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.

The Compassion Challenge

Students today are facing unique—and sometimes overwhelming—challenges. Maybe all they’re giving is all they have. How can we help them? Compassion.

by Adrin Fisher

In the bright, fanciful morning of the new year, I embarked on a reading challenge, Shakespeare 2020. Organized by iambic pentameter whiz Ian Doescher, the goal is to read all Shakespeare’s writing this year. I signed up for the Facebook group, pulled out my college Riverside Shakespeare and found the Arkangel audio series online. In short order, the online group morphed into a “hive mind.” People posted book titles, film recommendations, excerpts from literary criticism, links to articles, favorite lines, commentary, performance dates. It was all so heady and exciting! So many smart people, so passionate about Shakespeare!

Several Shakespeare plays lay out across a wooden table.

Then people began posting about their “process.” Here’s a true example of someone’s method of reading the assigned play: a cold read-through, then appropriate chapters in both Asimov and Bloom, then two filmed performances, re-read with audio, then study a secondary text about Shakespeare’s life and times, and then finally post a self-congratulatory note. Just reading those steps makes me feel small—and defensive. And now, there’s a whole passel of people who are letting us know they are two plays ahead of schedule. I complain to my husband, and he reminds me of what I know—in fact, what I wrote about in January—that it’s not a competition. And also, he reminds me that it’s the internet. I could be the Queen of Sheba on here if I wanted to. And also, who cares? Except me, sort of.

Would you like to know my process? I find a spare twenty minutes (maybe I got up extra early or maybe my kids are watching BattleBots again) and I grab my phone, my pen and my composition book. I read the intro and Spark Notes, if I need a boost. I’ve had to watch two documentaries about the Wars of the Roses because I was lost—so lost. I’ve fallen behind the schedule twice, but I’m doing ok now. I have about 54 hours left to finish Richard the III. Right now I’m on Act 1, Scene 3—26 minutes in, with 3 hours and 6 minutes left to go. It’s ok.

To work this challenge into life, I’ve given up some things. Like, for example, I’ve sacrificed almost all other pleasure reading. Last year I was in a book club (for me) that met monthly…but no time. In fact, I’m struggling to get the readings done for the student book club I run. I’m chucking the newspaper right into the recycling bin. I’ve found that I’d rather read a play than correct essays—surprise! And I’m not into dusting lately, but I don’t miss that much.

I chose this, after all. I decided to add this challenge to my life. I’m giving what I have to give, because that’s all I’ve got.

So that got me thinking about my students. 

Sometimes I wonder if they are giving me all they have to give. Even when it’s not up to my standards. Even when I’ve heard the same excuses over and over. Whether the kid is shamefaced or defiant, I wonder if they are at their maximum. Maybe all they’re giving is all they have.

One of the very first eye-openers of my very first classroom placement was the realization that not every kid is like me. I was a conscientious student. Grades were important to me, but not everyone is motivated by report cards. Challenge 1.

Challenge 2: Social media. In my dual-credit senior class this semester, I’ve had students analyzing technology-related essays. A couple of weeks ago, I asked kids to track their phone usage and draw some conclusions in their journals. The results were shocking. One student-athlete spent an average of 9 hours a day on her phone. For 17 hours that week, she was on TikTok. She was shocked, too. Some of that phone-screen time happens during the school day—which is another serious issue—but no matter when it’s happening, it’s affecting everything. It can’t not.

Challenge 3: Mental health. I can personally name five students who have been hospitalized for mental health treatment this school year, some more than once. This seems like a lot. While I believe that part of the increase is our heightened awareness of mental health issues (which is positive), as well as the overuse of the word “anxiety” to describe normal nervousness (which is not so great), I do believe teenagers today have burst into a more challenging world. Though I had a subscription to Seventeen as a high schooler, I could just close the magazine and return to my life. Our students can’t do that. See Challenge 2.

So, when you take into account the fact that personalities and motivation and interests differ, the realization that kids are spending more time than even THEY think on their phones, and the fact that social media exacerbates mental health issues, you’re left with kids who are dealing with things that you (likely) didn’t imagine as a student. 

Now multiply those three challenges by teenagers who…

  • are parents or surrogate parents;
  • face food insecurity;
  • live with drug use or alcoholism in the home;
  • move every other night under joint custody;
  • have absentee parents;
  • work a part-time job with bosses who aren’t sympathetic to their schedules;
  • are survivors of abuse;
  • stress about FAFSA and college and scholarship applications;
  • and are pressured by 6 or 7 different teachers to get homework done, be on time to class, bring a pencil, a textbook, a notebook, paper.

And some students are homeless or harbor an undetected disability or have just lost a loved one or are struggling with orientation or identity or are suffering from a chronic health problem.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

But, you know what? They’re tired too. We grownups get to choose some of our challenges. Kids don’t.

Personally, I believe that we have one life. I believe that our choices are significant and our words are meaningful. I believe that the way I act and interact with these kids impacts them—impacts this community. 

I also believe that time is short. I need to teach my students skills and see them practice. Reading matters and writing can change the world.

And—finally—I believe that we need to remember compassion. These kids—some of them—are functioning at their maximum. They are challenged-out. And their challenges, unlike Shakespeare2020 which I can quit without consequence, matter.

So, here’s my challenge to you, teacher-friend. Be compassionate. Remember that you don’t know—can’t know—everything that your students are dealing with. Obviously, we must be good teachers: prepared, fair, rigorous. That’s our job. But let’s not forget the milk of human kindness. Let’s challenge ourselves to give reasonable, thoughtful assignments. Let’s never waste our students’ time. Let’s model preparation, professionalism, and kindness.

