#NCTE15: Disney for English Teachers

I love NCTE

There is nothing more exhilarating than being surrounded by thousands of English teachers, who are just as eager to learn and connect as I am. This is my second year attending the National Council for Teachers of English Annual conference #NCTE15. It is currently 27 degrees here in Minneapolis, which is tough to stomach since my husband is in cargo shorts and flipflops since it is 80 degrees back home in Los Angeles. However, due to the sprawling skyway system, I haven’t had to go outside. . . yet.

For those unfamiliar, NCTE is a 3-day conference where you can learn about all things English. I want to share with you my experience, so you can virtually be here with me. I attended three incredible sessions today, ranging from grammar to the Holocaust.  

Of the three, this was my favorite.

Writing Outside the Essay: Rethinking Writing Forms in Secondary Classrooms

Christopher Lehman @iChrisLehman, Dana Stachowiak @DrStachowiak, Meenoo Rami @MeenoRami, and Brian Sweeney @MrSweeneyNYC

5-word takeaway: Give your students authentic audience

Meenoo talks about what we do v. what kids need
This was my favorite session, but I might be biased – I am a big fan of both Chris and Meenoo. I loved how Meeno pointed out that there is a gap between what we ask students to do in the classroom and what real life writing looks like. Her point was not to completely throw out the essay, but to use it in tandem with other media. For example, she had students write formal book reviews, but then also create short videos to go along with them as an extension of their learning. She shared a student example that was a video homage to “The Stranger.” She also noted that students should not be writing alone, and teachers should find ways to incorporate group writing. Finally, that teachers must always keep in mind the inquiry your students are trying to uncover. 

I want to try: 60 second films that summarize a book or address major themes.


Brian shared examples of his success as a journalism teacher. My favorite was “The Hungry Games: May the odds be ever in your flavor,” in which students pitted local restaurants against each other. Other examples included:  

  • “Five Dollar Buys” where students went around town to see what was the best meal they could get for $5. (In case you couldn’t tell, his kids eat off campus for lunch!) 
  • The most impressive example: a student who was able to break a news story about sex ed in New York that made it from the school newspaper to the AP and was credited nationwide. 

Brian’s advice to teachers is simple: Ask yourself two questions: 1) Is there a need in your community that student writing can address? and 2) Is there something you can do that online professionals would be interested in? This will help you move from being the “assigner in chief ‘ to the advisor.  

This got me thinking . . . 

I want to try: having students write about our school’s construction from their perspective, since much of the news in our district about this topic has been heated and full of misinformation. 


Dana virtually shared her success with social justice, which included a campaign to stop rape culture on college campuses, “if you could, move your hood” to keep walkways accessible to all, and an interactive booth discussing racism in America today. I really liked her process. Her students are still writing – they write argument essays exposing the issue, formal proposals for action projects, and a reflective piece at the end. I thought the key to the reflective piece was asking students how they are going to continue the work now that the assignment is over.

I want to try: an extension of the investigative journalism unit I use for Writer’s Workshop where students actually put together and execute an action project tied in to their topic.

Chris wrapped up by reminding us that, for our students, writing is about learning how to get likes, shares, clicks and links. In their world, this is what matters to them. As teachers, we need to build on that

Excited to party tonight at the cultural celebration and return tomorrow for more incredible learning.


Adventures in Writer’s Workshop: 5 Takeaways from Personal Narrative Unit

I sit in the back of my room, with 28 thirteen-year-olds huddled around me. The stale, summer air is thick with beginning of the year nerves. They are squished together, with pencils at the ready, for our first day of writer’s workshop. It’s new to them, it’s new to me. Some are rapt with attention, eager for a challenge. Others are wary of change. My goal? To improve writing instruction in my classroom.

Writer’s Workshop is a method of teaching that allows students to immerse themselves in writing, with opportunities for volume writing in multiple genres. Each session of the Writer’s Workshop begins with a 10-minute mini-lesson in our meeting area (ie my teacher’s desk). Once I send them on their way to work independently, I mingle, working 1:1 with students on their writing craft.

I finally have one unit down in the books. At the suggestion of Mary Ehrenworth, I began not with the Units themselves but in the If…Then book.  I had my 8th graders write personal narratives.  Here are five takeaways that were important, and unexpected.

