Creating a Community of Readers

To me, one of the best things about teaching high school is getting a fresh start with students at the start of the second semester.  It’s a time for me to evaluate what is and isn’t working and what should (and shouldn’t) be changed in my classroom.  I typically find that there is at least one change that I need to make.

Since I’ve been teaching AP English, my students have been doing some sort of structured out-of-class reading assignment; in recent years, my students have been writing book reviews in the style of The New Yorker, which has been immensely important in terms of their writing.  What I’ve found, however, is that though this has made them stronger writers, it has not made my students stronger readers.  If my ultimate goal from my out-of-class reading assignment is to help my students increase their reading fluency, stamina, and to increase the depth of their reading then I was falling far short.

When I introduced my new independent reading assignment*, I did so transparently.  I told my students that the old assignment wasn’t achieving the goals I had in mind so we were going to start fresh!  The students were excited as soon as they realized I was going to give them complete control on the books they chose.  We set our weekly reading goals, established the method of tracking their reading and how they would be assessed, introduced the “one pagers” they would be completing for each book they read, and scheduled our field trip to our school library.  I must admit that their enthusiasm was contagious and I got a great sense of joy out of matching a student to the “right” book for him or her.

I started to rebuild my classroom library, something I had admittedly neglected over the past few years.  I also discovered the Booksource Classroom Organizer app.  Trust me when I say you need this in your life!  This app allows the teacher to scan the bar code on the backs of books and uses that info to create a digital record of all of the books in one’s library.  Then, the teacher can check books in and out to students by scanning them!  It’s amazing.  My students and I have both been loving the ease of this app.

After a couple of weeks, some of my students’ enthusiasm was beginning to wane and I realized it was because I wasn’t taking the time to talk to them about books: the ones they are reading AND the ones I’m reading.  I also wanted to show them different ways to interact with books and their authors.

If one of the best things about teaching high school is getting a do-over at the semester, another is not having to create bulletin boards.  All of the bulletin board-loving teachers out there deserve a virtual high-five! Instead, I created displays in the hallways for my students and others to see.  Directly across from my room is the “Was the book better than the movie?” display where I highlight upcoming movie releases based on books.  Already, I have students who have checked all three titles out of my classroom library so they can read the book before they watch the movie.

Next, I have the “What is Mrs. Poling reading?” display where I show students they books I have read in the recent weeks/month.  Here, I post a copy of the cover of the book as well as a plot teaser.  I make sure my students see my reading a variety of authors and genres.  In January, I read the YA work The Hate U Give, Erin Chack’s non-fiction book of essays entitled This is Really Happening, and Celeste Ng’s powerful Little Fires Everywhere.  I’m currently reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power and engaging in a #slowbookchat on Twitter on Sundays with a group of educators from around the country led by the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, Shanna Peeples.

Directly beside the “What is Mrs. Poling reading?” is the “Tweet the Author” display.  Our students have opportunities to interact with the authors of the books they are reading in ways I didn’t have when I was their age; they simply need to be taught how to take advantage of the technology at hand.

Being an independent reader doesn’t mean being a lonely reader.  Our classrooms need to be reading communities where we share our love of books and reading with one another.  Personally, reading has brought me great joy.  I have been a world traveler; I have pondered existence with Prince Hamlet; I have studied the world’s great extinctions; and I have made lifelong friends who I visit year after year.  I want the same for each of my students.


*If you would like to see a copy of my independent reading assignment handout, feel free to reach out to me via email at


WVCTE wonders how you create a community of readers in your classroom?

Resolutions I Resolve to Keep…

I don’t make personal resolutions at the beginning of each new year.  This is mostly because I try not to lie to myself.  I already know I’m not going to go to the gym unless they start selling mocha frappuccinos.  And given my love for the aforementioned mocha frappuccinos and my hatred of the gym, losing that “last” ten pounds isn’t likely to happen either.

2017 was an amazing and challenging year in which I was forced to grow both as a person and as a teacher.  As I enter 2018, I do so with a somewhat different perspective on myself as a teacher and on the teaching profession in general; this new perspective has led me to create some professional resolutions.