And as we recognize our students’ challenges, let’s challenge ourselves to show compassion.

Teacher-friend, my hope for you is that compassion wins out. 

Courage, dear heart.

This is a signboard in my kitchen.  It has a quotation from Mother Teresa: "Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love."

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. 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. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of mentor texts or encouraging and supporting her colleagues, you can find her saying “hey there” with jazz hands, tree bathing in a spring-like park with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

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

Finding a niche for our students

With the emphasis on STEM these days in education, sometimes I feel like English gets lost in the shuffle and with that, our English-loving students do as well.  How do we keep the fire for reading and writing lit when students are pulled (or pushed) into other areas?

This past year, I chartered a student chapter of the National English Honor Society (NEHS).  West Virginia hosts only five chapters in the entire state.  NEHS is sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta and is the only international organization that recognizes students (high school through college) and faculty who excel in English.  Nationally, NEHS offers several scholarship opportunities for students along with a network of like-minded bibliophiles.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to provide to students.

Gelast Sceal Mid Are or duty goes with honor is the foundation for NEHS and our chapter at Parkersburg High School has embraced that through literacy based service.  Now at 32 members, NEHS candidates must demonstrate excellence in academics, provide a writing sample and propose a group service project in order to be considered for membership.  And that just gets them in the door.

Once accepted, members are expected to participate in a group service project, individual service projects and engage in literacy based activities such as blogging or tutoring.

In our first year, PHS’ chapter had over 100 hours of service supporting 22 different organizations.  We raised money to buy books for the school library and we launched a blog.  Within the group, we had book studies and participated in essay contests.  This group stayed busy.

presentation to mrs carson
Presentation to PHS school librarian .

Our 2019-2020 class has been inducted and they have big plans.  Our work for the fall has begun.  We will be putting together community based workshops for college application essays, launching a tutoring center and hosting community book swaps.  Over the summer students will be developing proposals for their individual service projects, participating in book study groups and blogging.

So why am I bragging on my kids?  Well they’re awesome for sure but I wanted to challenge other HS teachers to charter chapters in their schools.  It’s a relatively easy process but does take time to have an application processed and accepted.

Once you have established an NEHS chapter at your school, you need to create the infrastructure to support your students then turn them loose.  As an advisor, you have the opportunity to read and evaluate essays for the national Common Reader contest and network with colleagues throughout the country.  Working with NEHS has definitely become a highlight of my year and something that balances out some of the stressors associated with teaching English

If you are interested in chartering a chapter, I am willing to help you!  Yes, it is extra work but the rewards are so worth it.  Our book loving kids need a place to call their own.

Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University. Cheryl is also the Vice President of the Marshall Reading Council.   She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass but is enamored with Instagram (@stahlecheryl).  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.

WVCTE wants to know how you are staying energized in the classroom this time of year.

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!



Ipads in the classroom

Apples for teachers sure have changed over the past few years.  Over the past few months, I have been working towards my certification as an Apple Teacher.  Obtaining certification wasn’t really that difficult as I had to read 16 ibooks and take quizzes to prove that I had mastered the content.   Since I teach daily with an iPad, I tackled those ibooks first (there are also 8 sessions for Mac computers).

The curriculum started with the basics for an iPad then progressed through Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie and GarageBand.  There were also two summative sessions:  one on creativity and the final course on productivity.  Not too bad overall but if you are not familiar with iPad then the courses could be a bit daunting.

apple screen

As I worked my way through the materials, I challenged myself to think of applications in my classroom and my tech-resistant high schoolers.  During one of my courses, I discovered the power of working on multiple applications at one time and how to maximize the Notes app.  On an iPad!  Who knew?

apple noteNotes is way more powerful than for just making shopping lists and storing those addresses or passwords that you constantly need.  You can actually pull up a PDF and make your annotations directly into Notes.  You can scan documents into Notes as well for quick annotations.

Using the Notes app, you can type text or pull up the drawing tools to add color or graphics to your note. You can also add videos and pictures to your notes to make them comprehensive summaries of text or research and make sketches.   Collaboration is one click away simply by inviting others to work on the same document.  What a powerful way to engage all of our learners !  You don’t need to spend money on apps such as Paper (which I love) when Notes does the same thing for you.

The other feature I really like is Screen Split which my students can use when they are working on multiple documents.  Swiping up from the dock, you open the first file or application you want to work in.  Next, you put your finger on the icon for the second app and drag it onto the first app.  Now drop it!  You  have two applications open at the same time.  The kiddos are learning this first as a survival skill for high school and beyond.  I will have them create Notes while looking at sources at the same time.  They will be challenged to annotate, summarize, visualize and find primary source documents to embed.  We will swap notes at some point for think –> write –> pain –>share/write activities.  As an added bonus, they will be able to use their notes on a test so the more thorough the better.  My head is spinning with ideas.

screen split image

I remain baffled as to why students who cannot put their cell phones down don’t know how to harvest the power of these tools beyond Snapchat and Instagram.   They are walking around with a mini iPad in their back pocket.  It’s time to get serious about building technology skills in my classroom and working with Notes will be our starting point.

 Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project and Vice President of the state reading association based out of Marshall University.  She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass.  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students. 

WVCTE is wondering how you are using iPads in your classroom? 

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!