It’s Lit! Nonfiction Literature Circles (AKA 5 books you need to add to your summer stack)


I’ve experimented with literature circles off and on over the past 6 years. Some years, I’ve loved it. Sometimes, it drives me bonkers (I sometimes struggle with giving up classroom control). Using Literature circles is a balance between keeping kids accountable during their reading and making sure you don’t commit “readicide” on the text.

First semester lit circles killed the books. We did role sheets, plus Flipgrid videos, plus taking notes on each other’s videos, plus replying to videos. It was too much. The kids got confused and didn’t enjoy the experience. Which is a problem, since the entire purpose of literature circles is to get kids to have choice and enjoy what they read.

Though I still am not fully comfortable with how literature circles work in my classroom, my AP class had an excellent experience in 2nd semester.

I nixed the role sheets altogether, and after the first bad experience with Flipgrid, I nixed that too. My students were responsible for doing the following for each Lit Circle meeting day:

  • 1 Insight: 1 5-6 sentence paragraph discussing what made you think in this section. Consider the following questions if they are helpful:
    • What realization did you have in this section about a theme, event, or person?
    • What connections do you see between this section and other texts or discussions?
    • What quote or statistic [if relevant] made you think? Why?
  • 3 Discussion Questions for your group. These should be DEEP questions, not comprehension
  • 1 Quote analysis: Quote may be marked in your book with a sticky note]. 5 sentence analysis of a quote [this is NOT summary. FOCUS ON LANGUAGE]

I also chose to allot about half a period to the discussion circles each week. This allowed for minimal off-task time.

The culminating assignment of this semester’s literature circles was a book review of their text. I told my students that the best reviews would be shared in this blog, so you’ll see them below. Click here the directions for this assignment.

I feared that the book reviews would become book reports, so we first set out to explore book review mentor texts. I chose 5 professional reviews from the mentor text dropbox on the moving writers’ website.

With their literature circle group, students read through the texts and made a list of style observations with these questions to guide them.

  • What is the format of book reviews? What do you notice about the organization? Where are paragraphs divided? Why?
  • Sentence structure. What kinds of sentences are used? When is it varied? What is the effect?
  • Content: How does the reviewer give evidence for their claims without revealing major spoilers? Are quotes used? How and where?
  • Other style observations: What do you notice about word choice or use of figurative language?

Students came up with this list of “writing moves” for professional book reviews:

  • Engaging intro: often a quote from the book being reviewed
  • A summary of the story is usually early in the writing. Avoid spoilers!
  • Interesting title
  • Graphics, book cover, or picture of the author are included.
  • Varied paragraph structure, few long paragraphs. Paragraph may be one sentence.
  • Quotes, usually of beautiful language, are used throughout
  • Figurative language (often metaphors) are used
  • Reviewer may talk about personal experience that relates to the book.

After the discussion, my students wrote their own reviews of their texts. All our books for this unit were nonfiction, primarily memoirs since this was for my AP Language Class.

Here are some excerpts from the best reviews that were submitted. Check them out! And, more importantly, check out these books! These are some of the best books that I have read in the past few years, and I highly recommend adding them to your classroom. In the words of 90s literacy superhero, Levar Burton, don’t just take my word for it!


just mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson:

This is part memoir, part exposé of inequalities in the legal system. This book primarily focuses on racial injustice in the prison system and argues against the death penalty. This book is by far the best book that I have read in years.

Madison W’s book review is excerpted below:

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson manages to craft a perfect tell-all on his life that is guaranteed to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. You will go from a peaceful state of mind to an anger-filled walk around the house, all in one chapter. Take it from me, I was well-experienced with said walks during my time reading the book. He speaks of his days as a lawyer and advocate for convicts who are either wrongfully sentenced or are facing harsh penalties, including the ever-so controversial death penalty. As a man working within the prison reform system, you get an inside look at what it’s like for prisoners of all genders, ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds. The detail and emotion Stevenson put into this book makes it feel as if you are present in the situation.


Educated by Tara Westover:

Memoir of Brigham Young University & Harvard graduate, who had no formal education. Westover was raised in an abusive, isolated Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. Her story covers abuse, the value of education, religion, and a variety of other topics

An excerpt from Brooke M’s review is below:

Westover’s memoir is a story about being in a whole new strange world, where she first feels like a stranger in it, but she ends up being able to figure out her way around. Her story is an inspirational story for her viewers, as she is living proof that anyone can make it in life, even if they first feel like a stranger in a new world. Also, she shows her viewers that is it okay to miss one’s home, as she mentions that she couldn’t help but miss her home in the mountains while she was away, stating, “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain…” Her hometown was what truly made her into the person she is today, as she stated, “I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me.” She stated this to teach her audience that how one starts is not how they will end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.