  1. I resolve to meet my students where they truly are and not where I think they should be. As teachers, one of our challenges is meeting the needs of all of our students, the ones who need guidance and the ones who just NEED.  This can only happen if we are honest with ourselves and our students about where they are when they come to us; not where we think they should be when they come to us.


  1. I resolve to hear each student’s voice every day. As a high school teacher, I see approximately 140 students EVERY. SINGLE.  DAY.  Recently, at the end of a particularly challenging class, I realized I hadn’t entered my attendance at the beginning of the period (this should probably be on the resolutions list…), so I sat down to do it at the end.  In the process, I realized that I couldn’t remember whether a specific student had been in my class.  I couldn’t remember if I had seen this student or not.  This is unacceptable.  I resolve to not only SEE my students, but to HEAR my students, each of them, every day.


  1. I resolve to grade less and teach more.  I’m not one of the teachers who can honestly say that I feel grades are unimportant; I feel that accurate grading serves as an important feedback tool for teachers, parents, and students.  Grades are a universal language we can all understand.  Even so, I sometimes find myself planning lessons with the grading load in mind.  I have been guilty of letting my grading dictate my teaching.  No more.  In 2018, my students will dictate my teaching (see resolution 1).


  1. I resolve to find balance between work and home. My son, like the children of many teachers, has spent a large amount of time playing in my classroom.  When he was very little, he used to watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles through my projector on my white board.  He’s had numerous dinosaur battles in the middle of my classroom floor.  This year, he helped me put together my homeroom packets and it only cost me a “high school pencil.”  I don’t regret the time he has spent with me in my classroom; I want him to understand how hard I work for my students and how hard his teachers work for him.  At the same time, I never want my family to doubt that they are a priority to me.  So, I will work less at home.  I will be more present with my students in the classroom and more present with my family outside of it.


  1. I resolve to remember why I love teaching.  I was asked recently why I have stayed a teacher.  There are a lot of factors that impact whether or not a teacher will stay in the classroom, but I truly believe there’s only one reason to stay: the kids.  Over the past 14 years I have kept every note or card a student has given me.  I’ve dedicated an entire drawer in my desk to them.  Even in a profession you love, not every day can be a good day.  On the not so good days, I randomly choose a couple of these cards to read to remind me exactly why I stay.  Those kids are worth it; all of them.  The easy ones and the harder ones.  The ones you connect with and the ones who fight the connection. They’re all worth it.  Every day.


WVCTE is wondering what your classroom resolutions are for 2018?


Brenda* and Other Things I’m Thankful For

By Melissa Jarvis

Brenda has a gift for talking.  She has a gift for back-talking.  To teachers and administrators, Brenda says things like, “What are you looking at?” and “What I’m doing is not hurting you!” She has quite the talent for landing in lunch detention and occasionally in-school suspension.  A time or two, she’s had out of school suspension.  Brenda and I have a had a few hallway chats this semester and a few disagreements in the middle of the classroom.  Brenda is loud and proud.  Her behavior is quite frustrating to me.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I thought Brenda and I could never agree on anything; I was sure she was a lost cause.

The city in which our middle school, plus two elementary schools, resides decided we do not need a resource officer any longer, a ten-year stint was enough.  The city council voted that there really wasn’t enough money to provide the service of an on-campus police officer to the three schools and the community at large was better served with him on the streets, serving and protecting. When the parents, students, and staff found out we were losing our resource officer, there was collective devastation.  Calls were made, the news showed up to interview our principal and a few students, and a plan was hatched.  Our principal asked the English department to lead the students in a letter-writing campaign.  

The classes came in and I told the students our mission.  Most of them started writing quickly, while others needed a bit of encouragement.  My fourth period rolled around–Brenda’s class.  I wasn’t sure what reaction I would get from Brenda.  Honestly, I anticipated a loud “Who cares?!” followed by a far-flung pencil.  The class was quiet while I called them to action.  I told them it was important to learn how to contact our government representatives and they had every right to tell the city council what they wanted.  I reminded them that their parents and grandparents paid taxes which meant that they paid the mayor’s salary.  I told them our community needed people to stand up for what they wanted and believed in, people who weren’t afraid to speak their minds.  


