On a Mission

Students should be the prime stakeholders in their education. Let’s teach our students to create the future they choose. Vision Letters and Mission Statement Collages can help students set goals for life.

By Adrin Fisher

Once upon a time, I taught an English “lab” class. I’d have a group of freshmen for two extra periods in a six-day cycle. My teammates and I treated the time as an enrichment opportunity. We (the Babes of English) taught from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. A best-seller on Amazon, this book outlines paradigm-changing habits of mind that lead to success.

Though I no longer teach those English labs, there is one habit that became ingrained in my teaching: Begin with the End in Mind.

Naturally, we teachers have expectations. At the beginning of the year, we set classroom rules, cell phone policies, small group expectations, discussion norms. Every day, I explain rubrics, display model projects and journal entries, and write on the document camera in front of their eyes. And yet, it’s not enough.

Students should be the prime stakeholders in their education. With that in mind, here are two ways for STUDENTS to set their own expectations.

Vision Letter

Right at the beginning of the year, I ask students to write a Vision Letter.

I first heard of this idea at a High Schools That Work conference in Atlanta. The teacher had all students write themselves a letter explaining why this (current) school year had been the best year ever…dated on the last day of this current year. It takes a bit of imagination to explain (and some fancy tenses to write about), but students write about things they will have accomplished by June. For example, students write about maintaining an Honor Roll GPA or getting their license, asking a date to homecoming, graduating or improving their social skills or winning a state championship ring. Every August for fifteen years, I’ve asked my kids to imagine having achieved their goals in the next ten months.

They write their vision for the school year on a piece of brightly colored paper. I collect and read the letters—adding to my personal notes about each student new information about his life or goals—and file them away until the last week of school. I love watching my seniors pull those bright pages out of their diploma envelopes after they’ve walked across the stage in their caps and gowns. They did it, and they saw it coming.

Mission Statement Collage

The Mission Statement Collage is my favorite opening activity for seniors—a staple in my co-teaches and my dual-credits alike.

First, we figure out what a mission statement is. Then we look at examples—everything from the Preamble to the US Constitution to Starbucks’s plan for world domination (“one cup at a time”). I ask students to think deeply about their lives and who they want to be, but I do it with simple questions like, “If you could have dinner with any person dead or alive, who would it be and why?” Using examples from Covey’s book, we talk about options for their statements: sentences or bullet points; song lyrics; a quotation from another writer; an acrostic poem; a phrase.

Then they’re on their own to set their mission.

And finally, they decorate it.  Using magazines, photos, clip art, stickers, or drawings, they create a 5×8 collage that shows what their mission looks like.

I want them to share these statements with their classmates and families.

To post them by their mirrors or on their bedroom walls.

To read them every day. 

To stay focused and on mission. 

To be the best people they can be.

All of these goals—they’re my goals, my dream for their lives. And while it’s important that I see my students for who they CAN and WILL be, it’s not enough.

The goals that will make a difference—THE difference—are the goals THEY set.

Teacher-friends, let’s give our students the tools and the vision to create positive, life-long habits.

Let’s teach them to create the future they choose.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. How do you help students invest in their own lives? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

The Top Five Reasons Why Back-to-School is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

By Adrin Fisher

Well, it’s that time again.  The summer has slipped by like seawater through a sieve, and teachers are back at school shaking off the dust covers and jockeying for position in the Xerox room—or sitting in mind-numbing professional development meetings under florescent lights—or maybe even standing in front of a class of bleary-eyed high school kids with a bright smile plastered on.

Wherever you are in the back-to-school process, teacher-friend, I want to take a few minutes to remind you of the reasons for the season.

Number Five


Getting up early is a gift.  You hear those birds singing what my dad calls the “morning chorus,” or the early-morning commuters and the rumble of heavy trucks—or both, depending on your neighborhood, which reminds you that, even though you may feel like it, you’re not the first one up.  Your positive mindset allows you to see an early morning as a reward.  The sun starts rising through the fog and clarity comes.  A hot beverage, a couple of yoga stretches, a few minutes with your novel or in quiet meditation, and you are invincible.

Number Four


“Normal” workers around the world probably get sick of routine, but teachers are a special breed.  It’s great to have a few weeks of summer with a different set of expectations because we can appreciate the return of normalcy.  I enjoy getting my clothes ready on Sunday evenings, hanging them up by outfit, ironed and ready to be grabbed on a weekday morning.  We pack lunches before bed. We return to kids’ bedtimes and homework at the dining room table.  This fall we have some big changes in our schedule as our older son is moving to high school, but we’ve started practicing earlier wake-up times and we have a morning schedule in place…sort of.  Wish us luck!

