of such texts represent what is possible for teaching writing to Black youth, in that these texts serve as a “re-appraisal of . . . aesthetic values . . . [that are] less influenced by the dominant standards” and allow Black youth to “be taught with real conviction the beauties of [their] own [lives]” (Johnson, 1936). These texts also provide models for how writing has been used to add the voices and perspectives of Black people to bodies of knowledge that have historically ignored their contributions.
Therefore, a humanizing writing pedagogical stance begins with the notion that students’ knowledges (which encompass their collective and individual histories) are at the center of what they are expected to know and do while at school (Bartolomé, 1994; Donnell, 2007).
Thus, a humanizing writing pedagogy provides a lens to view Black students’ individual lives and creates opportunities for them to make personal, critical connections to a world where they share collective struggle related to the “circumstances of race status” (Johnson, 1936). With regard to writing instruction and the production of text, humanizing pedagogical processes require that pedagogues enact critical practices that interrupt normalized literacies and dominant ways of knowing and being.
For instance, the full development of a writer depends on understanding oneself in relation to one’s world (Johnson, 2017). That said, humanizing approaches to writing instruction and practice mean centering the writer in the processes and production of critically conscious writing—and, in this case, in ways that involve Black youth in the meaning-making that is part of a rich literary tradition.
Indeed, Black people have historically “needed literacy in order to acquire freedom and power” (Harris, 1992, p. 278). And it is that history and re-centering of Black culture that is integral to humanizing writing pedagogies for Black youth as they (1) recall forms of literacy that privilege and are contingent upon students’ sociohistorical lives, both proximally and distally; (2) are grounded in literate histories and traditions of Black people; and (3) invite Black students to compose and add their voices to various bodies of knowledges.

Latrise P. Johnson is an associate professor of secondary ELA and literacy at the University of Alabama.Hannah Sullivan is a Spanish teacher and PhD student at the University of  Alabama.

Read the full article: “Revealing the Human and the Writer: The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students”

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Finding Answers for What Works in Writing Instruction

This post was written by NCTE member Deborah Dean. 

A recent visit to some junior high classrooms brought back memories. The clothing styles have changed some since my time of teaching junior high, and the technology is vastly different. But those students? They drew me into the past, to my former students in the junior high classes I taught.
There was Dan, who never wrote anything and sat slumped in his seat most of the time, no matter how I tried to engage him. Once, he tried to hit me with his book bag.
There was Matt. He was bright but unengaged, except for once when a writing task took his fancy: we were writing about processes, and he loved the challenge of writing about how to fool your teacher into thinking you were awake in class when you really weren’t. It was amazing.
There was Amy, who had suffered a trauma just before school started when a drug-crazed man held her and her mom hostage in their home for several hours. She was a quiet student who did her work, always on time and competently, until we wrote personal narratives. Then, she wrote so movingly of her experience, using it to write her way out of the trauma, that I have never forgotten it. Or her.
In my recent visits, though I sat in a classroom where I knew no names, I still saw students who reminded me of the question that had been prominent in my mind back when Dan and Matt and Amy were my students. It is a question that has driven me during my whole professional career, no matter what students are wearing or what technology they are using. The question mattered then and still matters today: What works?
What writing instruction works to help students develop as competent, engaged writers? What works to help all these different students with all their different needs and skills and situations? What works in classrooms stuffed with desks and students and too little time? What works in times of pandemic and online school and other challenges?
In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation published the first meta-analysis of writing research in 25 years, and it named eleven instructional practices supported by research (see box). That was a good start to help me answer my question. I wrote about those practices in the first edition of What Works in Writing Instruction, mostly because I had tried many of them and hadn’t always seen the results that the research suggested I should see. I wanted to know why—and my own research helped me see that some effective practices are not easy to implement unless you dig down into them instead of engaging only the surface features.
But that 2007 report was based only on a certain kind of research, and even at that time the researchers acknowledged that there is more to effective writing instruction that hadn’t been uncovered in that initial research analysis. Over the next decade, researchers analyzed other kinds of studies. More than a decade later, when I looked at the additional research, I found answers that added clarity and detail to the initial picture of what works. I found a richer, fuller image of what classrooms should be and what teachers could do: more answers to my lifelong question.
The newly published second edition of What Works in Writing Instruction weaves together the initial findings with those that have been researched more recently and supports what the researchers concluded: that the most important factor in effective instruction is an engaged, informed teacher who knows how to adapt research-based practices to the needs of students in individual classrooms. In short, effective practices must be adapted. Fortunately, lots of really good teachers around the country have shared how they implement effective instruction. Through the classroom practices they share (and the practices I share in the book), teachers can see how they might adapt, shift, and revise to create more effective instructional practices in their own classrooms.
In this way, we see how teachers in a variety of classrooms build a writing community that supports developing writers and how they share their own enthusiasm for writing to help students build interest and engagement. We can see how different classrooms build a writer’s workshop that implements the writing process in individualized ways for classes that are both long and short. We see how teachers make choices about the kinds of texts they ask their students to study and write and how they use the collaborative nature of the classroom community to encourage students at all stages of writing development.
Effective teachers are all different, working in different classrooms with different groups of students and different kinds of external pressures. What they share is that they’ve figured out ways to implement effective practices that move their students forward in their writing development.
Their examples—their stories and their students’ work—can, in turn, give us confidence in our own professional judgment. They can help us know that we, too, might find answers to what works for writing instruction in our classrooms by implementing good principles in individual ways. And that can be a very satisfying answer to a perplexing question that all of us have asked.