Westover’s memoir is a story of defiance, in which she was able to set her whole life straight, even after all those hardships she was forced to face. She showed her audience that sometimes, separation between loved ones are for the better, as it will slowly bring peace. Westover teaches that choices in life are very important, as each choice forms you into who you will become, no matter how you started. She is living proof that no matter how hard life will treat you, you must just keep battling through it all head on, never giving up.

born a crime

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah:

This is the memoir of South African Comedian and talk show host, Trevor Noah. In addition to telling his story, Noah discusses apartheid in South Africa, and connects this to still existing racial inequalities in the United States.

Here is an excerpt Maree D’s review:

In his autobiography, Trevor Noah recounts brilliantly what it was like to grow up as a mixed child, not quite black, but not quite white (as he says), in a racial divided society. Through twists and turns he guides the reader through the bustling streets and confusing relationships of South Africa, carefully crafting an image previously unimaginable to outsiders. He shares the joys of his youth, the struggles within his family, and the uncontrollable sense of isolation caused by his skin. Though the sporadic story-telling may leave some bewildered, a careful read of the material can provide an unparalleled look at race, power, and human nature. . .

Noah has risen out of the flames of struggle and systematic loneliness to craft a book centered on what now seems to be an archaic institution, as well as one that carries, living, breathing, depth and courage. Especially in light of growing tensions between racial groups in the United States. . .  It is a book that values honesty and compassion in a world of hate and labels, supporting itself with accounts of religious fulfillment, childhood dreams, and, most importantly, motherly love.

first they killed my father

First They Killed my Father by Luong Ung:

This is a memoir from a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide that occurred from 1975-1979. It is written from the perspective of Luong as a 6-year-old as the events transpire.

Here is an excerpt from the review of Thomas S:

Luong’s journey took her from collective to collective, child-soldier camp, and hidden away under bags of fish to Viet Nam. Her experience is emboldened in her book recounting the horrifying experience in vivid detail, and her testimony stands against any form of denial that the Khmer Rouge (the Angkar) brutally murdered millions. Her book, “First They Killed My Father,” is an astounding read that emanates in its readers the same feelings she felt during her time. . . This work of literature was written for the time she was a youth, no more than 10 years old towards the end, and the childish innocence and aged analysis is seen as she seamlessly transfers between the two passive voices.

This book stands as a testament against coerced government and military oppression. While the Cold War and communism may have been the fears by people during this time, the Authoritarian response is still a negligent one towards the majority. Luong writes, “they are destroyers of things.” It is the perfect alignment of the childish view on atrocious circumstance.


Dopesick by Beth Macy:

Also one of the best books I’ve read. Dopesick details the path from mass prescription of high-powered pain killers to the current Opioid Epidemic in America. A large portion of the book focuses on its role in Appalachia.

Jackie K’s book review is excerpted below:

In my personal opinion, I believe she truly portrayed her thoughts and evidence extremely well. There were so many touching stories, quotes, and shocking facts about the pharmaceutical industry. I do not think this book changed my mind or opinions on anything, but I believe it could have an impact on people who don’t normally sympathize with addicts. It gives many examples of how so many kids and citizens have been forced into addiction through prescriptions that they never wanted in the first place which I believe could influence prejudiced people to reevaluate their views on addiction.


WVCTE is wondering, what is your experience with choice reading and literature circles? What tips do you have? What is on your summer reading list? Join the conversation on Twitter by following @WVCTE or chatting with us on Facebook.

Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. This will be her last blog post as Ms. Gearhart, as she will become Mrs. Kisner in 26 days. She and her students are struggling with a new nickname and welcome suggestions.


A case for Amazon Wish Lists (AKA Why we shouldn’t feel guilty about asking for money for our classrooms)


by Jenifer Gearhart

This past Friday evening, my boyfriend and I spent two hours in a used book store in an attempt to freshen up my classroom library shelves. His job was to find more “boy books,” and he did an excellent job. He did sit in the aisle for a few minutes out of exhaustion, but I’ve been known to do the same in bookstores. While wandering the shelves, we ran into another couple doing the exact same thing. This first year teacher was on a search for “boy books” and was working on starting her library. My total was somewhere around $80, which wasn’t horrible for 20 books. I don’t want to know how much the new teacher spent.