Number Three


There is nothing like a new pen fresh from the package, or a smooth, new academic calendar, or a new box of crayons.  But even more exciting, teachers get the privilege of looking at a room full of fresh faces.  We all start off in the “honeymoon” stage, where we’re just getting to know our students, and whether we have 17 or 140, the classroom is full of possibility.  It’s our chance to meet these humans in our charge and make them feel seen and heard. What an honor!

Number Two


I’ll be the first to admit that starting a new school year is hard.  The mornings, the routine, and the newness all contribute to the challenge, but the challenge is also the work.  The back-to-school nightmares—dreams of classrooms out of control, missing photocopies, inexplicable requests from the office—started for me in July this year.  You? 

There are the personal challenges that arise from regular life, family life, being a child and being a parent.  There is the personal challenge of simply dealing with many, many vivid personalities all day.  Making 1,000,000 decisions during a work day is exhausting, and often leaves me too tired to have an opinion about anything in the evenings.

And beyond that, there are the professional challenges: maintaining a positive outlook in the face of ever-increasing demands to your daily job; working well with difficult colleagues; taking classes or doing professional reading to maintain your certification or stay current in your field; and then, for an English teacher at least, the incessant demands of planning, photocopying, organizing, communicating and correcting-correcting-correcting that writing.

This is not a job for the faint-of-heart, or the lazy.  Meet it head-on, teacher-friend.  Find your balance. You can do it!

Number One


When someone asks you what you do, you say—without hesitation—“I am a teacher.”  You use the verb form “to be,” because teaching is more than what you do—it is who you are. Teaching is a calling. 

Teaching is an art and a science.  It’s a labor of love, a passion. 

Teaching is activism. Teachers spark change. It’s in the job description.

Teaching is a response to a real, sincere, measurable need. Students need you.  Colleagues need you, especially the newer ones. Teaching is a daily opportunity to serve others with a generous spirit. 

It is—as in the days of the warrior-poets of Beowulf—a path to immortality.

Teaching is a profession to be proud of, and you do work worthy of song.

I want to leave you with the words of teacher-poet Taylor Mali, who performed “What Teachers Make” on HBO’s Def Poetry.  But rather than quoting him, I’ll let you hear him say it.


Have a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring school year, teacher-friend.  Go out there and make a difference, wherever you are and whatever your reason!

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What is your reason for the season?  Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of books, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her reading with her kids, tree bathing in the park, or taking notes on life in her current composition book. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Getting to Know Your Students with Writing

By Karla Hilliard

The single most important thing we can do as teachers is know our students and honor their identities. 

Without intentionally seeking to learn our students’ names, experiences, cultures, communities, faiths, families, and evolving selves, we erode the opportunity for real connection and deep and meaningful learning. 

Many of you, like me, are back to the back-to-school grind, and I’m sure that you, like I, sat through a few meetings focused on data and subsequent plans to move and improve the numbers in the spreadsheets. 

I count myself lucky to work in a school where our administrators focus on far more than “raising scores” and instead turn their attention to the human endeavor of teaching. On the Talks With Teachers podcast, guest Les Burns, University of Kentucky professor and co-author of Teach On Purpose: Responsive Teaching for Student Success, says, “Getting to know your students is the best data you can collect.” 

Of course, one of the best ways I collect “data” is through student writing. Writing can be a deeply private act, making us feel vulnerable, but it is an act that is meant to be shared with others and often leads to real connection. And it is this connection that allows for community and learning. 

I’m here to offer a few assignments that invite students to writing, so you can begin to learn who your students are and where they come from. 

1. Write a Letter

Y’all. I love letters—writing letters, receiving letters, sending letters, reading the collected letters of others. I’ve written about a simple assignment I call the Lit Letter here, and Jeni Kisner has written about persuasive letters here

My friend and teacher mentor Susan Barber recently wrote a letter introducing herself to her students, and riffing off of the Lit Letter, asked her students to respond to both her letter and to a selected poem, either “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver or “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith. 

Click HERE to read Susan’s welcome letter. 

Like the idea of letter writing, but you’d rather save the poems for later? Check out Tricia Ebarvia’s beautiful welcome letter to her 10th grade students

What I especially appreciate and admire about both of these teachers and writers is they’re doing the work they’re asking their students to and providing them the most authentic mentor texts possible. Plus, it’s easy! No fancy handouts or slideshows needed. 

2. Write a Poem 

If you’re interested in welcoming your students back to school with poetry, these three will get them thinking, feeling, and writing. 

See the original assignment here by Linda Christensen on Rethinking Schools. I especially love what Christensen offers in saying, “Part of my job as a teacher is to awaken students to the joy and love that they may take for granted, so I use poetry and narrative prompts that help them “see” daily gifts, to celebrate their homes and heritages.”