Deborah Dean, formerly a secondary English teacher, is a professor of English at Brigham Young University, where she teaches preservice and practicing teachers about writing instruction. She is the author of Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom; Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being; What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practices, and the Quick Reference Guide (QRG) Teaching Grammar in the Secondary Classroom.

What Works in Writing Instruction, 2nd edition is now available from the NCTE store! 
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

ESSC and ECEA of NCTE Respond to Anti-Asian Discrimination and Offer Resources

This statement was authored by the NCTE Elementary Section Steering Committee (ESSC) and the NCTE Early Childhood Education Assembly (ECEA).

The members of the NCTE Elementary Section Steering Committee and the Early Childhood Education Assembly denounce racism, hate, and white supremacy, and express our solidarity and support of our Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander colleagues and community today and always. We demand justice for these communities and support the movement to #StopAsianHate
On March 16th, 2021, six Asian women were murdered as an act of hate and racism. These acts, fueled by white supremacist rhetoric and xenophobia, have surged throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This past year, a report issued by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes against Asian Americans in major US cities have surged by nearly 150 percent in 2020.
This violence is not new for marginalized communities, but attending a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina; going to synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; or going to work in a massage parlor in Atlanta, Georgia, should never equate to not coming home. These acts of violence and hate are all rooted in white supremacy. Therefore, it is vital that we stand in solidarity. The revolution will be intersectional. And we need everyone to fight against white supremacy.
This call is specifically for educators in schools and teacher education programs, recognizing that  as we are teaching future generations and teachers of these generations, each one of us has a responsibility to do something. These children will grow up and will either perpetuate anti-Asian hate or disrupt it. As educators, it is imperative that we realize that silence is not the answer. We lean on the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: If you are neutral in situations of injustices, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. 
Below we provide some reflection questions and resources to help you in this journey of disrupting anti-Asian hate:

How do you decenter whiteness in your curriculum every single day? (Resource: Decentering Whiteness in My Classroom) 
How do you honor the voices, experiences, languages, and stories of Asian/Asian American communities as a classroom norm? (Resource: Humanizing Asian Americans in the Classroom Through Children’s Literature)
How do you teach about the diversity, history, and contributions to the world’s knowledge from Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities? (Resource: After Atlanta: Teaching about Identity and History) 
Look at your picture books, library, and curriculum. Whose voices and stories are absent or merely token additions in your classroom library and instructional texts? (Resource: The Best 9 Children’s Books to Combat Asian Racism with Tips to Raise Anti-Racists)
In the wake of COVID-19, how are you teaching students to be critically conscious and act against Asian American hate? (Resource: Young, Proud, Sung-Jee, by Joyce Y. Lee and Emily Ku)  (Resource: Addressing Anti-Asian Racism: A Resource for Educators)

As educators, we must work together, across differences, to do the deep and necessary work of digging into ourselves—to unearth the biases, prejudices, and racism that we hold inside of us–to engage in the active process that Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz describes as the archeology of self.
This is a process of working through the internalized stories and ideologies that we carry with us through our schooling and the other spaces of our lives. We draw on the wisdom of scholar-elders like Grace Lee Boggs, who reminds us: You can’t change any society unless you take responsibility for it.
Moving inside out and back again, we can do the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy in our world, our schools, and our teaching.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Prison Poetry in Tumultuous Times

This post was written by NCTE member Cruz Medina.

When the lockdowns started, I had to cancel a trip to San Quentin prison with some of my first-year college students.
In previous years, the students who attended the Shakespeare workshop with inmates felt transformed by the experience of reading and performing sections of The Merchant of Venice and other excerpts. In the bare portable building on the far side of the prison yard, the students saw the power of lyrical language to provoke insights as the men spoke about their own lives and life choices that contributed to them ending up in prison.
At the conclusion of the workshop, the men thanked us for spending our Sunday morning with them, saying the workshop helped them feel like they weren’t forgotten. During pandemic lockdowns, I have reflected on the connection lyrical language and poetry have to social justice through their power to humanize and to be forms of expression for incarcerated persons.