While any of my students who follow me on twitter are probably going to tease me for how I spent my Friday evening, we English teachers know the normalcy (and excitement) of buying new books for our classroom. We also think little of shelling out at least $20-$30 on a regular basis to refresh our library, or to get that one book that a reluctant reader needs.

Yet, we also know that those dollars add up. Statistics show that public school teachers spend at least $250 a year on classroom supplies (Let’s be honest, it can creep upwards of $500 some years, right?). English teachers and elementary school teachers can spend even more as we constantly add on to our classroom libraries.

We know what our kids need, so we do what we can to provide it. So, why do I feel guilty asking for financial help for my classroom?

I don’t.

As the WV teacher strike earlier this year reminded us, teachers, especially in our state, are both drastically underpaid and wonderfully resourceful. It also showed us how much our community desired to support us.

We should not feel guilty about asking others to help supply our classroom, especially when it comes to books.

In comes the Amazon Book Wish list.

One of my closest teacher buddies, Liz Keiper (@keiperet1) created an Amazon Wish List of books and passed it out to parents on orientation night, and then posted said wish list on her social media accounts.

Books have been pouring in for days. Because her friends, family, and community wanted to help support her and her classroom.

I did the same, and within hours, several dear friends purchased books for my students.

Donors Choose, Go Fund Me, and local grants have also been helpful in acquiring large sets for my classroom, but I am most excited about these small book donations. Those buying the new novels are friends and family who love me and love my students. They value what I am doing in the classroom, and they understand how significant it is for my students to have books that they can fall in love with.

After I posted my list, I had several former students and parents of students order books for my classroom. They see the value of independent reading because it helped them regain their love of reading.

Will I continue to buy books myself from used book stores, yard sales, and Yep, I most definitely will. But I am also loving the book-love arriving at my doorstep this week.

Making it Matter: Out of the Box Activities for the Last Days of the School Year

It is the last week of May. The countdown is on the board. The kids are restless, the teachers are tired. How do we still make these last days meaningful?

My traditional end of year burn-out started early this year as result of the craziness that was the 2017-2018 school year (Remember? The eclipse in August, the WV Work Stoppage in February, A random snow storm in March, a shortened spring break in April). On May 1st, I really didn’t know how I’d make it to June 6th (the last day for students in our county). I was tired of my students, tired of grading, tired of going to work every morning.

In mid-May, my school family was affected by a horrible accident that resulted in the death of one of our students, a senior, a week before he was set to graduate. It was the worst week of my career. I cried with my students, I comforted them, and they comforted me. It is a loss that we won’t soon recover from.

This tragedy reminded me to make the most of my time with my students. I was reminded of the brevity of life, and the significance of my calling. The Sunday after the memorial service for our student, I posted the following on twitter:

Our job matters so very much, even in these last days of the school year. I made it my goal to have as much fun as possible with my kids as we finished up the year.


Are you also singing the Can’t-Wait-for-Summer Burnt-out Counting-Down-the-Days blues? Here are a few of the things I’ve used to get my kids out of their desk and into a book:

  1. Play with Chalk—Character Body Maps

“Can we have class outside? PLEASE!!??”

We’ve all heard it before. Sometimes, on a glorious pre-summer May day, you just have to give in. And, sometimes, even in high school, we need to channel our inner 7-year-old.

For this activity, I assign each group (2-3 students) a significant character from the novel we’re studying. Then, I have students trace one of their group members on the sidewalk in a position that demonstrates something significant about the character. For example, for Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, a student might curl their arm to show his presumed strength. Or, for Jordan, they might swing a golf club.

In the body outlines, students write 3 adjectives that personify the character (for Tom: selfish, arrogant, brutish). They then choose 3 significant quotes said by/about the character. They also are instructed to include at least one object that symbolizes the character (for Gatsby: a dollar bill, perhaps).


I’ve also done this activity with black butcher paper and chalk inside, and it is always a fun way to get out of our normal groove.


  1. Musical Chairs Theme Analysis (AKA play with Expo Markers and Post-It Notes)

“Don’t write on the desk. That is destruction of school property.” I’ve said that before. But, does this rule need to apply to dry erase markers? Nope!

For a while, I’ve seen teachers on social-media writing on desks, or having students write on desk. I figured, why not? It’ll wash off. My students were beyond excited to draw on the desk (and they are in 11th grade).

