“How long does this need to be?”

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 



“How long does this need to be?”

When students ask this question, my first instinct is always to refuse to reply. My reaction stems not from annoyance or frustration that students are inquiring about length requirements, but rather because most of the time my honest response would be “I’m not sure.” When I ask my students to write, I’m not looking for them to write a certain number of paragraphs or pages; I’m asking them to express themselves, to communicate ideas or opinions in a way that shows a developing understanding of grammar and syntax, tone and style. Putting a length guideline on such a request feels to me like it changes the goal of the assignment. I want them to write to explain themselves or their thoughts, not to achieve a certain number of words on the page.

As much as I try to avoid giving students length requirements, I’ve also come to understand that my default response of “Write until you feel you’ve told your story” doesn’t quite resonate the same way for every student. When I generate an assignment, length is usually an afterthought, and cliché though it may be, “quality over quantity” is indeed the guiding rule I want my students to adhere to as they write. This rule works for me, an adult who has had countless opportunities to play around with writing requirements, who can mentally map out the structure of a piece of writing before ever putting pencil to paper, but to them it feels frustratingly vague, as if I’m tricking them. And the truth is, as much as I struggle to articulate how long a piece of writing should be, I do know when a student has written too much or too little. So of course it’s understandable that my classes would inquire about my expectations for a specific assignment.

My goal has become striking a balance between respecting their developmentally appropriate desire for guidelines and my own concern that parameters might stunt or distract from creative expression. I have come to realize that leaving an assignment too open-ended is counterproductive—it gives some students the impression that they needn’t edit their work at all, and leaves others feeling anxious and unsure, two major enemies of generating writing. I still tend to shy away from word and page requirements, which feel rigid and impersonal, but find that offering students a range (for example, 3–5 paragraphs) offers a middle ground that leaves everyone feeling comfortable. This approach also opens up great opportunities for mini-lessons on various writing skills including prewriting planning, efficiency of language, adding specific detail, and focusing on main ideas or those that move a narrative or argument forward.

In recent years, as I’ve incorporated more writing-to-learn practices into my classroom, a new solution to this challenge has arisen and taken hold. Formal writing assignments are still accompanied by graphic organizers and group discussions that give students a sense of how much they should write, but short writing responses are quantified differently. I might pose a question about a class novel and ask for 5–7 sentences, but more often, I share a writing prompt and let my students know they have 10 minutes (or 5, or 15) to respond to it. The first go at this always produces a bit of anxiety for some students, but soon our classroom becomes a place where writing is an exercise in thinking and self-expression, in considering ideas and questions and putting them down in complete sentences. The end goal moves away from “Is this long enough?” and toward “Does my writing say what I wanted it to?”

This low-stakes (i.e., non-graded) writing strengthens students’ more formal writing while also discouraging them from thinking too rigidly about how long a piece should be, and instead focusing them more on what they want to express and communicate to a reader. The time limits I give are flexible and ever-changing, so if after 10 minutes students are still feverishly scrawling or typing, I know that they need more time. Conversely, if after three minutes I see idle hands and wandering eyes, I know my class is ready to share out their work and move on to a new prompt. The beauty is that some students write more, others less, but all end up developing a confidence in their own voice.

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.

My Students and Reading

This blog is written by NCTE student member Evelyn Begody. 

Several high school students are pictured on campus, sitting on a concrete planter as they collaborate on a project. Girls and boys are alternating, some looking at digital tablets, others looking down at papers or laptops. Only two of the students appear to be talking.

September 23 is Native American Day in three states. While these states commemorate it on that day, every day is Native American Day for me since I teach on the Navajo Nation. I teach mainly sophomores: sophomores who don’t see the importance of reading, sophomores who sometimes sleep in class, sophomores who come to school without a backpack, sophomores who bring their phones but forget about paper and pens, sophomores who have one or both parent(s) absent, sophomores who read five or more years below their grade level.