Santa Clara University students with professors Maura Tarnoff and Cruz Medina

At this moment when the world feels imprisoned by the pandemic, poetry can provide new ways to think, to see, and to make sense of these tumultuous times. In “Coming into Language,” poet Jimmy Santiago Baca communicates his experience of becoming literate in prison. Baca explains that he gravitated toward poetry because it affected him differently; he writes, “I believe something in my brain or something in my nervous system was impacted by poetry, by the way the lines and the words were arranged” (qtd. in Baker 23).
While teaching poetry, sometimes focusing on appreciating the lyrical quality, tone, and structure have to be enough; however, culturally relevant poetry and writing like Baca’s can ring the bells of social justice with messages that echo the language and spark a pride in “culture that was previously unknown” (Medina 272).
Cruz Medina with Ana Castillo in Santa Fe in 2016
I enjoy fearless Latinx writers like Ana Castillo because her experiences echo my own as Latinx. In her memoir, Black Dove, Castillo details how her son suffered from depression and got involved in an unarmed robbery.
Castillo explains, “Mi’jo had been depressed for a very long time and as I came to see it, had turned to drugs to self-medicate” (184). When her son was imprisoned, he began reading and writing more.
From a distance, Castillo encouraged her son’s writing: “He embraced the experimental prose-poetry style. . . . Mi’jo had become enthusiastic about literature, writing, and even acting” (192). Through our Zoom and Webex portals, we possess the potential to encourage students through our enthusiasm for the writing and literature that inspire us to feel more human.
Recently, I asked a class to read an article by Erec Toso about teaching poetry in an Arizona prison. Toso argues that incarcerated people are like Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow, the hidden parts of our consciousness that humans hide. He includes examples of incarcerated writers’ poetry that are full of original metaphor related to their parasitic dependency on drugs like heroin or inhumane relationships they’ve experienced with loved ones.
Toso says the writing works best when the unconscious shadow becomes visible and readers see incarcerated people as “the leftovers when opportunities ran dry” rather than as the monsters represented in popular media (20). Students in my class responded well to the poetry in Toso’s piece because they understood that the heavy feelings incarcerated writers describe could not be as accurately communicated in regular prose.
Poetry reconstructs the world though the syntax of verse, thereby communicating in a language of emotions that readers and writers feel as true, more so than the clickbait headlines to which we’ve become callous from doomscrolling. In virtual classrooms, mediated through screens, our quarantines similarly afford us moments to sit with poetry and reframe our missed connections with the outside world.
After all, better understanding the hardships we all currently face is and will continue to be an important part of not just the human experience, but also the process of returning to the normal experience of in-person interactions when social distancing is no longer necessary.
For more, listen to Cruz Medina’s interview with Ana Castillo for the This Rhetorical Life podcast: https://thisrhetoricallife.syr.edu/episode-33-cruz-medina-interviews-ana-castillo/
 
Further Readings
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca. (Open Road and Grove/Atlantic, 2007.)
“Coming into Language” in Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, by Jimmy Santiago Baca (Red Crane Books, 1992, pp. 3–11.)
“Jimmy Santiago Baca: Poetry as Lifesaver” by Rob Baker in The Council Chronicle (March 2008)
Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me by Ana Castillo. (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016.)
“Teaching Jimmy Santiago Baca” by Cruz Medina, in Latino/a Literature in the Classroom: 21st Century Approaches to Teaching, edited by Frederick Aldama. (Routledge, 2015, pp. 271–74.)
“Lifting the Lid: How Prison Writing Workshops Shed Light on the Social Shadow,” by Erec Toso, in Community Literacy Journal (vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 19–26.)

Cruz Medina is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition in the department of English at Santa Clara University. Medina teaches writing for the first generation college student program (LEAD Scholars), a bilingual writing course, and courses on digital writing. His book Reclaiming [email protected] Pop: Examining the Rhetoric of Cultural Deficiency (Palgrave 2015) addresses issues of citizenship, education, and politics related to Latinxs in the US.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Promoting Social Justice with High-Interest Works of Sports-Related Nonfiction

This post was written by NCTE member Luke Rodesiler. 

