Rising Up to the Challenge (Blog #16)

For a different course today, I had the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane. I ended up visiting an online keyboarding website that helps students learn how to type. I couldn’t help but smile. When I was growing up my dad was a business teacher, and he made it a priority to teach me how to type at a young age. We had Mavis Beacon software installed on our home computer, and I would play those games for hours. One of my favorite was a racecar simulator. Every time you made a mistake, a bug would splat on the windshield. When you could no longer see the words you were supposed to be typing the race was over. In junior high school, the competitive typing continued. The only game we were allowed to play was TypeRacer. I loved it. As a thirteen-year-old, I once got on the top ten leader board with 128 WPM. You can bet I let my classmates know.


Yeah, I’m a megaracer. *Casually blows finger nails and then polishes them on shirt front.* Lol. Picture is my own. 

This reminiscing got me thinking about the role of competition in the classroom. Too much is unhealthy, but too little isn’t productive. Where do we draw the line? One of my favorite stories my professor told us during special methods class was that of Donalyn Miller book talking books she hated. I can tell you right now Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or The Regulators by Stephen King would be at the top of my list. Why would she take such a negative approach, you might ask? Good question. She did this as a challenge to get her students to read the books, and then tell her why she was wrong. I think everyone should take a moment of silence to revel in the brilliancy of this plot. I mean, hello reverse psychology! But in all seriousness it worked. Her students were clambering to check out these books she bashed, and they couldn’t wait to hash it out with her in class.

Though it was subtle, she clearly set the bar in her classroom. The level of the book didn’t matter, only her conviction that all students had the capability to read them and then competently debate them with her. What this is an example of is a teacher believing in her students, and showing them this through her expectations. More importantly, she used her belief to encourage students that they can believe in themselves.

Based off of my return to the world of competitive typing today, my average now sits somewhere around 116 WPM. It’s been almost 8 years since I was introduced to TypeRacer in the classroom, yet here it is still impacting me today. All thanks to some healthy competition. And just think! My competitive nature was directed toward Internet strangers, not my teacher. In the nature of my topic, I’m going to issue a challenge—for all of us current or future teachers, let’s not be afraid to set the bar high. After all, a little expectation never hurt nobody. 😉 Just remember to support students every step of the way. Be it in the classroom or on the keyboard.


Positive Communication (Blog #15)

When I was a student, my mom would go to every parent teacher conference. I don’t believe I ever went with her. In junior high and high school, there really was not much of a reason for her to go. I held a 4.0 GPA, I was not a trouble maker, there were no suspected issues that involved me. However, she went anyway. Actually, as a high schooler I even insisted she go on multiple occasions. Why? Because of the positive comments. Each time she came home I would eagerly ask her to report back what my teachers told her. “Tell me exactly what they said!” I’d insist. I loved the feeling of knowing that I was appreciated by my teachers; I thrived under their compliments.

My professor said something this week that caught my attention. “The only communication we need to have with parents” she said, “is positive.” This is truth. And I would take it a step further. It is not only parents who need to hear the positives, but students too. This is one reason why I have loved this class so much. It has completely changed my mindset in regard to my educational approach.

If someone had given me a student paper to grade my freshman year of college, I am confident that I would not have slashed the paper in red ink, searching for grammar mistakes. However, I am also confident that I would not have had the awareness to start with a simple positive comment. Actually, what I probably would have done was read the piece, marked a few places that looked questionable, and then assigned an arbitrary number. 97% for you, well done!

Arguably, this is positive. The student received an A and an encouraging comment. But how encouraging is this? Would it not be more effective to compliment their strong use of imagery, with an example? Would it not be more effective to let them know how impressed I am that they have read two books in two weeks? Would it not be more effective to tell the student who is a constant disruption that their energy brings such life to the classroom? I know what I believe. Now think how much it would affect a student if I told them that they have written one of the best persuasive arguments I have ever seen, and then called their parents to say the same.

This is what we should be doing as teachers. Whether students are over-achievers like I was, or are average, or have behavioral problems each and every one deserves to hear praise. After all, as teachers we are also nurturers. In order to help students believe that they are good… Don’t we need to acknowledge that good first? And I’ll add, we should be making these acknowledgements far more often than twice a year during parent teacher conferences. I’ll end with another quote from my professor— “You put positive in, you get positive out.”