As I write this, I have Yanabah Jaques, a junior at Brown University, presenting to my students on how to be a successful student, not just for college, but also in high school. She lists a few alarming reading facts, but the one that stands out is that by the age of three, the disparity of 30 million words exists between the most affluent and the poorest children. Another is the correlation between low-level readers and the incarceration rate. By the time, Yanabah finishes her presentation, she has shown that reading is essential to communication and socioeconomic success.

Yanabah is my former student and an alumna of Window Rock High School. Armed with these facts, I have emphasized reading to such a degree that I even get tired of citing the stats. Despite that, I know I create a difference. I have seen students increase their reading levels and noticed an increase in motivation and grades. And, I hope that this growth will open opportunity for post-secondary decisions.

Evelyn Begody, in her 22nd year of teaching high school English on the Navajo Nation, devotes much time to reading and writing. She loves hiking, Greek salads, her four children, her husband, and reading—but not in that order, of course.

For other resources, please visit the following:

Gorlewski, Julie and David Gorlewski. EJ September Sneak Preview: Native Feminist Texts.” Literacy & NCTE, 8 Sept. 2016

Gorlewski, Julie and David Gorlewski, editors. English Journal, Vol. 106, No. 1, September 2016


A Forum for the Contingent Teacher

The following post is by NCTE member Amy Lynch-Biniek and editor of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty

Amy Lynch-BiniekI’m lucky—I have a secure tenure-track position as a Composition professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.  For ten years previous, I worked as an adjunct professor. I was part-time, picking up classes where I could. At first, I was supplementing my income as a secondary education English teacher: I’d guide 9th graders through Romeo and Juliet by day, and teach college freshmen Othello at night. Later, I decided to pursue college teaching full-time, but as I worked on my Ph.D., it became clear to me that “full time” was going to be hard to come by. Again, I got lucky: graduates hoping to become professors soon discover the odds are stacked against them.

In an era beset by austerity measures, teachers from elementary to post-secondary are competing for fewer positions. Writing on FiveThirtyEight, Ben Casselman shares the sobering news that on the secondary level, “As millions of children across the country head back to school this month, they will be returning to schools with fewer teachers than in past years. Those teachers will be paid less, on average. And many of them will be working in school systems that receive less funding.”  The news is no better for those of us in higher ed: as states have slashed budgets, more and more tenure-track professors have disappeared along with the funding.

As the number of permanent positions dwindles, the number of adjunct positions is on the rise—an estimated 75% of professors nationwide now work on some form of contingent contract. English departments are sadly at the forefront of this trend. Whether called adjunct, visiting, or temporary, these faculty are less likely to have health insurance, to take part in curriculum planning, and to enjoy academic freedom. While the persistent stereotype of a college professor is a tweed-wearing, Volvo-driving, upper-middle class man, the average adjunct teacher is a woman pulling in just $2,987 per three-credit course. Many profs are on public assistance.

The NCTE peer-reviewed journal Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty is dedicated to considering how these conditions impact both teachers and students. Contributors explore what it means to teach writing, literature, and communication under this system. They analyze the effects of ongoing reforms and propose new approaches. They are making some much needed noise. Forum is one of the very few publications in English dedicated to shining a light on the concerns of contingent faculty, and NCTE makes it free to access via our website.

As the editor of Forum, I’m especially excited to mentor adjunct, graduate, and junior scholars with an interest in the intersections of English studies, pedagogy, and labor. If you have an idea for an article, I hope you’ll drop me a line: @amylynchbiniek on Twitter or lynchbin@kutztown.edu.

It’s easy for us teachers to feel overwhelmed in the face of so many challenges. But I’m convinced by the excellent work of organizations like The New Faculty Majority and many others around the country that we can make a difference when we keep writing back, speaking up, and acting up.  Join me in making some noise!

Amy Lynch-Biniek is the Coordinator of Composition and an associate professor of Composition at Kutztown University, part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. She is the current editor of Forum: Issues about Part-Time & Contingent Faculty.

For the Love of Reading

The BBC’s #LovetoRead campaign officially culminates in #lovetoread  weekend on November 5-6. But, this week, the week before Banned Books Week seems  like the right time to remember why we love to read.