Over time, sports culture has been established as a site of resistance, with athletes of yesteryear (e.g., Lew Alcindor, the Syracuse 8) and the modern day (e.g., Megan Rapinoe, players across the WNBA) fighting for social justice. It is no surprise, then, that many sports-related texts provide teachers with high-interest avenues for promoting social justice in the English language arts classroom.
Below I highlight three such texts. Each book is a distinct work of sports-related nonfiction published in 2020 that can be used to facilitate meaningful discussions about social justice or otherwise serve as a springboard into research projects that extend literacy learning at the intersections of sports and society.
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball
by Jen Bryant & Frank Morrison (2020)
When recalling historic athletes who promoted social justice, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, boxing champ Muhammad Ali, and tennis star Billie Jean King quickly come to mind. Though often overlooked, basketball great Elgin Baylor is also noteworthy, for he conducted a one-man civil rights protest in 1959. Specifically, he refused to suit up for the Minneapolis Lakers after he and Black teammates Ed Fleming and Boo Ellis were refused service in Charleston, West Virginia, the site of a game against the Cincinnati Royals. The protest prompted change, for it was soon declared that no NBA team would play in a segregated state unless accommodations for all players were guaranteed. Baylor’s story is captured in Bryant and Morrison’s picture book, which can be read with students at virtually any grade level to support the exploration of social justice, the power of protest, and athlete activism.
Dragon Hoops
by Gene Luen Yang (2020)
Yang, a renowned graphic novelist, documents the 2014–2015 Bishop O’Dowd High School (CA) men’s varsity basketball season in this award-winning graphic memoir. Along the way, he recounts his experiences as a teacher at the school, as a cartoonist, and as a family man. He also incorporates stories about the history of basketball, including its creation by Dr. James Naismith; its adoption by Senda Berenson, who introduced women to the game; and its expansion into China. Opportunities for discussions about sociopolitical issues such as racism, equity, and religious persecution arise throughout. Moreover, one of the book’s notable motifs reflects the idea of having the courage to step into the unknown, just as the Dragons do each game, risking failure and subjecting themselves to the vitriol of hostile crowds. Maintaining such courage is surely relevant when taking up the fight for social justice.
Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan
by Jessica Luther & Kavitha A. Davidson (2020)
Teachers eager to promote social justice by facilitating critical readings of sports culture are sure to appreciate this book by sportswriters Luther and Davidson. The authors acknowledge the joys of sports fandom (e.g., camaraderie, the thrill of victory) but contend that many fans inevitably experience a crisis of conscience, for many of society’s ills (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia) permeate sports culture. Each chapter, then, presents a moral dilemma faced by modern sports fans, giving students a chance to explore sociopolitical issues in the context of sports culture. Addressing topics such as inequitable compensation, racist mascots, and the marginalization of LGBTQ+ sports figures, the book offers valuable opportunities for promoting social justice. Whether sharing excerpts or the text in full, teachers can use Luther and Davidson’s book to facilitate discussions, launch inquiry projects, or otherwise position students to critically examine timely issues in sports and society.

Luke Rodesiler is an associate professor of education at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Along with Alan Brown, he is the coeditor of Developing Contemporary Literacies through Sports: A Guide for the English Classroom (NCTE, 2016). He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @rodesiler.
Visit the companion website for Developing Contemporary Literacies through Sports
Read Luke Rodesiler’s English Journal article “On Second Thought: Teaching for Social Justice through Sports Culture” (July 2018).
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

How Autobiography Can Contribute to Global Citizenship in COVID-19 America

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Heerak Kim, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass—the slave narrative—speaking in the first-person singular, talking about the first-person plural, always saying ‘I,’ meaning ‘we.’ ” —Maya Angelou

As committee members of the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, we have pondered what it means to contribute to the world as global citizens. This quote from the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou regarding autobiography writing suggests the power of telling one’s own stories in one’s own words, prompting me to consider more strategically the ways in which autobiography can contribute to global citizenship.
Autobiography is written by a single person but often testifies to the experiences of many who might share that person’s identity.  In a sense, therefore, autobiography represents the power of participatory identity or representative group identity. The autobiography is a voice of a people, channeled through the person writing their autobiography.
In this regard, no one suffers alone. There is collectivity to the suffering. Many can identify with this, particularly during COVID-19 global pandemic. When an area is under a lockdown and all the restaurants close their dining rooms, there is a shared loss or grief in the community. There is also a common sense of loss that is evoked among  community members of a hot-spot area when they bear witness to their fellow residents dying from COVID-19.
Collective memory and experiences are not all tragic, however.  Even in the greatest tragedy, people find humor and positivity, which they share through art, literature, and music.
In the current climate, that could be in the form of a Zoom meeting, where each instrumentalist plays their own music in the private space of a tiny Zoom window.  But the many small Zoom windows on the computer screen come together to provide a symphony that is distinctive to our shared COVID-19 experience.  Perhaps we can call it “the COVID-19 Cultural Experience.”
Despite the pandemic raging throughout the world, we cannot forget the fact that global citizenship is alive and well and that we can all contribute. As literature educators, we can encourage project-based learning, inviting students to tell their own stories through autobiography. From here, we can even seek a publisher to publish the collective work, to be shared throughout the world.
In this regard, I find one particular collection of autobiographies enlightening. Korean-American Stories:  Collection of Autobiographies, edited by Ariel Raimundo Choi, shares autobiographies in which “I” means “we.” Raimundo Choi reflects on his personal experience as a Hispanic-Korean-American, an ethnic Korean born in Argentina who later immigrated to the United States. Ye One Chung identifies herself with Israel, the country where she grew up and subsequently wrote her autobiography,  in Hebrew with an English translation provided. Reading through Korean-American Stories: Collection of Autobiographies, one comes to understand the beautiful diversity of global citizenship.
English language arts teachers in pre-K to 12th grade and college professors teaching in departments of English and literature can encourage discussion of the complexities of global citizenship by engaging in reading autobiographies such as those contained in Korean-American Stories: Collection of Autobiographies. This can be a generative multicultural experience.
Our shared pandemic experiences can provide similar opportunities for writing about “I,” meaning “we.”  A classroom teacher can encourage each student to write about their own family’s day-to-day experiences during the pandemic. Since COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of everyone’s life in the United States, allowing opportunities for expression of this new experience can provide a nuanced portrait of the realities of different cultural experiences in America.
As literature educators, we can contribute to the engagement and production of this genre of literature that can be educational, engaging, and even therapeutic. There is power in the written word, and reading and writing autobiographies can usher in greater participation in global citizenship.