For this activity, we were discussing big ideas in Gatsby. Before class began, I wrote many big ideas on students’ desks: society, compassion, deceit, love, American Dream, wealth, poverty, dissatisfaction, achievement, isolation, fate, greatness, beauty, success, memory, time, loyalty, truth, morality, class, greed, and opulence. When students entered, they had to sit at a desk that had a word on it (it did not have to be their normal assigned seat). I then gave each student 6 post-its.

At their first word, students used their phone to look up a dictionary definition of the word. Then, I had students stand up with their post-its, a pen, and their books. Students had to dance (or walk) around the room to 20s music, and when it stopped, they had to sit at the word closest to them.

At this point, they had 1 of 3 options: Write a quote that exemplified the idea, write an example from the text that showed the idea, or list 6-7 words that they associated with the idea. We did this several more times until students had been to at least 4 of the big ideas.

One last time, we played “musical chairs”. At this last stop, students had to create a theme claim statement about the big idea (What was Fitzgerald saying about ______). They could reference the post-it notes left by their peers to do so. Here, I supplied them with Expo markers to write their statements on their desks.


A simple activity, but a great way to do something out of the box. Side note: Clorox wipes do the trick of cleaning up this messy activity.

Extra extension: I generally have students turn these into definition poems for significant characters. Check out the activity here.


  1. Mind Map Character Analysis:

This is not a complicated activity, and truthfully, I probably originally saw it somewhere in the Twitter-universe, but I don’t remember where.

Like the body maps, this is an artsy way to discuss character development, especially for characters that are very different than the rest of their society.

For this, I provided my students with a blank head outline with a line dividing it down the middle. On the left side, they wrote 2-3 quotes that demonstrated the character’s personality, goals, or other character traits. They also included 2-3 objects that demonstrated significant aspects of the character.

The right side is focused on the character’s society. Here, they also include 2-3 quotes and 2-3 images. However, in this case they are demonstrating what is “expected” of the character. What is “normal” or “traditional” in this character’s society.

For my students, this served as a quick analysis of character vs society in Anthem.

So, as we count down the days until we can turn off our alarm clocks, and read books for fun, let’s make the most of the time that we have.

Think about an activity you do normally, and find a twist. Play with chalk, or expo markers, or even Play-Doh. Find something that is fun for you, and fun for the kids.

Most importantly, lets remind our students how much they are loved. After all, that is the most important lesson we can ever teach.

What are some of the things you are doing to make learning meaningful in these last days? What are out of the box activities that have worked successfully for you? Leave us a comment, tweet @WVCTE or connect with us on Facebook!


Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books. 

Epic Soliloquy Battles: Rhetorical Analysis, Classic Texts, and Mostly Modern Music


Teacher brain. At this point in the year, that phrase brings to mind an internet browser with 10 different tabs open—or a pile of mush. Teacher brain is my excuse when I can’t put together coherent sentences on a Friday evening past 7:30 PM. Every teacher knows that it is very difficult to “turn off” your teacher brain.


Image Credit: KC Green


Despite its exhausting hamster-wheel like tendencies, Teacher-Brain is also a beautiful gift. We are always looking for new ideas, and as English teachers, we are constantly making connections between the novels that we teach and what we read, listen to, or view in our free time. The lesson I’m sharing today came out of a teacher-brain late night inspiration.

In the words of Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Song lyrics are poetry. English teachers know that, of course, and we often use this to our advantage.

One of my favorite writing activities is a rhetorical analysis comparison between popular songs and famous passages from Shakespeare or other famous poets. Ok, some of the songs, are a little bit “old school”, but the kids still enjoyed the activity, even if they weren’t as familiar with the song. You can access the assignment document here.


Image Credit: Denver Theatre Performing Arts

Just recently, my 10th grade students compared Linkin Park’s “In the End” to Macbeth’s soliloquy after the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Both the song and the soliloquy are expressions of grief after loss. For Linkin Park, it’s the ending of a relationship, while for Macbeth, it’s the passing of his “partner in greatness.”

We started off by reading and annotating Macbeth’s soliloquy in detail. Students discussed the meaning of Macbeth’s comparison of life to “a walking shadow,” “a poor player that struts and frets upon a stage,” and “a brief candle.” We talked about the connotation of words like “creeps” and “frets” and discussed the nihilism of Macbeth’s final statement that “[life] is a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.” Students discussed the tone and overall significance of the passage.



