What follows are two notes that Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick and I sent to an NCTE member pertaining to concerns raised about the location of our Annual Convention—and upcoming conventions. The member’s concern mirrors the concerns and, yes, fears so many of us have always had and growing numbers are having during this tumultuous time in our country—indeed around the world. After much reflection and conversation with each other, we deemed sharing our two responses helpful for the entirety of our membership, for the concerns expressed in this member’s email invited us to drill more deeply and substantively into what NCTE, with its members, really represents to students and teachers around the country—our English classrooms, PreK–graduate.
Through this sharing, Emily and I hope we all begin to remember, reflect, and perhaps even rethink the importance of what we, the National Council of Teachers of English members, do in classrooms. Ours is most certainly critical work—critical work that cannot be allowed to stop.
We move forward—always forward.
From Jocelyn A. Chadwick, NCTE President, August 14, 2017
[Member], I earnestly understand your anger, your passion, and your position. I also understand that in every state in our country and in most every city in our country, angst, anger, hatred, and disdain exist to the point of despair. Juxtaposed to all of this exist students, PreK-graduate, and educators who must live and deal in these environs. You know this, too.
To run away is no longer anyone’s choice: not NCTE, not MLA, RSA, ALA, ILA, PEN America—there are no safe, untouched havens, even if we don’t read about them in the news, or through statements the NAACP, La Raza, the Jewish League, Urban League, or the Human Rights Campaign elect to issue citing one specific instance or events. Teachers and students and communities exist everywhere that need to see us, hear us, believe that we are not deaf, nor frightened, nor unwilling to show our efforts and work for equality, equity, and ethics in the classroom—in all classrooms.
You cite hypocrisy. It would indeed be and has been hypocrisy for NCTE in the past not to go into these cities of controversy, just as the civil rights workers of the past walked, as did my own parents. They did not run, cancel, or hide. They moved forward, forward—talking, modeling, illustrating for me and everyone else around this country what equality, equity, and ethics looked like, stood for, and the price it would cost.
So, we move forward, toward the controversy, toward any controversy that affects children’s right to lifelong literacy and our teachers’ right and ability to teach them. While you and I live in a very privileged and unusual state, you and I both know that South Boston, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester seethe every single day with the very same anger, hatred, disdain, and violence we see and read about across the United States. Knowing this fact, however, does not keep me out of Dorchester or South Boston, Mississippi or Louisiana, or even East and West Texas (my home state), although I remain incredibly frightened each and every time I go into any of these spaces.
As a colleague on the NCTE Executive Committee recently inquired: ask any African American to be honest and say just where do you feel entirely safe and secure in the United States of America, what would you hear? From me, I can show you the KKK cards I have received from students, my journal entries detailing what I have been called, asked, when I’ve been closely monitored, and my experiences driving while black. So I get it.
I will not quit doing what I am doing, and nor should you. But you have choice. Again, I have no choice. At this time and at this juncture in the United States, if NCTE is going to be of any worth to any teacher and student in this country, it, too, has no choice.
We move forward. I earnestly hope you will move forward toward this controversy and the many yet to come, with us, with NCTE. But I will always respect your decision in whatever you choose to do.
From Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE Executive Director, August 14, 2017
Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. We value your forthrightness and take your concerns seriously.
Jocelyn’s response reiterates the policies of NCTE which drive our decision to stay in Missouri and to bring the values and principles of the organization to that space. If we have not done enough at our conventions to move the work of equity and civil rights forward, we need the wisdom of members like you to help us find new and better ways to do so. But now is not the time to retreat from that responsibility as an organization. We are living in a world that requires NCTE to show up and speak for what is right. Our teachers and students require that of us.
Your voice and your leadership are incredibly important to the work that lies ahead.
The members of NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias have felt an urgency since we each joined the committee to stand against racism and bias. We have been working on ways to encourage each member of NCTE to speak out against the systemic and individual acts of racism that disenfranchise our students in and out of the classroom.
We know that racism exists in our classrooms and in our communities. We feel that silence on these issues is complicity in the systemic racism that has marred our educational system. We see no place for neutrality and urge each member of NCTE to educate as many people as possible about the ways that systemic racism affects all of us in negative ways.
There is no apolitical classroom. English language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression. In light of the horrific events in this country that continue to unfold, and the latest terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia, we would like to share resources that we hope will encourage all NCTE members to speak out against the racism and bias that have been a part of our nation’s fabric since the first immigrants disembarked from European ships.
