This year, I’m giving my students a clean slate.

It is so tempting to center ourselves in our work as teachers.

It makes sense why this might happen. As an old friend of mine says, “We make the work, we do the work, we grade the work.” We stay in our own classrooms, or now, as COVID may have it, behind our own screens, as our students rotate in and out, traversing a broader educational landscape and navigating the complexities of their lives beyond school.

I’m sometimes guilty of thinking…

By Karla Hilliard

It is so tempting to center ourselves in our work as teachers. 

It makes sense why this might happen. As an old friend of mine says, “We make the work, we do the work, we grade the work.” We stay in our own classrooms, or now, as COVID may have it, behind our own screens, as our students rotate in and out, traversing a broader educational landscape and navigating the complexities of their lives beyond school. 

I’m sometimes guilty of thinking…

Well, kids are kids. 

I’ve done this job long enough to know how this will go. 

This worked great last year. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. 

As long as you stay out of my hair today, we’re good. 

And even on occasion, 

I’ve taught students like you before. I know your type. 

‘I’ve taught students like you before. I know your type.’ A dangerous thought. A thought that strips students of their identities and their lived experiences. 

I’ll share with you a conversation I had recently with my mom about my late brother, a descriptor that still makes me sick and dizzy. 

Let me backwards map for a minute. My brother and only sibling, Bradley, died at 25 from a heroin overdose. He was smart and fun and hilarious and a true thrill seeker. He was also difficult and challenging. As a teenager, he got hooked on the prescription pills that flooded our communities and sparked the opioid crisis. He was an adolescent who made one wrong move, and then another, until it changed the trajectory of his life. 

Before that, Bradley was just a boy in school. A sweet, wild little boy, who loved camp and football and big trucks and video games. He called me Sissy. But school was not easy for him, and it was not a place he ever felt he belonged. He was incredibly bright and social, but also impulsive and defensive. His armor went on fast with his friends, his teachers, and his family. He could be maddeningly stubborn, and he struggled to harness his excessive energy in healthy ways. The people in his life who thought they knew better would often remark on this part of his personality. Their “be better and follow the rules” bootstrapping mentality simply did not and does not work. 

When Bradley was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, school was not always a friendly environment for a child or a parent of a child like Bradley. The typical response to his struggles from administrators and teachers, particularly towards his behavior: medication, discipline, exclusion. From early on, Bradley was labeled a defiant troublemaker, who talked too much and couldn’t control himself. 

What I’m saying is: the labels assigned to my brother and the ways in which he was characterized by his teachers as a 5, 6, and 7 year old child followed him the rest of his days as a student. It took away his power, and it altered the way he saw himself, whether his teachers knew it or not. 

My mom and I have visited this conversation many times over the years—oftentimes to make sense of the emptiness and burden we now carry, but since his death in late 2018, it has taken on a new meaning for me as a teacher. 

This story I tell about my brother is not for sympathy; rather, a jarring reminder that our students deserve our grace and humanity. 

Teaching in the time of COVID-19 presents a million obstacles and challenges to teachers. I am there with you, in the trenches of hybrid teaching, masked and managing new and difficult tasks I’ve never before faced, and exhausted by outrage. This summer, in what would have ordinarily been precious headspace for personal reading, professional development, and the exciting turn of a fresh page for a new year, I watched as our communities turned on us, accusing teachers of being lazy whiners who should quiet down and do their jobs, while our government used teachers, students, and their families as political pawns, eroding the trust and invaluable partnerships between us. COVID teaching is unlike teaching in any other school year. 

But what remains unchanged is what our students need and require from us, no matter our circumstances or our county’s COVID color. 

Our students deserve a clean slate. They deserve a fresh start, loved and unlabeled. They deserve a safe space to be seen, heard, and valued. They deserve kindness and respect. They deserve instruction that meets them where they are and is relevant to their lives. Our students deserve a school and system that embraces their needs and challenges, helps them cope with complex emotions, and commits to mentoring them, even the difficult ones, so they grow, find success, and know hope. I wish this is the experience Bradley had. 

As I meet my new students this year, their faces half concealed with questions in their eyes, I remember my brother. I commit to learning, knowing, and understanding the individuals behind the masks—the joy and pain they carry, and I strive to make a space where they can lay down their armor. I want to quiet the voice that says, ‘I know the type.’ 

This year, I’m giving my students a clean slate. I hope to empower them to reclaim their power, rewrite the stories others have told about them, and to tell their own stories. 

Karla Hilliard is the Co-Director of WVCTE, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School, and a co-founder of More Than Addiction, a storytelling project that seeks to humanize addiction.