Then, we listened to Linkin Park’s song. Many students were already familiar with the song despite the fact it came out before they were born. Students then annotated the song for the same purpose. We focused especially on the clock and time imagery, where we “watch it [time] fly by as the pendulum swings/ Watch it count down to the end of the day/ The clock ticks life away.” Student discussed significance of words like “unreal” and “wasted.” Like Macbeth, this song concludes that despite trying hard, “in the end/ it doesn’t even matter.”

In groups, students discussed which passage they thought was more depressing and why. They discussed the connections that they saw between the two pieces, such as time imagery, and negative words like “nothing,” “last,” “memory,” and “in the end.” Several groups also brought up the effect that the musical choices had on the tone. One student noted that if “In the End” were sung acoustically, the overall tone may change to be more depressing, rather than angry.

Finally, after this discussion, students responded to the following prompt:


Remember that immediately before this soliloquy, Macbeth receives news of his wife’s death (probable suicide). Is Macbeth mourning the loss of his wife here, or the loss of his own sense of purpose? 

Now, WRITE A 200 WORD RESPONSE to answering the following prompt:

Consider both Macbeth’s speech and “In the End.” Compare and contrast the speaker’s views on the meaning and purpose of life, especially in the face of a loss.  Consider the tone of each passage and the specific diction (individual words) as well as other literary devices that the speaker uses to communicate the tone. You must use specific examples from both Macbeth’s speech and “In The End” to prove your point.


Overwhelmingly, the students got it. They identified and analyzed the tone and purpose with specific evidence from both texts.

Here is a great excerpt from one of my students’ responses:

 “Macbeth often refers to his life, and life in general, as meaningless . . . Macbeth says ‘out, out, brief candle.’ The candle in the quote refers to life, and Macbeth acknowledges how short it is. At the same time, he is wishing his to be shortened. While he wants his life to be shortened, he is too proud to end it himself. In the song ‘In the End,’ Linkin Park references time in life and how precious it is. They talk frequently [about] how you can waste it. The chorus even says, ‘I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter’. I believe this also relates back to how Macbeth views his actions up till now. He thinks no matter what he does, this fate is inevitable.”

I’ve also done this activity comparing Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas (another old school choice, but the lyrics were too perfect to pass up). In my AP Language class, we compared “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats to “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran.

So, next time that you’re listening to the radio, let your teacher brain wander. You never know when that new top 100 hit (or an old favorite) will come in handy.


What songs remind you of great literature? Got an idea for a close reading activity like this? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jeni Gearhart is a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE and teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.

To Whom It May Concern: Mentor Texts and Persuasive Letter Writing


I love to get a real letter in the mail. It is a special treat when the remainder of the envelopes are either bills or junk mail. In a world of tweets, instant messaging, and terse e-mails, we seem to have lost the art form of letter writing.

In AP language, letters are often a go-to for rhetorical analysis. The 2014 AP Exam included an analysis of Abigail Adams 1780 letter to her son John Quincy Adams. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is considered such a “seminal historical document” that it is in West Virginia’s College and Career Readiness standards as an exemplar text.

Analyzing the SOAPStone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Subject, Tone) of any letter provides a wealth of opportunities to discuss rhetorical significance. How does the intended audience affect how the writer speaks? What do we learn about the speaker based on what is contained in the letter? What is the occasion? How does the occasion motivate the letter? What is the historical significance of this letter? We can easily spend a full class period digging into one letter.

Analyzing letters is not a novel concept in a high school English class. Writing them, however, is something that we seem to have left behind. This year in my AP Lang class, we did a mini letter writing unit, and I loved the results.

A little background to this unit first. I acquired 60 copies of March Book 1 by John Lewis through a county grant and through a DonorsChoose project. This graphic novel details Georgia State Representative John Lewis’s experiences as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautifully illustrated text with an incredibly powerful message about the power of social change, independent thought, and civil action.


After our unit on the book, I asked my students to write thank you letters to John Lewis with the intent of trying to persuade him to skype our class (an unlikely possibility—but you never know unless you try, right?!). A few days later, I collected the letters, and they didn’t wow me. They were boring, and certainly not persuasive. My students were stuck in academic writing and had lost their voice.

Have no Fear — Mentor Text to the Rescue!

For those who are not yet familiar with the work of Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell, check out their website now. They focus on using mentor pieces (real world writing) to help students to “read like a writer” and therefore become better real-world writers.