Heerak Kim is writing his Ed.D. dissertation at the American College of Education on improving urban schools and is the vice president of its chapter of Kappa Delta Pi International Honors Society in Education. Heerak is the author of Bat Yam: A Novel and Jewish and Indian and Other Stories.

“The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.”
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Build Your Stack: Curating a Menu of Mentors

This blog post was written by NCTE member Lynsey Burkins. It’s part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

On January 20, 2021 President Biden signed an Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Section 2 defined equity as follows:
Sec. 2. Definitions. For purposes of this order: (a) The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
As I began to process how the order defined equity, I began to think about my own practice as an elementary educator. I reflected specifically on creating an equitable curriculum. In the district I have taught in for the past 18 years, teachers have the agency to use our state standards to design learning opportunities for children. This gives teachers the responsibility of selecting materials used to teach the state standards.
I would like to think of myself as a teacher who strives to live within a social justice pedagogical stance. In this quest, I want to do all that I can to be careful not to other or create any stereotypes of any community and or dehumanize in any way. I want my students to feel seen and know that they are heard. I also want my students to be woke to themselves and the community around them. Books have always been a way to support conversations and to learn in my classroom.
Working within the learning standards, I’ve tried to use three categories of books when creating a menu of mentor texts to use for literacy units of study reading and writing. Franki Sibberson helped me to think in terms of a “menu of mentors,” in which I collect books in larger groups (menus) to use to pull text sets for learning. Three of my book menus that support student learning are:

Books that teach about history
Books that support conversations around social justice
Books that represent incidental diversity

My hope is that any menu of mentors that is created for whole group units of study in reading and writing would include a mixture of all three of these book categories. All three of these are needed as we work to humanize all of our stories and experiences in this world.
Here is a sampling of books for these three categories that have really sparked conversations among the third graders in my class this year:

Books that teach about history give students a historical perspective about people and events.

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation
by Barry Wittenstein (author), Jerry Pinkney (illustrator)

The Teachers March!: How Selma’s Teachers Changed History 
by Sandra Neil Wallace (author), Rich Wallace (author), Charly Palmer (illustrator)

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
by Carole Boston Weatherford  (author), Floyd Cooper (illustrator)

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story
by Ken Mochizuki (author), Dom Lee (illustrator)

Baseball Saved Us
by Ken Mochizuki (author), Dom Lee (illustrator)

Books that support conversations around social justice help students give words to feelings or things they see. Many times, after reading these books, students begin to organize themselves in conversations around taking action. It is important that these lists include books that not only explore the issues and trauma but also the joy. Social justice work should always have joy.

Milo Imagines the World
by Matt de la Peña (author), Christian Robinson (illustrator)

Call Me Max (Max and Friends Book 1)
by Kyle Lukoff (author), Luciano Lozano (illustrator)

Your Name Is a Song
by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (author), Luisa Uribe (illustrator)

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners
by Joanna Ho (author), Dung Ho (Illustrator)

The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story
by Aya Khalil (author), Anait Semirdzhyan (illustrator)

Books that represent incidental diversity better reflect the real world. These may be books with characters who just happen to belong to an underrepresented group or community or books in which the character’s diverse identity is not the central focus of the story.

Puppy Truck
by Brian Pinkney

Let’s Go on a Hike! (a Family Hiking Adventure!)
by Katrina Liu (author), Heru Setiawan (illustrator)

Me & Mama 
by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away 
by Meg Medina (author), Sonia Sanchez (illustrator)

Lift
by Minh Lê  (author), Dan Santat  (illustrator)

My Papi Has a Motorcycle
by Isabel Quintero (author) and Zeke Peña (illustrator)

Dragonfly Kites (Songs of the North Wind) 
by Tomson Highway (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

One thing I want to always remember is that, over the school year, children should have experiences reading books about people and communities that show them in a myriad of experiences and situations. Histories, celebrations, struggles, trauma, and joys should be shared through stories so that children have a full picture of the richness and experiences of all those who make up our world.