Distance Learning & Rumbling with Discomfort

I’ve been thinking a lot about something my maw-maw used to say.

These near five weeks of social distancing and wobbly online learning have reminded me of how I sometimes felt as a new mom—that overwhelming frustration and resignation when the baby would whine and cry and fuss without end.

If we were having a day like this, my new baby squirming out of my arms in supreme dissatisfaction, Maw-maw would nudge me, in the way only a grandmother can and say, “Well honey, how do you feel when you’re tired or hungry? You’re not very happy either.”

By Karla Hilliard

I’ve been thinking a lot about something my maw-maw used to say. 

These five-going-on-six weeks of social distancing and wobbly online learning have reminded me of how I sometimes felt as a new mom—the overwhelming frustration and resignation when the baby would whine, cry, and fuss without end. 

If we were having a day like this, my new baby squirming out of my arms in supreme dissatisfaction, Maw-maw would nudge me, in the way only a grandmother can and say, “Well honey, how do you feel when you’re tired or hungry? You’re not very happy either.” 

I’m not here to talk about the heroic acts of teachers. You already know. I’d bet that you’re doing some heroic deeds yourself. 

I’m here to talk about squirming in supreme discomfort. 

Before we go any further, I’ve got to tell you that I’m a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown, whose work has informed some of my reflections in this post. She has a new podcast out called Unlocking Us and on the first episode Brené talks about something she calls FFTs or F-ing First Times. As a social scientist who studies emotions, Brené always seems to capture the really messy stuff in a clear, “I feel seen” way. In short, the FFT is about fear of the first times and the vulnerability that follows and is required to become braver. Listen to this brilliant first episode and then go here to read Brené’s encouraging follow up where she talks about teaching, distance learning, and parenting. 

And while my timelines and inbox have blown up with advertisements for free digital teaching resources, newly unlocked features, virtual tours and tutorials, and offers to “enhance” my teaching, and while I appreciate all that is now suddenly free and available, I have found myself squirming. Or, to borrow Brené’s language, “rumbling.” 

In a single day, I’ll feel like I’ve nailed distance learning and created authentic opportunities for students to enrich their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, but also possibly completely failed. 

I’ll feel connected to my students, colleagues, and friends, and at once feel totally alone. I’ll look at my children and think, “man, somebody ought to name me Mother of the Year” and throw a bouquet of flowers at me, and the next moment wring my hands over all of the many ways I am probably screwing them up for good. I’ll go on a five mile walk today and take up residence as a near permanent feature on the couch tomorrow. I’ll have brussel sprouts for dinner and chocolate cake for breakfast. The quarantine pendulum swings. 

And I’ve accepted it. I am rumbling with the discomfort, and I am seeking, always, the ordinary moments that make life joyful and meaningful.   

Teaching during a global pandemic is unprecedented and revealing, and the conversations happening as a result are difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary. They are issues we must face and rumble with. Perhaps you, too, have recently stumbled your way through frustration, resignation, fear, anxiety, acceptance, meaning, and even gratitude. Or perhaps you’re like me and you run the emotional gamut daily. 

Like Adrin, I’m learning. The past five weeks of parenting and teaching and living have forced me to do some internal work. And I am the most called by the following: 

  • Effective teaching is not a hustle, and comparison and perfectionism are unhealthy and unproductive.
  • Dr. Adam Jordan said what we’re doing isn’t distance learning; it’s “triage teaching” and I think he’s right. 
  • Distance learning shines a light on inequity that has always been there, and, if we were looking the other way, we cannot continue to do so. We cannot back-burner the conversation and treat equity as a one and done, plug and play PD. 
  • Teaching is hard and important, but so is every other job, and this pandemic has crystallized that.
  • Connection and community make us whole. 
  • We can’t expect students to behave, work, participate, communicate, and learn as if things are normal. Nothing is normal right now. 

There’s more, but the list above represents the endless loop of internal dialogue challenging me, asking me to rumble with discomfort, and helping me to find a path forward with more compassion and perspective.

It gets me thinking about my maw-maw and her question that would gently nudge me out of my own frustration and discomfort, “How do you feel when…?” 

WVCTE is wondering how you’re doing…how are you feeling? What are you rumbling with? Now more than ever, we are one another’s greatest resource.

Speaking of, if you have an idea for a post, a great activity or no fail lesson, if you have words of wisdom or a reflection you’d like to send into the world, drop us a line by email at wvcte15@gmail.com.

WVCTE Excellence in Teaching Award

WVCTE believes teachers do the most important work anywhere. And in West Virginia, we want to honor you.