NCTE17 Creating Responsive and Responsible Readers Session Review (Blog #14)

My last 2017 NCTE conference session was a complete accident. Let me explain. It was Saturday afternoon and I was exhausted. Not only were the past two days a complete whirlwind of new experiences, but I had been staying up late each night trying to hammer out a mountain of homework. After all, despite adopting the title “pre-service teacher” at the conference it still translated to “student.” The kicker is, I had also been waking up early each morning. As a result, I was sleep deprived. Extremely.

So I wandered throughout the convention center, trying to convince myself that once I found a decent spot I’d do some homework. Yet every step I took I could feel my eye lids become heavier and heavier. My back pack seemed to weigh a million pounds. Why didn’t I bring comfier shoes to walk in? With a sigh (and in increasing desperation to find a place to park) I took the escalator up to the second floor. I remembered that there were large, comfy seats that I had seen people sleeping on the day before. I took off down a hallway with newfound purpose and… all of the large, comfy seats were taken. Shoot. Resigned, I back tracked and found a quiet little space of wall. I sunk down to the floor. I let my eyes close for a moment, but then I felt someone walk in front of me. I peaked and saw them open a door a few feet away from me. They entered and were gone. That caught my attention. I knew where that door went. It’s the same room that Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher presented in on Friday! I didn’t know who was presenting in there now, but I immediately gathered my stuff. There were padded chairs waiting for me within.

Little did I know the session I had unintentionally stumbled into consisted of a panel that included Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief. What? Jackpot! I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes. Although I did accidentally doze off a few times, it was a great learning experience.

Due to my late arrival, Linda Rief was in the middle of her presentation when I walked in. Similar to Tom Romano, she encouraged the audience to participate in a collective quick write. She went on to provide a brief reasoning on why students need to be both readers and writers. Bob Probst was next. I loved his easy-going style. He equipped us with three characteristics that readers in our classroom should be: responsive, responsible, and compassionate. Last, but not least, was Penny Kittle. Her speech was concentrated on student conferences. Of course, it was enlightening. Moderating the show was Kylene Beers. I’d estimate that I’ve followed 25 to 50 people on Twitter this semester alone, and she was one that I added to my professional learning network. As a result, I knew that shortly before NCTE she had shared a blog post that announced her cancer had returned. If I wouldn’t have read it with my own eyes before attending the conference, I would have never guessed. Her stage presence was a force to be reckoned with. She asked probing questions throughout the presentation that resulted in thought provoking quotations. Here are a few that I collected:

“A person can read without writing, but she cannot write without reading.” –Don Murray

“Write first with a pen. It’s too easy to change a word on the computer and then forget what it was.” –Mary Oliver (I love this one!)

“Language matters.” –Bob Probst

“[Writing and reading conferences] are opportunities for students to be heard.” –Penny Kittle

“Until you have heard what the writer has to say, you [the teacher] do not have permission to speak” –Don Graves

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” –James Britten

“If we raise test scores, but not compassionate, kind, ethical students then we have failed.” –Kylene Beers

What more is there to say? I wish I would have had some coffee in my system before I found myself in the presence of these teaching greats, but no worries. I’m simply glad my need for sleep drove me to such a wonderful surprise.

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience NCTE.

NCTE17 Stop Grading, Start Reflecting: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning Session Review (Blog #13)

The penultimate (one of my all-time favorite words) session I attended at NCTE was good. Perhaps not outstanding, but good. The presenting team consisted of three teachers who all taught English in Boulder, Colorado. My family has ties to CSU so maybe I’m a little biased… just kidding. 😊 This group started their demonstration off with three quotes:

  1. “Teach the writer, not the writing.”
  2. “Teach the reader, not the book.”
  3. “Emphasize the process, not the final product.”