Brenda looked at me with bright eyes and a huge smile and said, “You mean people like me?”  The clouds parted and the sun shone down and for just a second Brenda and I saw eye to eye.  I responded, “Yes, Brenda, people like you.  Take every chance to use your voice to make a difference in this world.”  She went right to work and wrote one of the best letters in the seventh grade.

That might be the one and only time this year Brenda and I understand one another, but I will always be thankful for that one moment and what it taught me.  Every student has a calling; every student has a purpose.  Students might be disrespectful sometimes and stomp on what is left of my very last nerve, but they deserve to be taught the good and right way to live.  One day Brenda might be shouting out for my rights on the steps of an important government building, so I owe her my best effort.

In this season of thankfulness, I am thankful for students like Brenda.  I am thankful I have the chance to tell a few young Americans they have a voice and they should use it for good and not evil, to help and not hinder.  I am thankful I can encourage them to speak up and be proud of who they are, where they are from, what color their skin is, and how they believe.  I am grateful that every day I can also remind them it is okay to stop talking and listen to what others have to say.  

I am thankful to be a teacher.

WVCTE is wondering what you’re thankful for in the classroom.

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


*I’ll call her Brenda for her protection and mine.  

Two Awesome Things: Using Online Surveys and Discussions in the Classroom

by M.K. Jarvis

Happy End of the First 9 Weeks!  You’ve probably just ended or are getting ready to end the first quarter of the school year.  One down, three to go.  I wanted to share a couple of activities my seventh graders and I have done in these last few weeks.  I have been using online surveys and discussions to engage my students while assessing whether or not they are comprehending the skills I’m teaching.  

 There is nothing new about online surveys and discussions, I know, but twelve-year-olds think they’re cool.  Anytime a seventh grader gets to talk to his friends and give his opinion, life is good. I use essential questions before and during lessons.  Sometimes I use them as a warm-up, but answering a question on paper or even in Schoology and submitting it is boring.  Answering a question and then seeing statistics and responses from the rest of the room is a little more interesting.  

I started out using a survey from SurveyMonkey to ask a couple of our unit’s essential questions about adventure and risk.  Are you adventurous?  Do you take risks?  What are the benefits of taking a risk?  I chose three yes/no questions and one short answer question.  It was super easy to set up and put the link to the survey in Schoology.  They loved taking it and then seeing the results.  

The cool things about the survey were …

  • It was easy to set up and can be used to assess understanding and gather opinions.  I can ask if they comprehend a skill or if they’re happy with the classroom status quo.  It’s anonymous, so they can answer honestly.
  • I can find out if they understand the meanings of words or phrases by the way they answer the question.  For example, in our survey, the short answer question was “What are the benefits of taking risks?”  Quite a few students answered broken bones or bruises or you might get in trouble.  It was evident they are not sure of the meaning of the word benefit.  It reminds me I can’t take for granted everyone is on the same level.


The uncool thing about the survey was …

  • I couldn’t figure out how to send them the results.  I realize the results of a survey are for the person asking the questions, but the students enjoyed seeing the results when I displayed them on the Smartboard.  There is probably a way to post them to Schoology.  It’s just a matter of searching for it.


This year Kanawha County Schools adopted Schoology as the learning management system for all schools.  The first couple of months were bumpy, but I’m getting used to it.  Taking a class and comparing notes with my cohorts have helped me discover new and fun ways to engage the classes.  Schoology, like most systems, offers a discussion element.  It is effortless to create a discussion and easy to use.  The students were off and running with it in seconds.

I posed a question and the students answered it and then responded to two classmates.  They could respond to more if they wanted.  

The cool things about the online discussion in Schoology were:

  • I can set up the discussion so that the student has to respond before they see their classmates’ responses.  No copy-catting.  
  • Unlike traditional face to face discussions, everyone gets to respond, no matter how shy.  The students who have something to say can do so a bit easier, and are not crowded out by those few who always raise their hands and respond.
  • It isn’t anonymous and everyone is accountable for what they say.  Most of the time, snide comments are not made, but if one is, the student is accountable.


The uncool thing about the online discussion in Schoology was:

  • There is no face to face discussion.  While it is a good thing for the shy ones, I feel like we are losing some of our essential communication skills when we go virtual.  We aren’t learning how to talk, debate, and argue constructively in person, but maybe that’s a rant for another post.  