Lynsey Burkins has been a passionate educator for over 18 years in Dublin, Ohio. She resides in Westerville, Ohio, with her husband and two children. She is a member of NCTE and is Chair of the Build Your Stack Committee. Lynsey also writes for the Classroom Communities blog. She lives for the moments when children see themselves in books and recognize that their stories matter too.

NCTE and independent bookstores will receive a small commission from purchases made using the links above.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Poetry Is the Light: Children Need to Let Their Words Shine

This post was written by NCTE member Valerie Bolling.

Amanda Gorman. In the short time since most of us heard her poem, her name has been emerging continuously from mouths across the globe. When the topic of the Biden/Harris inauguration enters a conversation, Gorman’s name, like the light she refers to in The Hill We Climb, immediately illuminates the space. Gorman delivered an inaugural poem that will be quoted and revered for years to come.
I was as impressed as everyone else by the brilliance and eloquence we all witnessed, and, as an educator, I viewed this experience through another lens as well. I saw the possibilities for lessons. Yes, there are lessons that we can learn by examining the lines of the poem and applying them to ourselves and to the occurrences in our world. Lessons about how to maintain resilience and hope. Lessons about connection and community. Lessons about language and word play.
I was inspired to consider The Hill We Climb from the point of view of this two-part question: How does Amanda Gorman’s poem model for us why we should teach poetry and, perhaps more importantly, why students should write their own poems?
Poetry is the surest way to allow students to celebrate themselves—who they are, what they enjoy, what they care about, what they wonder about, what gives them hope. Therefore, we must provide a classroom experience immersed in poetry.
The left column in the chart below describes different types of poems that my elementary and middle school students have written. The right column shows examples of how The Hill We Climb reflects a conglomeration of elements in these poems.

Not only can The Hill We Climb serve as a mentor text for young poets, but Gorman used mentor texts of her own. She shared that she was inspired by tweets she read in reaction to the Capitol insurrection, used references from Hamilton, and read speeches by famous orators, such as  Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
Can you recognize the evidence of mentor texts in these lines from The Hill We Climb?
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
This is certainly reminiscent of King’s I Have a Dream speech and Angelou’s poem Still I Rise.
What a wonderful example for students to see that even the greatest poets use mentor texts. And, yes, Amanda Gorman is inarguably one of the greatest.
The ultimate truth: The real reason students should write poetry is for sheer enjoyment! I’ve never had a student who wasn’t excited about writing poetry. Sure,  a few may be reluctant at first, but once they realize they can write about whatever they want in whatever way they want, they become poets.
Poetry is the truest form of equity. Students who struggle with more traditional writing assignments experience success writing poems. They build their confidence writing poetry and can then transfer those skills to other forms of writing. Even in an essay, they can infuse poetic language.
I still remember the first poem one of my ESL students wrote. She had recently arrived from Austria and didn’t know English. Her first poem was “Ha Ha Ha!” She used simple language and the repetition of “ha ha ha.” When she read it aloud, the class laughed along with her. It was an instant hit!
I’ve seen poetry heal, too. Students have written about a cat who died, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, a friend moving away. When sharing their poems, they connect with their classmates over shared experiences, and I’ve been able to connect with them in a new way, too.
Finally, children should write poems because poetry is about more than the words on the page. It’s about the sound and delivery of the words. Will you turn your words into a song? Will you rap? Will you recite spoken-word style?
We want a poem’s words to flow forth and shower us with wisdom and awe. We want to hear them. And, in the case of Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, we want to hear them again and again.
I want to hear the words of all of our children. I want them to feel seen and heard, valued and validated. As an author, I want them to see themselves in the pages of books. Even more, I want them to write their own stories, and their own poems. When we listen to children read their poems, we learn things that we might not have otherwise discovered about them. To paraphrase Gorman’s words, poetry enables children to see the light and to be the light.
Additional resource: Here’s a lesson created by Greenwich High School teacher Rebecca Wilson: Inauguration Poem Analysis. It was inspired by and uses questions and resources from this PBS lesson.
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for 28 years and is currently an instructional coach for Greenwich Public Schools in Greenwich, Connecticut. When she’s not collaborating with teachers or leading the middle school humanities curriculum team, she writes picture books. Her debut picture book Let’s Dance! was published in March 2020. She has two books scheduled for release in 2022 and two more slated for 2023. Visit Valerie Bolling’s author website. 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Reflections on Point-less Grading

From the NCTE Secondary Section Steering Committee

This post was written by NCTE member Josh Thompson, a member of the NCTE Secondary Section Steering Committee.

