Tinkering with Prior Review: Why Journalism Matters #11

This is #11 in a bi-montly series by NCTE member Alana Van Der Sluys.  

Alana Rome

I had originally wanted to write a post this week on how scholastic censorship occurs not just at the high school level but also at the collegiate level. It would have been a nice procession from my latest blog on how such silencing affects civic responsibility and democracy.

But to paraphrase John Steinbeck, the best-laid plans often go awry. . . when scholastic journalism makes its way to the Senate floor.

On August 1, New Jersey Senator Diane Allen (R)  introduced a New Voices bill with Senator Nia Gill (D) and Senator Jennifer Beck (R) as co-sponsors. As a result, there are now identical bills in both the State Senate (S-2506) and Assembly (A-4028).

In summary, the bill would hold school administrators to the 1969 Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503. As a result of that ruling, students gained First Amendment rights for the first time; student press was protected unless deemed disruptive of the education process.

In light of incidences like Tom McHale’s resignation over a prior review controversy, John Wodnick’s resignation over a three-month censorship controversy, and Barbara Thill’s resignation over “changes administrators made to the journalism program,” it seems worthwhile to note that this new bill will protect journalism teachers and advisers from administrative retribution as well.

In a private email, Garden State Scholastic Press Association (GSSPA) founder and New Voices New Jersey contact John Tagliareni did point out a very crucial component to this bill’s success, particularly in its third introduction to the Senate: the public’s and Senate’s knowledge of the difference between prior restraint and prior review.

Administrators will still be able to exercise prior review, or the ability to view material before it is published. If a school exercises its right to prior review, it is typically a rule stated in the school’s handbook or is verbally agreed upon by the administration and journalism adviser; some schools do not exercise prior review by choice, but instead trust the journalism advisers and students to only publish what is protected under the First Amendment.

What the bill protects students and teachers against, however, is prior restraint of material that is protected under the First Amendment. Prior restraint, as the term suggests, prevents publication of material. This should only be done if the material is not protected under the First Amendment (i.e., material that is libelous, presents a clear and present danger to students and staff, and is disruptive to education).

Although not favored by scholastic newspaper advisers and staff, the option of administrators to use prior review is essential; administrators need to at least have the right to pull material that is not protected under the First Amendment. However, the bill will protect against the administration’s pulling articles because, for example, they are critical of administration,  publicize a district controversy, or present an unpopular opinion.

So far, the bill has received support from the Working Conditions Committee of the New Jersey Education Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Journalism Education Association.

For more information on this bill and how you can support it, please see and “like” the New Voices of New Jersey Facebook page.  Student journalists can also join the Student Chapter of the GSSPA.

Alana Van Der Sluys is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting. 

The Joy of Reading

CLALogo Joy, the joy of students reading, that’s what the Children’s Literature Assembly is about.

“It is a teacher’s privilege and responsibility to help students discover the joy of reading, while they also teach students how to internalize the skills and strategies of fluent reading. This occurs through teacher modeling, reading aloud quality literature to the class, recommending books to children based on their individual interests, and through incorporating literature into teaching lessons and learning activities across the curriculum.”

CLA makes choosing books for kids easy. Under CLA’s auspices, every year since 1985 or earlier, the Notable Children’s Books for Language Arts committee members select the 30 Notable Children’s Books in the English Language Arts.  The committee reads, reviews, and jointly decides on the list—for the 2015 awards they reviewed over 620 books! THE LIST is published on the CLA website and Facebook page  and in NCTE’s Language Arts Journal.  in the late summer/fall. Then the Notables Committee presents the books during a session at the NCTE Annual Convention.

CLA publishes one of the outstanding journals in the field, the Journal of Children’s Literature. This article from the Spring 2014 issue, “ Building on Windows and Mirrors: Encouraging the Disruption of ‘Single Stories’ Through Children’s Literature,” speaks to the important theme in literacy teaching and learning—teaching diverse books.

In 2004, CLA established its own endowment fund “to support research in the field of children’s literature and to ensure the influence of quality books for children in every classroom.” They are very close to their $50,000 goal.