This Brain Pickings’ article on why we read shares what several famous people have found important about reading:

“Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers.  For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”;  Carl Sagan held them as“proof that humans are capable of working magic”; James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, they stood as our ultimate frontier of freedom.

But Neil Gaiman in his speech to The Reading Agency in 2013, shares, perhaps, one of the most quoted answers to the question of why reading is important for everyone:

“[E]verything changes when we read…Fiction …[is] a gateway drug to reading…I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children…We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy…And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy…You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed…Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

This—along with all your reasons you #lovetoread—is why we must keep reading ourselves and why we must keep children reading—all sorts of books, even books that feature difficult topics and gut-grabbing content, books that someone objects to.

Beginning this Sunday, September 25, look for a week-long blog review of topics about our right to read. These blogs honor the 2016 Banned Books Week and its focus on diversity in literature.

Literary Theory’s Potential in Secondary ELA Classrooms

This post is by NCTE member Cody Miller. 

Cody Miller

An English professor I had as an undergraduate gave the best justification for understanding and using literary theory I’ve ever heard: “Theory explains how and why things work.”

Like many English majors before me, I spent hours learning and applying theories from feminist to post-colonial, from Marxist to New Historicism. Literary theory is the bread and butter for English majors. Unfortunately, literary theory has not become a fundamental part of secondary English language arts education in the United States, despite its rich potential for helping students develop perspective-taking capacities. I think that should change, and I am not alone.

Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English is a seminal text in guiding secondary students to apply theory to texts both in the classroom and in their lives at-large. Appleman, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, has spent a significant part of her career dedicated to helping English teachers craft theory-focused curriculum in secondary classrooms. I read her book during a doctoral seminar, and immediately incorporated her work into my English Honors I curriculum. The results from my students’ work and thinking have been more than impressive!

A culminating project at the end of my de-tracked English Honors I course is to select a literary theory and apply it to a text we read throughout the year. The project requires students to reassess their original interpretation of a text, whether it be a whole-class read like Romeo and Juliet or Persepolis or a literature-circle pick like Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel or Mexican Whiteboy.

I believe the prominence of feminist popular cultural artifacts like Beyonce’s music and the television shows Parks and Recreations and Orange is the New Black cause feminist theory to remain the most popular theory for my students. Regardless of text or theory, students learn to be explicit about their theoretical orientation in their analysis. Frequently, students reassess their original interpretation of a text. For instance, one student came to see the belligerent behavior of Rowdy, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as an extreme manifestation of masculinity. Last year, students noted how femininity was punished in Lord of the Flies, whether it be through the absence of women or the tragic fate of Simon.

After rereading their text, students then take their theory and look at a news event through that lens. The ideological messages implicitly embedded throughout all forms of media become clearer when students have literary theory as their guide. Students come to see how dominant narratives of race and gender are constructed in film and television. Conversations about the role language plays in reporting on male and female political candidates enter the classroom. Messages relating to class and value in music become central to how students listen to their favorite artists. Students come to see connections between how we read literature and how we read the world around us. In other words, students fulfill Paulo Freire’s desire for being able to read the word and the world.

We know that knowledge is not objective; what is consider “right” and “common sense” are often manifestation of dominant cultural values and norms. Using literary theory with fiction and nonfiction alike helps students articulate and confront their own belief system in analyzing the world around them. When literary theory is taught to students as a framework for understanding the broader sociocultural realities students experience, then theory is not a form of academic esoteria. Rather, literary theory becomes a vehicle for students to adopt and implement new perspectives on a similar topic.

Deborah Appleman makes this point persuasively in her book. Thanks to her work, I’ve been able to make it central to my literature instruction. I would like more English teachers to adopt theoretical perspectives in their instruction because I’ve come to see that literary theory helps students understand that texts and life are complex and nuanced, and there is rarely one right answer.

Cody Miller teaches ninth-grade English Language Arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K12 laboratory school. He can be reached at cmiller@pky.ufl.edu or on Twitter @CodyMillerPKY.