I knew online surveys and discussions were winners when the students asked for more.  It was unanimous that surveys were awesome, and I knew the discussion was a hit when a hush fell over the classroom and everyone was on task.  It didn’t hurt when, after we finished, one of the students said, “I love discussions.”


WVCTE is wondering … have you found a hit in your classroom this fall?  How are you engaging your students?  Tell us about it. Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


WVCTE’s Best Thing this Month: The WV Book Festival!

In which Jess and Karla reflect on the weird and wonderful experience of bringing WVCTE to the WV Book Festival…

Jess: On October 28th and 29th, Karla and I brought WVCTE to the West Virginia Book Festival. Our goal was to promote WVCTE, connect with educators in the Southern and central part of the state, and educate teachers and book lovers alike about our mission, purpose, and reason for existence. When reviving WVCTE, we knew that reaching beyond our geographic homebase would be a challenge, and the Book Festival seemed like the ideal place to spread some English teacher love. 

So, armed with a banner, some brilliant rack cards, a t-shirt no book lover could refuse, and some sweet bargain-bin, battery-operated lights, Karla and I descended on Charleston, WV like a couple of book-loving, English-teaching valkyries ready to scoop any English teacher interested in our WVCTE Valhalla.


.Karla: Here’s how a typical conversation between me and Jess goes down:

Me: I don’t know, dude. Do you think people will actually want to talk to us about this?

Jess: Of course they’ll want to talk to us! Look at our shirts!

Me: I mean, teachers don’t want one more thing to do. Do they? They’re already overextended and underpaid. But this is a good thing! Teachers do so many good things together!

Jess: Karla, if we don’t like what we see when we look at the world, it’s our job to change it.

Karla: [thought bubbles of inspiration]

So, here we are…

The Festival Day 1

Jess: First, let me just say, that Karla crushed it on our booth display. I’m sure you saw our barrage of tweets, but just check out these pics of our booth below:

Great, right? Our space looked awesome.

The crowd on day 1 was a little thin, but we did manage to connect with a few teachers on Friday. One of my favorite parts of Friday was hanging out with our new pal and YA novelist, Craig Halloran. You can read more about Craig HERE. Check out him and his amazing booth below!  Here’s an excerpt of my favorite Craig Halloran conversation:

Me:  So what’s this book about?  I love the cover!

Craig:  It’s a post-apocalyptic novel.  But here’s the twist:  DRAGONS.

**Craig, you had me a dragons.  

craig-copy craig3 craig2-copy

Karla: Jess is right. The booth was bangin’, and Craig Halloran is the bomb. So, as you can imagine, I had some fun stringing lights, artfully arranging t-shirts, and chatting it up with our battle ax wielding neighbor.

But here’s the weird conversation I found myself in more than once on Friday: defending STEM education. I’m teaching Honors English 10 within Spring Mills High School’s STEAM Academy (which you can read a bit about here and here), and as weird and counter to my teacher-MO for all these years, I talked to some folks about how creativity is alive and well in our schools, and how creativity is thriving in STEAM education.

What I realized is: you can live in both worlds. You can be an English teacher and support science and math, and you can be super duper STEM-y and support the arts. There’s room for all of us.

The Meet and Greet


Jess: The idealists that we are, in addition to our Marketplace Booth, we planned a meet and greet for Black Sheep Burrito for the first night of the festival, Oct. 27th. Our plan was to give interested teachers a chance to stop by for free drinks and burritos, and current members to participate in a Shakespearean Lesson Plan Swap. This restaurant is awesome–cool atmosphere and great waitstaff. But though, we had a lot of interest in the event, our only show was Kayla from Hurricane! (Yay, Kayla!)

Still, we had a great time, and plan on making this an annual event. And Kayla gave us a ton of great feedback on how WVCTE can service the southern and central part of the state.

Karla: A few things became clear at our Black Sheep meet-and-greet. One: Kayla from Hurricane is lovely and awesome. Two: current, engaging, and relevant domain-specific professional development is needed in West Virginia. Three: Curry burritos exist and we should be able to buy them anywhere.

Although we didn’t have a big turn out, for me, the meet-and-greet was great — right up my ally. I love hanging out with teachers and talking shop. And talking shop about different approaches to teaching Shakespeare over a few brews? Even better. I find teachers fascinating and inspiring, and I always feel like I end up walking away with more ideas than I offered.