  1. Students were shocked at the sheer volume of writing: And so was I.  It is incredible what my students can produce when I push them.  Each session they wrote a piece in class, and they wrote a piece for homework. I felt a little guilty each time I said “write another moment.”  For some, this was easy, but I felt for the kids who could barely put together a sentence within the hour.  
  2. Students loved having 1:1 discussions with me about their writing.  And this was my favorite part. It ranged from helping a student to spell the word “was,” to guiding a student to use symbolism to express their emotions. There is a special connection that happens when you speak to a student personally about their writing. Especially with personal narratives, I learned some unbelievably heartbreaking and also heartwarming things about my students. It was nice to give them guidance in a conversational way. It feels like I am speaking to them as fellow writers, and not as an authority figure.   
  3. Organization is not included: This is unfortunate since organization is not my strong suit. The books don’t talk about ways to have students organize their work. Or if they do, I didn’t see it. Granted my style is more fly by the seat of pants and see where it takes me. I learned quickly I needed to have students date and title each day’s work. I had them use the actual session titles in the book as their headings. Each teacher must develop a system that works for them. Moving forward, I will be stricter about headings for each entry, and really encourage digital notebooks, since they are easier to manage for me. I have the students use google docs, and they share their notebook with me. For notebooks checks, I have them highlight each item I am assessing so I can easily locate. At the end of the first unit, many were on 8 or 9 pages of typed material.
  4. Some students claimed they had nothing to write about.  Students  would say, nothing interesting has happened to me. They might even ask me to give them something to write about. At first I worked to encourage them, but after the 3rd day of whining from the same kid, I just put my foot down and said part of the assignment is to generate ideas.  That seemed to end the conversation. And they had a hard time writing without strict guidelines. I can’t tell you how many time I was asked, “how long does it need to be”, or “can I do this”, or “can I do that. “ My mantra became, do whatever you want as long as you write.
  5. Low classes need a lot of differentiation. Oh boy!  I was not ready for my co-taught class. Most of the kids constantly stopped me to ask, “am I doing this right?”, or “is this good?”  That was a tough habit to break. In addition, the behavior problems in this class meant I spent significantly less time conferring and more time managing the class.  I was lucky to be able to split the class with my co-teacher to thin the herd, but it was still easy to get sidetracked. The hardest part is I have at least 4 students in that class who really need 1:1 for the entire period, and I struggled with abandoning them, but I have 25 others who need me, too.

As with any new material, you adjust. I will use all of this information to change how I attack the next units. I am already through Bend I of Investigative Journalism.  Looking forward to sharing that with you!

The Most Amazing Teacher in the World: Cornelius Minor

This week at the #TCWRWP I had the honor of learning from @MisterMinor. There are hundreds of reasons why I think he is the best teacher in the world, but here are 5 that really spoke to me. (Someone please pat me on the back for the reasons v. example work I did here)

1. He takes risks in the name of his kids.

When he lost two students to gang violence in the same week, he created a text set to help them deal with the tragedies. His principal said no, but Cornelius did it anyway. When his students were spending time causing trouble at another school, he enticed them with books that would help them understand the ladies. They read Twilight, Gossip Girl, etc. with enthusiasm, all for the goal of learning about the ladies.

2. He turns his kids into advocates for themselves.

At the beginning of the year, he has students identify three adults outside their teachers and parents who can help them be successful. During class he has them use a script and call these adults and say that they will be needing help this year. In addition, he has them identify places outside of home where work can be completed, if home is not an option.  He even teaches his kids how to have tough conversations with their parents about their academic success.

3. He is is constantly aware of progress.

Whenever a student speaks, Cornelius is assessing them. whether it is in class, in the hallway, on the playground. Whether it is to him, a peer, another adult or on the phone. He is constantly monitoring their progress. He has a neat little google sheet he uses to track how often they demonstrate a skill. He subtly pushes them toward higher thinking.

4. He makes their work live in the real world.

He went around town and found places to display student work so they had an authentic audience. He went to the corner store where all his kids gets breakfast, spoke with the proprietor and posted student work. He posts in the laundromat in his neighborhood. Suddenly, their work is public and their peers read it while standing around. In addition, he connects his classroom with classrooms around the world virtually to allow for genuine peer critiquing.

5. He is a teacher-techie.

Cornelius uses Evernote, Google Hangout, Text Compactor, Google Docs, Announcify, Twitter, Genius Scan, and I could go on. He uses these tools not just to make his life easier, but to teach kids to be producers of text, not simply consumers.

Cornelius, thank you so much for inspiring me and helping begin this adventure.