Applications are now open for the WVCTE Excellence in Teaching Award. Celebrate your work!

Share with colleagues and consider applying.

Our mentor Bob Dandoy, WVCTE’s Obi-Wan, retired educator and affiliate leader for the PA Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA), former Region 2 Representative for NCTE’s Standing Committee on Affiliates and now Butler City, PA Council member, once said teachers should toot their own horns and celebrate their education and achievements. Bob is a teacher’s teacher, and he firmly believes in the expertise of educators. And he believes that expertise should be shared and celebrated.

And I agree. There are so many incredible teachers I work with/have worked with who are deserving of praise and recognition for making the impossible possible with their students.

Just this week I received an email from our school’s Family and Consumer Sciences teacher, who runs a professional-scale cafe with our students during the school day, and her enthusiasm is infectious. “Working with yeast is my jam!” she exclaimed when describing this week’s menu. These are the things that remind me how special teachers are and the talent and joy they bring to our young people.

I’m betting you know a teacher like this. I’d say there’s a good chance you are a teacher like this—one whose enthusiasm, expertise, dedication, and commitment to students and learning is infectious.

If this sounds like you or someone you know, let’s celebrate this important work.

Applications are now open for the WVCTE Excellence in Teaching Award. We have had a tremendous pool of nominees and finalists these past two years, and have awarded two extraordinary West Virginia teachers: Tia Miller of Chapmanville Regional High School, and Andrew Carroll of Elkins High School the WVCTE Excellence in Teaching Award.

Winners receive $100.00 and a pretty sweet engraved glass apple and are recognized at our annual awards luncheon at our state conference WVELA, co-sponsored by NWP@WVU.

Applications are simple. All you need to submit is an updated CV, a 2-page teaching philosophy, and 2 letters of reference. GO HERE to share this opportunity with colleagues or to submit your application.

WVCTE believes teachers do the most important work anywhere. And in West Virginia, we want to honor you.

Applications are due by Monday, March 2. Finalists will be notified by Monday, March 16, and the winner will be announced at the awards luncheon at WVELA20.

Celebrate your work! Share with colleagues and consider applying. Do what Bob Dandoy says…toot your own horn and celebrate the work you do with students each and every day.

A Love Letter to Poetry

I am about to tell you how I became a teacher.

I became a teacher because for either the most naive or idealistic reason, but probably a combination of the two. It is because of poetry.

I love it. Love it with a sustaining, carry my favorite collections as holy, memorizing poems to give myself the shivers at will love.

By Karla Hilliard

I am about to tell you how I became a teacher. 

I became a teacher for either the most naive or idealistic reasons, but probably a combination of the two. It is because of poetry. 

I love it. Love it with a sustaining, carry my favorite collections as holy, memorizing poems to give myself the shivers at will love. 

This is a true story. When I was in Miss Smithson’s 2nd grade class at Hurricane Town Elementary, our reading textbook had a poem in it called “My Dog.” Tiny me was so taken by this little rhyming ditty, I memorized the whole thing. Want to hear it? It goes…

“My Dog” by Author Unknown (by the author of this blog post) 

He didn’t bark at anything

A cat, a bird, a piece of string

A siren or a silly toad

A pickup truck along the road

A fence, a bone, a chewed up shoe

He barked because he wanted to

Poetry! 

I grew up in a home with books. When I was a child, my mom read to me. She was wonderful that way. But I didn’t grow up with poetry books. Bible verses were about as close as I got or music. My dad is a music guy, and he did his part to model how to adequately freak out over beautiful, resonate lines and lyrics. When we’re together now and in a listening mood, we still sometimes compare our goose pimply arms at a turn of phrase. 

In 7th grade, in another textbook, I encountered the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and I thought it was really something. And in the 12th grade, it was all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the very back of my very heavy literature book. 

I had a great job that year at a Baskin Robbins tucked inside of a BP gas station, and during the cold winter months, the store was totally dead. I had the green booths all to myself with the occasional, satisfying bing of a register. But in pre-social media teenage existence, I had to figure out on my own how to get unbored. On a particularly empty and snowy evening at work, I took out the one book I had: the literature textbook. That night, I read words I understood strung together in an order I didn’t. I found them intensely beautiful. 

And I wanted more. 

I had no idea what to do with my life so I majored in English. One incredibly influential professor (and poet), Jim Harms at West Virginia University, introduced another universe of poetry and writing to me. In his workshop class, I had to write poems (cringe), I had to read a bunch of poetry and talk about craft and structure and meaning, and I had to attend a reading. A what? A reading! Lucky me. It was a poet named Terrance Hayes and he had a new book out called Hip Logic. 