This idea for an assignment popped up in a #TeachLivingPoets chat. Joel Garza suggested inviting students to create a poem praising something about themselves and beginning their poem like Nezhukumatathil with the line “Because I was taught all my life to…” What a lovely way to encourage deep thinking and self acceptance. 

Last fall, Jess struck gold with this introductory writing activity. Smith’s work resonates with students and pushes them to explore ideas in their own authentic voices. See examples from Jess’s classroom here, where one student spun lines like: “But am more afraid of opening my arms like branches/ and trusting you to let me bloom again/ after I’ve gone bare”

The directions for each poem are simple: 

1. Teach the poem, relying on your favorite close reading and discussion activities to get your students invested in the poem. 

2. Ask students to build a list of noticings and writers moves. What do students notice about the poem? What craft choices does the writer make? What features of language contribute to the effect of the poem?

3. Invite students to write their own poem inspired by the mentor text poem. 

3. Write about Reading 

Imagine explaining who you are through the journey of only four books. 

Here’s a post by Adrian Nester outlining her four book reading journey and challenging students to create a list of their own.  

I absolutely love this idea in building a culture of reading while learning valuable information about our students. Adrian says, “There are no great tomes of literary merit on my list. Just the ones that made a difference to me as a reader.”

This assignment is an exciting opportunity for students to revisit the books that have made a difference to them and think ahead to the ones in the “to be read” pile and the ways the impact they might create in their lives. 

WVCTE is wondering…

How will YOU get to know your students and how will you get them writing? Leave us a comment, connect with us on Facebook, Tweet us @WVCTE!

I’d love to hear from you! – Karla

Karla Hilliard is a teacher and writer living in the Eastern Panhandle. She serves as the Co-Director and President of WVCTE. She is also the co-founder of the nonprofit More Than Addiction, whose mission is to humanize addiction. She is in her 15th year of teaching high school English and currently teaches English 11 Honors and Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, and mentors the Poetry Club at Spring Mills High School.  

Karla is a contributing writer for www.aplithelp.com and loves hot coffee, homemade biscuits, and West Virginia. When she’s not teaching, she’s spending time with her friends and family. 

You can connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.

Squad Goals: Combatting Secondary Traumatic Stress in Teachers

I remember vividly the first time I put my head on my desk and cried during my lunch period.  The bell to end fourth period and move to lunch had just rung and a student was lingering behind asking me questions that had nothing to do with that day’s lessons.  I was a first-year teacher and I very much needed the next 30 minutes to catch my breath and prepare for the marathon of my afternoon classes; I looked at the student and quipped something akin to, “Well, you better get out of here or you won’t have time to eat!”  I remember exactly what she said: “Oh, I don’t need to go to lunch. We didn’t have any food in the house for me to pack lunch this week.” I don’t remember exactly what occurred next, but I know that student left with my lunch and I sat down and cried. I cried because I knew that she wasn’t the only student in my classes who didn’t have a lunch that day.  I cried because she said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was no big deal. I cried because I knew that next time, I would likely hear something worse than simply not having anything for lunch. I cried because my students were hurting, and I couldn’t fix it. That wasn’t the last time I cried, but it was the first.

Most teachers are by nature caring and giving individuals.  We don’t enter this profession because we hate children or wish them ill-will.  Research shows that roughly half of the children in American public schools have experienced trauma: neglect, abuse, violence, etc.  This statistic has pushed American teachers into the role of counselor and forced a greater responsibility for the social-emotional well-being of our students.  Schools have taken a major leap in the direction of supporting students by embracing the notion of trauma-informed learning, but the truth is that schools with traumatized students likely have traumatized teachers.

Who is at Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress?

It is not uncommon for teachers to develop secondary traumatic stress (sometimes called vicarious trauma or caregiver fatigue).  When teachers hear the stories of their students’ trauma and try to support their recovery, they put themselves at risk for secondary traumatic stress.  Teachers who enter into direct contact with first-hand traumatic stories are especially at risk. It is important that schools and teachers know the risk factors for secondary traumatic stress and provide support for those who suffer.

What Are the Warnings Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Teachers who are suffering from secondary traumatic stress can exhibit any number of signs and symptoms, ranging from physical to emotional.  

Emotional Feelings of numbness or detachment
Physical Low energy or chronic fatigue
Behavioral Engaging in self-destructive coping mechanisms
Professional Low morale; inability to perform professional tasks
Cognitive Confusion; lacking concentration; difficulty with decision-making; and/or experiencing trauma imagery (seeing traumatic images over and over in one’s imagination)
Spiritual Questioning one’s purpose or lacking self-satisfaction
Interpersonal Physical withdrawal from co-workers or loved ones; becoming emotionally unavailable

Knowing the signs and symptoms can help teachers self-identify secondary traumatic stress and look for sign and symptoms in co-workers.  