In the meantime, at the 2015 Convention as at many conventions before then, CLA awarded Children’s Literature Assembly Research Awards to recipients who will pursue a research study involving children’s literature.

CLA hosts many events during the NCTE Annual Convention. This year’s events  include a workshop, a master class, a roundtable, a presentation of the 2016 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts, and the CLA Breakfast. Join them at one or more of these if you’re onsite in Atlanta.

CLAturns40Last year marked the 40th Anniversary of this NCTE assembly  and they celebrated! Balloons and confetti, bookmarks and stickers, awards and a limited issue book CLABagbag with an illustration by Jon Klassen abounded at their 2015 CLA Breakfast in Minneapolis with Klassen as speaker.


If you teach young children and want to bring them joy in reading, you’ll want to join this “organization dedicated to bringing children’s literature and advocates of children’s literature together.”

Writing Personal Memoirs: An Opportunity for Differentiation in the Classroom

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 


My 5th graders spend their first semester of English immersed in personal narratives and storytelling. September and October are devoted to the deep reading of, and written responses to, a variety of mentor texts, including Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, excerpts from Hey World, Here I Am!, as well as several short personal narratives by authors like Cynthia Rylant and Patricia Polacco. As students read these texts, they pay particular attention to each author’s unique tone and writing style. Class discussions center around discovering themes within the text and making personal connections to the stories being told. Inspired by the mentor texts they study, students engage in writing-to-learn practices designed to inspire short narratives about their own families, friends, and experiences.

By November, students have both a broad understanding of the tools writers use to engage readers and a rich collection of personal stories to further develop and revise. Our memoir writing begins with a brainstorming activity in which students map out the significant people and places in their lives, jotting down a few important details about each. From there, the difficult but rewarding work of drafting begins. With a goal of four distinct vignettes, my 5th graders work tirelessly, writing every class period for several weeks in order to produce their first drafts. The writing process is unique from one student to the next, as evidenced by the breadth of stylistic choices they make. Some generate vignettes only a few paragraphs long, while others write for pages. They write the way they feel, and compose pieces that range from serious and heartbreaking to playful, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny. Some vignettes take the form of a traditional personal narrative, while others are in verse, or some combination of the two.

As they draft, students take advantage of many resources to enhance and strengthen their work. They consult thesauruses, mentor texts, and their writer’s notebook in search of the perfect word or phrase. They page through family photo albums and interview relatives, looking for inspiration and reminding themselves of forgotten details from their early years. They conference, proofread, and edit, both with me and with each other, in order to produce their final projects.

I am now approaching my fifth year of leading students through the personal memoir project. Though much remains the same from one year to the next (I have never seen a reason to abandon my fabulous mentor texts), in many ways each year brings a new opportunity for me to reflect and improve on the project. From the beginning, this assignment was designed with differentiation in mind, and every year I am able to tweak my resources so that students at every level can engage and be successful with their memoir.

When I think back to the first graphic organizer I used for this assignment, it’s a wonder any of my students could follow my logic. Each year I make small edits to this document in response to my students—their confusion, their reactions, and their ideas help me improve the way I first introduce the assignment. In addition to creating a more streamlined graphic organizer for initial brainstorming, with each new year I’ve increased the frequency of student-teacher conferences. The graphic organizer allows me to pick up on confusion or misunderstanding in the prewriting stage, and conferencing with students after each vignette makes it easier for me to scaffold skills like time management, organization, and proofreading throughout the process rather than after an entire draft has been completed. By meeting after each vignette is drafted, we turn one long project into several, more manageable opportunities to engage in the writing process.

Each year’s reflection on the memoir project helps me develop a better approach to working with students to address both the quality and content of their writing. The brainstorming organizer is designed in such a way that it clearly lays out the expectation of four distinct vignettes, and we have class discussions about how long each vignette ought to be in order to effectively tell a story to a reader. We also discuss the dangers of writing a rambling narrative, the importance of saying what’s crucial, and the value of avoiding redundancy. With that foundation laid, I can then work more closely with individual students on their drafts, encouraging this student to add detail and flesh out their ideas, referring that one to a resource for “juicy” vocabulary words, and modeling for others how to become more efficient and precise with their language and grammar. Though every year brings me a new crop of young writers and a new set of improvements to make to my assignments, my goals for the memoir writing project always remain the same: to meet each student where they are, to quickly scaffold for them what they’re capable of as writers, and to remind them they have a voice to use and a story to tell.

Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.

Getting Started: Round-Robin Oral Storytelling

This is the second part in a monthly series written by NCTE member Mindy Daniels. Here is the first part


As expected, kids admitted to hospitals react differently. For some, it’s “my first day in the nuthouse,” as one teen wrote; for others, it’s a welcome respite from being bullied at school or from abject abuse at home. Also as expected, some kids are extremely active and chatty, others dejected and tight-lipped. Regardless, as teachers we want kids to engage in learning because, as a normalizing process, school is as therapeutic as it is academically important to their overall well-being.

Some students, however, are too traumatized for schoolwork, while others are simply not interested. For both the willing and the recalcitrant, I have found that creative writing activities provide a comfort zone.

One good technique I discovered years ago in a Writer’s Digest article adapts the round-robin reading approach wherein the teacher starts with a simple sentence and each student adds to the story with one to two sentences of his or her own. The one I recall from the article, which I have used successfully countless times, is: “Bill really wanted a drink of water.”

Reasons why Bill is thirsty and can’t get water are infinite. Maybe he’s mowed the lawn and is locked out of the house; he’s broken down on the side of the road in the desert; he’s adrift in the ocean. What he does to get water is equally legion. He crawls through the doggie door; he breaks into someone’s house and is arrested; he paddles ashore. Like playing badminton, the intent of a round-robin is to keep the birdie—the story—aloft as long as possible. For this reason, students can’t allow a character to commit suicide—suicide is a cop-out, according to creative writing teachers.

Some students elaborate without prompting; shyer kids may need assistance, so have ready leading questions like: What if he went to a neighbor’s house and no one was home? What if it was a holiday and the store was closed? What if there were aliens on the island? No matter how bizarre, accept a student’s response so long as it keeps the action and tension going. As the teacher, you can always spin the story in another direction when it is your turn to contribute.

It is critical that teachers contribute as active participants. In this workshop activity, teachers must be more than facilitators; as active participants, our responses cannot be rehearsed. We need to go with the flow of the story and be spontaneous. If you can’t think of any one-liners, try Writer’s Digest prompts (www.writersdigest.com/prompts) or take an opening sentence from a short story. Just about anything works.

Here are a couple of examples from my students: Bill had a broken leg and couldn’t get to the fridge or the faucet. Bill resorted to drinking from the dog’s bowl because the water main had broken and he couldn’t get water from the faucet. Given the opportunity, students can and are creative. Starting with a group activity like oral storytelling cracks open creative doors.

Next time—String Storytelling.

Mindy Daniels has a PhD in instructional leadership. For the last sixteen years she has taught in the children’s psychiatric hospital at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. She is also the author of poetry and of a historical novel.

ReadWriteThink.org A-Z, Part 6

AtoZIn Part 5, we took a look at ReadWriteThink.org from S to W. In this post, we will cover X, Y, and Z.

X is for explain.

Almost all of the content published on ReadWriteThink.org is submitted from folks in the field.  We ask our authors to consider the audience as a novice teacher or substitute for your class. Therefore the authors spell out each step of the instructional plan with detailed descriptions and in the active voice. When in doubt, the authors fully explain their teaching idea.

Y is for you.

ReadWriteThink.org could not have had the success we have had since 2002 without the support from YOU – thank you!

Z is for zoo.

Can’t make it to a zoo? Observe animal habits and habitats using one of the many webcams broadcasting from zoos and aquariums around the United States and the world in this inquiry-based activity that focuses on observation logs, class discussion, questioning, and research. Students begin by viewing an animal webcam, making observations, and describing what they see in a notebook or log.

Thanks for sticking with us on this tour of ReadWriteThink.org! Please let us know if you have any questions.