I saw these statements and I thought, right on! I agree 100%. Then they moved into a concept that I remember tilting my head and squinting my eyes at initially. In big letters on their PowerPoint slide read the words, “Be a mirror.” What does that even mean? They went on to explain with the following statement, “Take student work in, then reflect it back.” Okay… I suppose that makes sense. Where I agree to disagree is in the examples. Their idea of being a mirror consisted of reflecting student work back to them in the online gradebook. In other words, if a student wrote an informative paper on this history of basketball but struggled to include appropriate paragraph breaks (I couldn’t help but giggle; they pulled multiple examples from one student, and in each one there was a comment about needing to include paragraph breaks), then in the gradebook the teachers would write, “Wrote an informative paper on the history of basketball, but struggled to include paragraph breaks.”

When I envision myself being a mirror for my future students, things look a bit different. To start, at the high school level students should already know what they have written. Instead of wasting space in the gradebook naming the topic, I would rather dedicate that space to letting students know what they did well. In a twist on the example above I might write, “There is rich research in this paper! I loved your comparison of James Naismith to George Washington. Also, way to consistently use quote sandwiches. As you revise, be sure to keep an eye out for including appropriate paragraph breaks.” To me, there is a big difference even though I’m using a similar amount of space. With this method students receive positive feedback in a manner that lets them know I actually read their paper, instead of just skimming for issues they may need to work on. It’s a more personal approach, and that can go a long way.

Taking it further, if I do choose to reflect the topic back to students it is going to be in a more subtle manner—conferences. As Penny Kittle so masterfully does, when I am meeting with students one-on-one I will use my teacher superpower of turning any question into a question in order to help students get to the heart of their writing. For example, if the student who wrote the hypothetical paper mentioned above starts thinking aloud about a potential writing piece I might use the details they unknowingly provide me with like puzzle pieces. As I collect each piece they share with me, I can start to fit it together into a picture. Once I have the four corners established, I might say something to the effect of “I notice that your ideas so far contain a lot of details on both basketball and its history. Perhaps you could combine these two topics together?” The goal is to offer reflective comments that simultaneously help me understand what the student is saying, and help them to understand too.

At this point in time, I don’t think I’ll be setting a mirror up next to my grade book just yet. But that’s okay. The ultimate message in this presentation is that grades aren’t everything, and it is possible to go much of the school year without issuing them. This is an interesting idea, even if my idea of feedback that is provided in the meantime is different than theirs. In the end, though they may have lost me at times, one thing I can say about this session is that the presenters were all about adapting grading in order to best meet the needs of students. Isn’t that what we all should do?

NCTE17 The Magic of Multigenre: Voice, Passion, Empowerment Session Review (Blog #12)

Weeks before we attended the NCTE convention, I was on the NCTE website scouring the speaker line-ups. It was exciting— the sheer amount of knowledge that was contained on that web page is mind boggling. Even so, I did not let myself get overwhelmed. I had a purpose. There was one name that I was searching for above all others. Tom Romano. Aha! Suddenly, my eyes lit upon his name on the screen. I made a mental note. Still giddy with excitement, as soon as I received my invitation to join the NCTE app his session was the first I added to my personal agenda. “The Magic of Multigenre: Voice, Passion, Empowerment” was everything I hoped it would be and more.

But I mustn’t get ahead of myself. Before Tom Romano spoke there was a presentation by his co-panelist, Jennifer Connolly. She was fabulous. Knowledgeable and quick witted, I hung on her every word as she explained the ways she implemented multi-genre writing in her dual-credit senior English class. As some may remember, this was the session I chose to present on in special methods class. I loved sharing about the student examples Connolly showed us during her demonstration. A picture of a katana for killing zombies, a list of every pair of running shoes and the miles they accumulated while a cross country star wore them, and a math word problem were just a handful of the AMAZING work students included in their multi-genre papers. When given the chance, kids will surprise you. This assignment embodies that.

Yet one thing I didn’t get the chance to share was the timeline Connolly included in her handout. If anyone decides to implement a multi-genre project when they get into the classroom (I know I absolutely will!) having the layout is useful. The segments she split the work into were as follows:

Week one: Introduction and idea exploration

Week two: Research design

Week three: Working with sources, four-page mark

Week four: Group work, ten-page mark

Week five: Conferencing, full draft

Week six: Final multigenre paper, presentations

I like this format because it is evenly spaced out, but it still encourages students to hit the ground running to meet challenging yet attainable goals each week. Before hearing Connolly speak, if someone would have asked me about the concept of multi-genre writing I would have automatically been overwhelmed. It seems like such a daunting task. In many ways it is. But boy, is the pay off worth it. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what using this incredible tool actually looks like in the classroom.