In May 2020, I purchased a book that changed my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought the book seemed intriguing. Once it arrived, I let it sit on my coffee table for a few days. We were still in the early stages of quarantine, my school was starting to wrap things up for the tumultuous year, and I just didn’t have the capacity to read one more thing. But when I did finally dive into those pages, my teacher brain was on fire.
That book is Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading by Sarah M. Zerwin (Heinemann, 2020).
Zerwin’s work had answers to questions that I had long been searching for. She writes about her journey to going point-less in her assessment practices. As Cris Tovani explains in the foreword,
Sarah Zerwin has written the book I desperately needed to help my beliefs about learning match my assessment practices.  In Point-Less, she nudges teachers to consider how traditional forms of grading get in the way of student growth.  Her pioneering ways of marking, collecting, and sharing student work shows teachers how to assess with fidelity and in ways that serve student learning. Instead of assigning random points to student tasks, she demonstrates how teachers can provide students with concise, descriptive data that serves as meaningful and specific feedback.
Like Tovani, I needed this book. I read it cover-to-cover in two days and had pages of notes and annotations. I knew I’d be going point-less in at least some of my classes this school year.
I decided to switch to a point-less system for the fall semester in my yearlong dual enrollment composition classes as well as my dual enrollment British literature survey course. I did so because I assumed that these older students in a higher level course would be able to handle the shift well and that they would be understanding of the inevitable bumps along the way. I could not have been closer to the truth.
As Zerwin explains, overall course grades are determined by student progress on learning goals. I created a list of ten learning goals for each course, a mix of content-based goals and learning behavior goals. I then split the goals into two categories: the ones students can choose from and the ones every student will work on. Of the six goals students can choose from, they select three. Throughout the semester, they monitor their progress on the goals, conduct mid-quarter check-ins, and then write a letter to me at the end of the semester in which they narrate their experience in class and give their self-selected grade with justification.
At first, students needed time to adjust. There was a learning curve. For the entirety of their time in school, they’d never had a teacher who had a point-less grading system. And because they are high-achieving students in dual enrollment classes, they had been so focused on getting the best grades. “How many points is this?” is a common question I had come to expect.
In the beginning of the semester, I reminded students that the only “points” that would go into our online gradebook would be to show completion and thoroughness of their work. I pushed them to focus less on the points and more on their learning and experience in class. After a few weeks, they had a good overall grasp of the system. As the semester progressed, I noticed that students were more willing to take risks; had more to say in class discussions; exhibited greater critical reading, writing, and thinking; and were more engaged than I had experienced in previous classes.
Students who told me in the beginning of the semester that English wasn’t their favorite class, that they never enjoyed reading or writing, that I shouldn’t expect much out of them, were suddenly asking thoughtful questions, participating in class discussions about literature, and revising their writing with fervor.
When I mentioned this to one eleventh-grade student, he responded, “Well, now I know that if I’m completely wrong, it isn’t going to tank my grade. There’s still pressure to get it right, but it’s a different kind of pressure. It makes me want to do stuff for this class.”
After the success with the point-less system in my dual enrollment classes first semester, I decided to implement it in my English 9 Honors class this spring 2021 semester.
Similarly, students have had to adjust to the new way of doing grades, and even though we’ve only been in this semester for about a month, I’m noticing students starting to take risks. They’re thinking about their learning. With the stress of earning points taken away, they’re starting to focus more on their growth. Just last week, a student said to me, “I’ve never thought about it [what I’m learning] like this before. I’m not doing something just to get a grade. I’m actually learning things, not just doing them.”
One 12th grade student’s response in his end-of-semester letter captures the impact of this point-less system: “I developed confidence in this class, which really helped me have the courage to be wrong.”
Given all of the unknowns and suspicions about what this year would bring, I saw Zerwin’s point-less grading system as a way to help students better navigate learning and schooling in a pandemic. It is one of many elements that I intend to continue doing on the other side of all of this.

An anti-bias, anti-racist educator, Josh Thompson teaches high school English language arts in Blacksburg, Virginia. His passions for daily independent reading, supporting and affirming LGBTQ students, and student-centered learning fuel his practice. You can find him on Twitter @jthompedu.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Build Your Stack: Picture Books Are Our Coteachers

This blog post was written by NCTE members Mandy Robek and Cathy Mere. It’s part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

