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

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: 


Here they are reading like WRITERS.


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. 









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! 


WVCTE: 4 Years and Growing Strong

By Karla Hilliard

These past four years, Jess and I have collaborated with a core team of teachers who serve on the WVCTE Executive Committee. Together, we have worked to re-establish the West Virginia affiliate of NCTE in order to do the important work of connecting teachers across the state.

It has been and remains our true privilege to share our central message and belief in teacher voice, teacher expertise, and grassroots professional learning. Teachers across West Virginia continue to express how meaningful it is to connect and collaborate with like minded teachers and to engage in the wonderful push and pull of shared knowledge and passion.

And we couldn’t agree more. Leading WVCTE has given us some of our proudest, most important professional experiences. The WVELA state conference, co-hosted with National Writing Project at WVU and NCTE’EERS, provides WV ELA teachers some of the best and highest quality professional learning anywhere, and the WVCTE Best Practices Blog continues to expand its content and reach.

This year and last, we have been honored to receive a NCTE Affiliate Excellence award, Web Site of Excellence award, and Kent D. Williamson Membership award. This year, WVCTE was only 1 of 5 affiliates to be named an Affiliate of Excellence.

But we still have work to do.

WVCTE currently has members in 45 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, but we want to reach teachers in all 55. We still hear quite often, “This is wonderful, but we didn’t know this opportunity existed!” or “Why the heck haven’t we heard of WVCTE until now?!”

We want to change that.

If you live in or near the eastern panhandle, WVCTE leadership is hosting an informational meeting and best practices book swap the evening of October, 24 at 6:00 PM in the Spring Mills High School media center. All you have to do is show up and bring a book you love teaching or sharing with students.

Can’t make it? No worries! Meet us on Zoom Monday, October 28 at 8:00 PM. Just click HERE to RSVP and we’ll send you directions for the call.

And, if you’re in the Charleston area next weekend, October 4-5, WVCTE will be at the West Virginia Book Festival, and we would LOVE to meet you there, too! Stop by, learn more about WVCTE, talk shop, and snag a snazzy t-shirt.

WVCTE is hopeful about the path ahead and the ways that, together, we can impact teacher and student learning. And we want you to join us! Reach out, connect, and join us for a year of meaningful learning. We stand firm in our belief that we are one another’s greatest resource.

Here’s to learning and growing together.

Karla, Co-Director WVCTE

Have a question or want to talk finer points? Email us at, message us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter @wvcte.

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 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.