If this sounds like anything you like to do, then you should totally join us for the next lesson swap social.

Day 2: So Much Awesome

Jess & Karla: Day 2 of the Festival was hopping. And it was a busy, amazing, weird, wonderful, and productive day. 

Let’s start with some weird:

Jess: Weird thing number 1: My phone vanished. Really, readers of this blog don’t need to know more than this caused to run around like a crazy person for the first hour of our busiest day at the Festival, only to discover it in the mulch outside our hotel. (Pro-tip: Don’t sling your purse off your shoulder to the ground before throwing your suitcase into the car.)

Karla: Weird thing number 2: Everybody thinks English teachers will correct your grammar. It was bizarre how many folks were like, “English teachers! Hang on, let me make sure I’m saying this right!” Guys, we’ve got a reputation…

Jess and Karla: Weird thing number 3: People were really confused about what we were doing. There were folks who thought we were there to promote a book we wrote about teaching (we wish). There were folks who thought we were advocating for the speaking of ONLY English– like that we were some sort of crazy language-purists. And there were folks who couldn’t believe that we were teachers who liked teaching and who wanted to talk to other teachers about it.

This became at first frustrating, but then cemented for us the need for our organization. If people are confused by teachers who genuinely LOVE their jobs, and who are using their free time to advocate for other teachers, then it becomes clear that West Virginia really needs WVCTE.

And now for the wonderful:

Jess: We saw so many “excited to see us” faces from both teachers and community members, including the former president of the Maine Council for Teachers of English Language Arts.

Karla: We met several fellow English teachers who enthusiastically asked how to join/become involved/spread the word. It was so nice to see how excited so many teachers were about the revival of this organization.

Jess: Authors are generous and inspiring, and they love English teachers! We got to chat with Newbery winner, Matt de la Pena and the incredibly cool and wildly popular Maggie Stiefvater.

Karla: Books really do change lives. They impact people — they speak to them, for them, about them. To say our books board was inspiring would be an understatement. People of all ages perused and pondered, contributed and considered. And did we mention that Matt de la Pena and Maggie Stiefvater posted their book picks?

Karla:  The Book That Changed My Life Board was a great conversation starter, and I learned that Matt de la Pena and I share the same favorite vignette from The House on Mango Street: “Darius and the Clouds.” Here I am freaking out about it: 


Jess:  And finally, the last bit of wonderful is that the WV Book Festival itself is truly wonderful.  I’m embarrassed to say that this was my first visit, AND I CAN’T BELIEVE I’VE NEVER GONE! It’s really great.  There were kids activities, a STEM center, a turtle lady, a live action Cinderella and Prince Charming, and mountains and mountains of used books for sale.  In addition to the brilliant authors pictured above, there were many more with booth displays, signing books and chatting with book lovers,  I walked away with my arms full of a stack of books, both new and used, and my heart full of all the book joy I was surrounded by all weekend.

Kudos to the Festival organizers!  I can’t wait for next year!

Karla: Ditto all that. And as a native of Hurricane, I doubly can’t believe I’ve never been. My takeaway is this: West Virginia celebrates writing, writers, and their craft.

Realizing the Purpose of WVCTE

Jess and Karla:
We returned to work on Monday exhausted, but inspired. And after sorting and sifting through the mountains of contacts, business cards, and notes on the weekend, we realized that our two very busy days only cemented for us that by bringing WVCTE back to life, we are giving WV ELA teachers something they desperately want and need.
So here’s to the future of WVCTE.  To connecting, learning, and growing together.  We hope to see you at some of our upcoming events.  Not a member?  Consider joining!  Get involved! And check out the list of tentative upcoming events below:NCTE National Conference and Convention:  Atlanta, GA

December 9, 2016:  Holiday Book Swap at Domestic in Shepherdstown, WV
Bring a WRAPPED new or gently used book that you would recommend to someone else, and let the white elephant book swapping begin!

Spring 2017:  TBD 

October 2017:  WV Book Festival and Lesson Plan Swap

March 2018:  WVCTE state-wide ELA Conference:  Dates and Location to be announced