Our Action Subcommittee has been working this year on creating classroom resources for teachers to use as statements of love and support. Printable classroom posters and bookmarks for NCTE members will be available at the 2017 Annual Convention, as well as available for download after Convention. Until then, we offer this incomplete resource to help continue the daily work that is antiracism. Please share other resources in the comment box below.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Raising Race Conscious Children
“A resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. The goals of these conversations are to dismantle the color-blind framework and prepare young people to work toward racial justice.”
Resources for Teaching in These Times On June 14, 2016, in response to the Orlando shootings, NCTE began collecting teaching resources from its members that continue to build in relevance given the ongoing struggles and critical conversations taking place across the country.
White Fragility, Anti-Racist Pedagogy, and the Weight of History From Black Perspectives by Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella, July 27, 2017
“One cannot begin to comprehend the relationship between race and racism without historical investigation. A historically-grounded anti-racist pedagogy, rather than a psychologically-oriented one, allows us to see US society ‘in the act of inventing race.’”
Resources for Understanding White Supremacy
Southern Poverty Law Center “The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”
Ten Ways to Fight Hate “Ten Ways to Fight Hate, which has been updated for 2017, sets out 10 principles for taking action, including how to respond to a hate rally that has targeted your town. It urges people not to engage white supremacists at their rallies. Instead, it offers tips for creating alternative rallies to promote peace, inclusion and justice.”
Oath and Opposition: Education under the Third Reich
“The Museum has developed . . . materials . . . to help today’s educators explore the pressures teachers felt under the Nazi regime, the range of decisions individuals made in the face of those pressures, and the relevance of this history now.” (This rich resource includes a number of case studies you could use with your classes.)
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) “Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is our nation’s premier civil rights/human relations organization. We have a distinguished history of reminding the world just how tenuous civil rights are and we mobilize people to engage in reasonable discourse as together we find solutions to serve our diverse society.” See their website’s extensive Education & Resources section as well as their definition and historical explanation of anti-Semitism.
Antisemitism and the Bystander Effect
“Students will watch testimonies from survivors of and witnesses to historical and contemporary antisemitism who describe the consequences of the bystander effect in their own lives. Students will construct a social media message for the #BeginsWithMe campaign that describes their own plan to counter bystander behavior.”
100 Days to Inspire Respect “At a time of heightened political uncertainty and polarization, middle and high school teachers are in need of easy-to-use resources that encourage their students to grapple with some of the most difficult but important topics: hate, racism, intolerance and xenophobia. ‘100 Days to Inspire Respect’ provides educators with 100 thought-provoking resources that tackle these challenging topics and more.”
The Charlottesville Syllabus “The Charlottesville Syllabus is a resource created by the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation to be used to educate readers about the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia. With resources selected and summaries written by UVa graduate students, this abridged version of the Syllabus is organized into six sections that offer contemporary and archival primary and secondary sources (articles, books, responses, a documentary, databases) and a list of important terms for discussing white supremacy.”
7 Ways Teachers Can Respond to the Evil of Charlottesville, Starting Now By Xian Franzinger Barrett, AlterNet “As teachers, our job is not solely to pour mathematics, science, language arts or any other knowledge into the heads of our students. It is our duty to our profession, to our society and to the students to lovingly teach them to learn and grow as complete humans.”
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) “The People’s Institute believes that racism is the primary barrier preventing communities from building effective coalitions and overcoming institutionalized oppression and inequities. Through Undoing Racism®/Community Organizing Workshops, technical assistance and consultations, The People’s Institute helps individuals, communities, organizations and institutions move beyond addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of racism so as to create a more just and equitable society.”
Don’t Be a Sucker – 1947
“In this anti-fascist film produced by [the] US Military in the wake of WWII, the producers deconstruct the politically motivated social engineering of Germany by the Nazi regime.”
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards “The Social Justice Standards are a road map for anti-bias education at every stage of K–12 instruction. Comprised of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes, the Standards provide a common language and organizational structure educators can use to guide curriculum development and make schools more just and equitable.”
Articles and Other Readings
How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy From Facing History and Ourselves by Stacey Perlman
“Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi started the student-run organization, CHOOSE, to overcome racism and inspire harmony through exposure, education, and empowerment. This led them to collaborate with Princeton University on The Classroom Index, a textbook devoted to racial literacy.”
How America Is Failing Native American Students From The Nation by Rebecca Clarren
“When the United States signed its treaties with the Indian tribes, stripping them of their land, it promised to provide public services—including education—to tribal members in perpetuity. ‘For too long, the federal leadership has failed to honor that sacred pledge, leaving generations of Native children behind,’ said Washington State Senator John McCoy, a citizen of the Tulalip tribe and a national leader in Native education reform. ‘Institutionalized assimilation and racism remain embedded within our public schools.’”