What Can Schools Do to Support Teachers with Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Schools can work to build a culture of awareness around trauma for students and teachers.  A culture of awareness lends naturally to identifying need and providing support through:

  • Professional development around signs and symptoms of trauma and primary and secondary traumatic stress
  • Creating peer groups as support systems for teachers
  • Holding small group check-ins following a traumatic event
  • Introducing notions of self-care to teachers

Perhaps one of the most powerful ways a school can support teachers suffering from secondary traumatic stress is for the administration to acknowledge and recognize the existence of stressful situations and provide individualized support.

Why Should Teachers Practice Self-Care?


During the safety check on an airplane, flight attendants always state the importance of placing your oxygen mask on before helping someone else.  This seems counter-intuitive to those of us who are natural caregivers.  How can I watch someone suffer while I am taking care of myself? The reality of the situation, though, is that if I am suffering from a lack of oxygen, I am not going to be unable to help anyone else.  Taking care of myself first is the only way to help others.

The same concept exists when thinking of secondary traumatic stress.  I want my classroom to be a safe-haven for students in need; I want to be their rock when the rest of their world may appear to them to be crumbling.  Engaging in a hobby, exercising, or simply taking a little time away from a stressful situation is sometimes all it takes to provide clarity and return of strength. Teachers can’t be strong enough to take care of their students if they don’t first take care of themselves.

So, teacher friends, as we return from our winter breaks make an effort to reconnect with your teacher “squad.”  Find your people.  Put on your oxygen mask.

WVCTE wonders how you practice self-care in order to help yourself and your students.


Writer’s Notebooks: Practice and Possibilities

img_6062We all have our back-to-school rituals, and they are sacred: fresh notebooks, pens in all the colors of the rainbow (because we haven’t lost any yet), a well-organized classroom library that will be pilfered and picked through soon enough. One of the most important parts of establishing a writing community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, the establishment of quickwrite practices.

But now that the year has begun, and your notebooks are ready to go…what should you begin to fill them with? The writing in the beginning of my notebook always guides and inspires me as I continue to fill it, so I never want it to be uninspired, dull, or colorless. I crave fresh, exciting, dynamic things to fill up the first several pages of my notebook every time I start a new one, which is usually in the fall.

Here are my five favorite mentor texts that give me ideas and inspiration galore for those important start-of-the-year notebook entries–the first in a routine of creativity, agency, freedom, vulnerability, and engagement as a writer.

The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron

This workbook is full of writing prompts for real writers: short exercises that encourage reflection, fluency, and the habit of writing vulnerably often.


I love this workbook and its series of prompts, and use them often when I start my day with the #5amwritersclub each morning. They would be wonderful prompts for students to ease into vulnerable, personal writing in September.


I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

I first discovered Anne Bogel thanks to her “What Should I Read Next?” podcast, but she is also a writer and blogger, and just released a beautiful book. It’s a book about our reading lives, and provides a mentor text for writing about our reading without writing about a specific text.


In addition to the lovely writing, I am obsessed with the illustrations: they would be wonderful to recreate in students’ notebooks with scraps of old magazines or dusty dictionaries.


I visualize this mentor text as one for helping students find a voice for writing about their reading lives during quarterly reflections, reading ladders, and self-assessments.

The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

Writing about our own emotions is hard for all of us, but it’s especially hard for teens. I’ve found that writing about emotions in general, rather than our own, is a fantastic gateway for personal writing.


In addition to being an amazing lesson in personification, this book provides gorgeous mentors for doodling, metaphors, and multigenre possibilities.


Write the Poem

Poetry can be intimidating, but a little guidance goes a long way, and this book provides just that.


The combination of a prompt and keywords to incorporate takes some of the guesswork out of choosing a structure, a rhyme scheme, a title, and the myriad other decisions that go into crafting poetry.

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

Sometimes words are hard. They just are. Those days call for doodles, and this book is full of plenty of them–in addition to pages of plain old writing. I love this text because it tells stories beyond what we see on Mari’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, giving students a mentor text not just for writing but for the thinking and living behind it.


Mari Andrew has long been a favorite of mine, but this book shows me how to play with writing and thinking in genres I wouldn’t have considered, and is super teen-friendly.


I hope you’ll utilize one or more of these beautiful texts–many excerpts of which you can view on the Amazon preview pages linked above–with your students this fall. Their possibilities as entry points for writing topics and genres are powerful, and will lead to composition possibilities for the duration of your school year.

Happy writing! We’d love to know how you and your students utilize these ideas, or what others help you kick off your writer’s notebooks. Please share other quickwrite possibilities and ideas in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook!

Shana Karnes is a mom to two daughters, a daily reader and writer, and a forever educator. Her work with teachers in West Virginia is through the National Writing Project, West Virginia University, and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. She also writes at Three Teachers Talk, where a version of this post appeared earlier. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.