Each August there’s excitement in the air for us: hanging on to those last moments of summer, thinking about a new school year, and anticipating August 10th—our annual celebration of Picture Book 10 for 10! It’s not an official holiday and yet we feel excited to see what will be unwrapped on social media platforms.
Picture Book 10 for 10 is a day when we encourage teachers to share their ten must-have picture books. If you are reading this, then you most likely love picture books as much as we do and understand the struggle in picking out just ten!
Mandy began blogging in April 2010; in July of 2010 she shared some thinking after reading Cathy’s professional book, More Than Guided Reading. Cathy saw the post and left a positive, thoughtful comment. Mandy was so surprised that the author, a mentor she looked up to, had discovered her little space! Each day that week Mandy shared one picture book that was new to her from Cathy’s book. Later in the week, Cathy messaged Mandy via Twitter and asked what her favorite must-have picture books were. If you’ve ever been caught off guard with a positive surprise, then you can image the excitement felt by Mandy, the new blogger!
So that’s how we, Mandy and Cathy, started talking via Twitter. Before long we wondered if other teachers would want to join us, and they did. Each year the participation has grown. Each year the members who participate varies. There’s no signing up. There’s no commitment. There’s flexibility, with a day before and a day or two after for sharing.  For some participants the list represents all-time must-have favorites; others play around with a theme. It’s really become fascinating to see how and why people choose  the ten books for their lists.
With changes in technology, the way we have hosted the event has changed a bit over time. We currently take turns hosting the event on one of our blogs. We ask people joining to leave us a link and a short description in the comments section. We’ve used the the hashtag #pb10for10 every year; a simple search can pull sharing moments from participants. A few years in, we were asked about hosting a Nonfiction Picturebook 10 for 10; we now do that six months later in February, using the hashtag #nf10for10.
There’s always so much chatter August 10th and February 10th, with library requests being filled, book budgets expanding, and shopping carts filling up fast. Pulling together a collection of ten picture books is quite a reflective process. It also opens us up to learn more about each other and about the things that are tugging at our heartstrings in the moment. It’s fun to see books that repeat and how many books are new to participants. It’s quite honestly a dangerous day or two of book love!
We hope you will consider joining us. Use the hashtag to discover new books for yourself and for the students you share a classroom with. Picture books are our coteachers; let’s discover some new best friends together!

Books for the First Two Weeks
Here we’re sharing Mandy’s “Picture Book Ten for Ten” blog post from this past August 2020—a list of books that seem perfect for the movement we’ve been in experiencing this year with attendance models.
Today. I’m starting the year teaching in a hybrid model. I will have half of my students physically at a time and half of my students working virtually. In two weeks, I will physically be with my students five days. Last week I had my yearly physical and got some really sound advice from my doctor for returning to school and being safe. He also predicted we’ll be closed within two weeks. Yikes, I started my appointment with no anxiety. This whole season of life is strange and I have to say after I worked through my doctor’s point of view and brainstormed some ways to keep myself healthy I found a focus for my sharing this year.
I hope to be able to read these books in person with my students. I miss the natural responses in a group setting.  These are books I had at home and ones I feel could anchor our year together. It’s going to be a year of patience, grace, acceptance, flexibility, and like no other. I wish you all a safe new school year and hope you can use picture books to help you and your community come together.
Count on Me by Miguel Tanco might be one of my new favorite books—oh my goodness! A book about passions and how they are different for each other. It’s also about accepting a passion others may not always understand—math! This is a wonderful book celebrating the ways we can see math in our lives.

The Hike by Alison Farrell will encourage readers to get outside, move, notice, and write. Yes, an activity we can do during these uncertain times and be safe.

I Am a Warrior Goddess by Jennifer Adams and Illustrated by Carme Lemniscates can be a wonderful guide for asking young readers to finish their own I Am statements.

I Believe I Can by Grace Byers and Illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo is a book celebrating the big possibilities of children. This is a beautiful book representing children from different backgrounds.  The author plays with words and empowers the reader.

Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi shows readers how a worry can fester and grow, changing colors until we share it with someone. Talking to others is so important as we embrace new things.

Just Ask by Sonia Sotomayor and Illustrated by Rafael Lopez created a beautiful book to help readers understand a variety of health concerns their friends may have or even family members. Another wonderful book to help readers feel empowered.

Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin is the perfect book to help us focus on what happiness is for each of us. School is going to be different this year and we can still celebrate the things that make us happy.

Lulu the One and Only by Lynnette Mawhinney and Illustrated by Jennie Poh is a gift for all children. A multiracial family shows readers how to focus on who we are; not what we are. Readers are introduced to the idea of a power statement. We all need a power statement.

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is a book about sitting with each other. It’s a book about waiting. It’s a book about subtle kindness and patience. We may not need quick solutions this year—we will need grace.

Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival lets readers know others have worries too and talking about them helps them diminish some. We can live with our worries.

Mandy Robek currently teaches second grade in Columbus, Ohio and can be found @mandyrobek on Twitter. 
Cathy Mere is an elementary instructional specialist in Hiliard, Ohio and can be found @cathymere on Twitter.

NCTE and independent bookstores will receive a small commission from purchases made using the links above.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.