Poetry had me. And I had poetry. But I had no idea what to do with an English degree. So I chose teaching. 

I wish I could tell you that from a young age I knew teaching was my destiny, or that really, I wanted to teach “for the kids.” I didn’t know of any destinies that needed manifesting, and I didn’t not like kids. I was a coach and camp counselor and a big sister to a much younger sibling. This is a secret, but “the kids” are not the reason I ended up becoming a teacher. 

It was poetry. 

And while naive, wonderfully so I think, I wanted to share poetry with people. In this part of the story, the people I’d be sharing it with was destined. In 2005, I walked into my own classroom for the first time and the first unit I planned on my own was modeled after my favorite classes. We read, we wrote, we workshopped. I had no idea if I was teaching standards, but I did what worked for me and what moved my students.

I have always worked hard to help students discover poetry, their own favorite poets, the poems that will make them shake their heads and leave them in awe. 

Fast forward 15 years, and the most important discovery I’ve made is that contemporary poetry is a key that unlocks this door for students. 

I have found a kindred spirit in the #TeachLivingPoets founder, friend, and colleague, Melissa Smith. Her infectious enthusiasm and passion for contemporary poetry propels me forward and empowers me to experiment, share, and grow just what it means to be a poetry teacher and the ways in which poetry moves students in authentic and exciting ways. 

Today, I live out these shared core beliefs of the #TeachLivingPoets community in my classroom: 

  1. We seek to get poetry into the hands of students.
  2. We seek to complicate the canon, to open the door wider of which poems are taught in the classroom.
  3. We seek to provide students with poetry that reflects their identities, backgrounds, and present circumstances.
  4. We seek to expose students to new ideas and to people who are different than them.
  5. We seek to uplift the voices of BIPOC poets, LBGTQ+ poets, and poets with disabilities.
  6. We seek to celebrate the arts in schools, especially poetry.
  7. We seek to empower students’ voices through reading and writing poetry.

One of the tenets of Teach Living Poets is putting poetry into the hands of our students and connecting them to real, living, available writers.

My school’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I co-coordinate (like most things, WVCTE for example) with my teaching partner and colleague, Jessica Salfia, is growing into a day long festival and celebration of art, poetry, and writing. 

This year, we welcomed guest judges and poets José Olivarez and Keegan Lester for our competition and a performance and Q&A for and with our students. 

For this poetry celebration day, we held our school POL competition, with 15 students—9th through 12th graders—reciting and performing poetry. We heard poems by Robert Hayden, Jamaal May, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nikki Giovanni, William Shakespeare, and Hanif Abdurraqib (who we were extremely fortunate to host last year as our guest poet), among many others. 

Our students had the opportunity to attend a reading. A what? A reading! They also engaged in a Q&A with our two guest poets, and got an education different in both kind and degree. They learned from two real writers about writing. 

You can read more about this day here, where the winner and an extraordinary student I’m lucky to call my own, Rheá Ming says of her performance poem “For the Dogs Who Barked At Me on the Sidewalks in Connecticut” by Hanif Abdurraqib, “I think the content of the poem spoke to me as far as finding an identity.” 

I could go on…

But the thing I’ll leave you with is not just my own devotion and love to poetry, but why it matters now that it’s taken me 15 years into a career that has changed and shaped my life, and I hope the lives of some of the students I’ve had the privilege of teaching. 

Poetry can speak to us, for us, and about us. Poetry gives us solace—we turn to it in our most difficult and darkest times, but also in times of great love and joy. It asks and answers questions; it places demands on us. Poetry ain’t easy. Neither is living.

I want this for students—this beautiful and challenging grappling with language and ideas, and when they find themselves, their questions, their struggles, identities, and desires in a poem, we have done something together that transcends any standards or exam. We have done life work. 

One young man Michael said just yesterday of José Olivarez, “I didn’t know this is what poetry could be.” 

Thank you poetry. I love you. 

For lessons, activities, reviews, and inspiration, make sure to visit http://www.teachlivingpoets.com.


3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

“When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.”

Here are 3 tips for using the literature you’re already studying to guide your writers. @ncte #nctevillage

By Karla Hilliard

*This post originally appeared on Moving Writers. See the original post here and make sure to follow this INCREDIBLE blog for effective writing strategies for your classroom. 

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response. 
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied: 

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…” 

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature. 

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice? 

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes. 

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another. 

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own. 

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out. 

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

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Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing. 

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals. 

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.morethan unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere. 

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

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How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter@karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 

-Karla