I pulled three very different letters for this assignment. With permission, I used a letter to West Virginia legislators written by WVCTE president, Jess Salfia. This was right before the teacher strike, so it was a perfect relevant piece. I also showed them one of my letters, but we primarily used Jess’s as the mentor for this activity. I also pulled Kurt Vonnegut’s inflammatory letter to the Drake School District, “I am Very Real” and “To My Old Master”, an 1865 letter from a former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his old master. Though these were the three that I chose, there were a plethora of unique letters on the website Letters of Note.

These three letters had three very different purposes. One was persuading for legislative change, one was a fiery argument against censorship, and one was a sarcastic “break up letter” (my students’ words, not mine). All three, though, contained beautiful rhetoric, and many stylistic choices that my students could incorporate into their own writing.

My students annotated each of the letters for homework, and in class we brainstormed a list of things that writers of great letters do.

Writers of powerful letters . . .

  • Start by introducing the writer
  • Provide relevant ethos early in letter. Tell them who you are!
  • Use repetition (anaphora, repeating key phrases)
  • Appeal to authority
  • Use inclusive language
  • Use strong illustrations
  • Use clear evidence (like statistics)
  • Use anecdotes as evidence
  • Use strong emotional appeals throughout
  • Refer back to the audience frequently
  • End with a persuasive “mic drop”

We also discussed how the purposes of the three letters drastically affected their style of writing. Jess’s letter was formal yet impassioned. Because her purpose was to persuade for legislative change, her tone could not be as angry as was Vonnegut’s letter. Anderson’s letter was humorous, which showed a very different rhetorical effect.

After our annotation, discussion, and listing, students used these three letters as mentors to revise their John Lewis Letters.

In a last-minute decision prompted by the political climate of February, I also gave them the option of scrapping their Lewis letter altogether and writing a letter to a West Virginia senator about any subject about which they felt passionate. One student wrote about gun control, another wrote about health standards in schools. And about 1/5 of the students wrote letters about education.

The students’ letters in this second go-round were beautiful. Their voice was present, their rhetoric was persuasive. Because we were writing to a real audience about a subject that they cared about, their letters took on a drastically different tone. My students felt that their writing mattered.

Let me share with you one of my favorite letters (name removed for privacy):

Dear Members within the West Virginia House and Senate,

My name is C. I am a valued student at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. I am a member of various National Honor Societies and volunteer within a few school organizations. As well, you will find me in multiple advanced placement classes and honors courses. Being a student who values the quality of their education –I am incredibly concerned about the state of education here.

I have been born and raised here in West by God Virginia, my family’s roots run deep within her mountains. I have been lucky enough to have attended Hedgesville Schools all my life; a school district that strives to give each student the most enriched experience possible. Much of that statement is due to the teachers that most students have taken for granted. I have never been denied afterschool help, nor have I ever had one lack-luster teacher in my schooling career. I have been lucky enough to have teachers that are not only qualified to teach high school courses, but as well as a college curriculum. Hedgesville, as well as much of Berkeley County, has gone above and beyond in their search for overly qualified teachers to insure we have the best education possible. The care my teachers have given through the years allowed me, a child who comes from a broken home, learn that I am worth so much more and can make something out of myself through the power of knowledge. Teachers go way outside of their job descriptions to insure the quality of life for their students – kids they claim to be their very own. I can attest to this firsthand. Teachers are the unsung heroes. However, much of those teachers I have come to love and appreciate are seeking employment elsewhere. To us students who have relied on these teachers for our education, as well as being our rock when life at home was hard, this news is heartbreaking.

In regard to recent events –I now ask you, the Legislators of this wonderful state, why you choose to jeopardize the quality of education that the future generations of West Virginia are receiving? The generation of students who could possibly be your doctors one day, or even government officials such as you. Why don’t we mean anything to you? Why are we not the priority in your topics and affairs? You obviously have valued your own personal education, so why not ours? Why have you even implemented such ideas that compromise the living of teachers? These are some of the people that matter most in our lives and we are losing them, because of a decision you each have made.

I hope that you can look at this issue at hand more than a political one, and rather assess it based on your own morality and solve it with the goodness of your hearts. As a student of West Virginia, I deserve a well-rounded, quality education –the type of education I have received for the past twelve years of my life.

My teachers, and the rest of the teachers in West Virginia, should be valued. They should be valued much more than 1%. I hope that, you, the Legislators can make this right.


Junior of Hedgesville High School


We teach our students that they should see value in their voices. 2018 has been demonstrating that youth have incredibly powerful voices. I can’t wait to see how they change the world.



 Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE executive committee. She teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.