I remember books, those stacks of printed paper held in place with a decorative cover. I remember hearing the crack of the spine as I opened a new novel, sinking my nose in between the pages to relish that “new book” scent. My bookcases are stacked with these friends, old and new. I even tote hundreds of them around on my smartphone. I’m ashamed to admit it has been a while since I’ve read any of them.
English professionals advocate reading literature, but according to a Pew report, more than one-quarter of Americans have not read a book in the last year. Could you be one of them?
Here are seven motivational tips and links to help you venture into the land of FLOW and give your brain the reenergizing it needs.
Make a reading appointment. Carve out a specific time during your day to read. Don’t feel defeated if changing up your routine feels like climbing Mt. Everest. One time of the day that is beneficial for reading is just before bed. Reading at night is purported to help you sleep better. However, using technology can be problematic and hinder your brain’s production of melatonin. Keep the bright light out of your eyes and swap the phone for a book and a book light.
Create your own reading zone. So you have found some time and are ready to make that commitment. An inviting chair along with a side table for your latte, a comfy throw for cool nights, and a bookshelf to hold your literary quests will make it easier to escape your hectic routine for the time travel and adventure in the Outlander.
Can’t decide on what to read? Try some Retail Therapy. Visit the public library and local bookstores to peruse their displays. Creative displays and enticing covers may inspire you to select the “just right” book for your return journey into reading. Creative designer Derek Murphy blogs about publishing and writes about the influence of book cover designs.
Subscribe to Bookbub for daily e-book recommendations. It’s a great way to delve into the guilty pleasures of reading a murder mystery or high fantasy on the weekends. With one click you can download your e-book and commence reading.
Goal oriented?Get motivated with the same methods you use to motivate your students. Many public libraries provide reading programs and incentive items like the Reading Bingo Card produced by the San Rafael [California] Public Library. Gain knowledge and wisdom and explore a genre you’ve never read before.
Phone your friends. With all your newfound book savvy, why go it alone? Start a book club with your colleagues, neighbors, or family members. Oprah’s televised book club inspired millions. Inspire other teachers and be a model for students. Take a page from Oprah and see the best books from Oprah’s book club.
Return to the familiar. What better time to reread a favorite novel from years past? Rereading a book is not like watching a TV rerun, where the scenes are the same. Each time you reread a novel, you are reinterpreting that story through the lenses of your many experiences since your first read. Pull out that old copy of Catcher in the Rye and see what Holden Caulfield is up to these days.
If you are absolutely stretched for time, fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, and all the comfy chairs in your home have been hijacked by your pets, you have another option: get your daily read on by reading to your students.
The New York Times put together a list of recommendations for read-alouds. Commit to reading aloud to your students each day. No matter their ages or your place in the pacing guide, reserving time each day to share a phenomenal book will not only inspire your students, but you will reap the benefits as well.
Susan R. Wagner obtained her PhD in reading from the University of Tennessee. She is assistant professor of education and teaches literacy and instructional methods courses in the Carter and Moyers School of Education for Lincoln Memorial University.
The month of August typically signifies the last few weeks of summer before students and teachers return to school. Encourage family relationship building by participating in family activities throughout the month of August. Here are some suggestions!
Wild and Crazy Words
Make writing a little “wild and crazy” by ditching the pen and paper and using unique materials that will make your kids really smile while they’re having fun.
Explore and Write About Nature
In this activity, children look closely at living things in their natural environments and then make books about what they see.
Education was not my forte. Given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.
While in Teachers’ College at the University of Ottawa, I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them who would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, Leonard Cohen had nothing to do with it. I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.
The teacher who came to mind was Kevin Gildea, my university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton College, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney, and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Bakunin could influence how I read. The CanLit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and soul crushing. Whoa.
Of course, there was no course for this at Teachers College. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable, and out of their depth.
I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put the puzzle together. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.
My job as a teacher, it would seem, is to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.
The question is, am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?
Yes, it’s true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, Marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that’s what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multidimensional characters into a small, limited, concrete definition of a hero. You know the one I mean—a good person who does the right thing.
Then I introduced them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for a character like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Watchmen’s Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students—those “innocent” young minds—loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could reach in an English class. When I discussed the choice of essays with the students later in the semester, they used words like scary, but afterward, one student said, “I am really proud of myself.” Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.
Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper on a less complex topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70 percent and gone home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud.”
What about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay in the shallow water? Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average, marks. If you are like I was in high school, you will be fine. But if you are like I was in university, you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and learn to navigate the waves of challenge.
The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear, they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need them.
Tom O’Connor plunges into the battery-smoke while waging war on the five-paragraph essay. He is also the Assistant Department Head of English at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.