And then came the headliner—Tom Romano himself. Though Tom did not speak on the actual implementation of multi-genre writing as much as Connolly did, I still learned a ton. I touched on this moment in class, but I feel it is worth sharing again here. The first thing Tom did when he stepped in front of the podium was ask each of to pull out a piece of paper. We’re going to free write, he said. He clicked the PowerPoint to show us our prompts, turned on a phone alarm, and then he did something so mundane it was magical. He pulled his personal journal out of his coat pocket. With a final smile at us, he then dipped his head down and began to write as intently as anyone in the audience.

Wow. This struck a deep chord with me. All semester long we have been preaching the value of leading literate lives as teachers, and here was a living example in front of me. He did not pull out his journal after a long-winded explanation nor did he draw attention to the fact that he was writing too; instead, he simply… wrote. That is what I want to become. A literate adult where reading and writing are second nature, as opposed to a chore that needs to be completed. It’s been almost a month since this took place and I am just as inspired now as I was then.

In conclusion, here are my three key takeaways:

  1. When you give students the opportunity to be creative, they most certainly will.
  2. Multi-genre writing takes knowledge, planning, and structure but the results are worth all the minutes teachers and students pour in.
  3. Tom Romano is every bit the embodiment of what English teachers should be! Just like his writing led me to believe. 😊

NCTE17 Hey Young Adults! There’s a World Out There! Session Review (Blog #11)

I’m going to state flat out that this blog post isn’t going to be as much about the session, as the reason why I wanted to attend the session. As a further disclaimer, I am not near ready to open-up about what I am about to write… so this blog post is going to be brief.

When I saw Neal Shusterman’s name on the list of authors that were going to present at the panel “Hey Young Adults! There’s a World Out There!” I immediately knew I wanted to attend. This may seem odd considering I have only ever read one of his books, Unwind. This novel was taught to me during sophomore English, and it was the first time I had experienced a piece of young adult fiction as a whole class novel. I loved it. I still remember one of my final projects for the unit; I traced my hand on a sheet of paper to look like the cover of the book, and then in stark red marker I created a word cloud around it. I was so proud when I turned it in, and it ended up stapled to my teacher’s classroom wall where she hung exemplary student work for all to see.

My high school English teacher passed away this summer at a young age. It hurt. It still hurts. I wish I could tell her that I got to hear Neal Shusterman speak, that afterward I got to explain to him (with only a few stutters as I made consistent eye contact with my shoes) how his novel was the first to let me know that there was more to English class than Shakespeare and textbooks. How I got to take a picture with him! When I was waiting in the hall to get into the session, Neal Shusterman walked right past us. I could have reached my hand out and touched him. I immediately pulled my phone out of my pocket, and for one moment I forgot—ready to message my teacher the incredible experience I was about to have. But it passed, and instead I sent a text to a friend.

I learned in this session. It was interesting to hear the other authors. Brendan Kiely, Suzanne Young, and Sharon Draper (who I remembered reading November Blues by after pulling it off the shelf in my high school library) discuss why their texts resonated with young adult readers. But most of all, I’m glad I attended this panel because it made me happy to meet the man who had such a small yet significant impact on my life through his work. As I captioned my Instagram photo, sophomore year me was so excited! And I know that my teacher would have been excited too.


NCTE17 Reading as a Personal Art Session Review (Blog #10)

If you have read my last post here on the Joyous Life of Jess, then you know that my first foray into the world of NCTE small sessions was not… what I hoped it would be. I ended that post by saying that redemption was right around the corner. Little did I know I was about to see, in real life, the woman I just finished fangirling over in my recent professional development book blog. That’s right, at my second NCTE small session I got to hear PENNY KITTLE speak in the flesh. If that isn’t enough, NANCIE ATWELL and KELLY GALAGHER were there too! And get this, I was in the fifth row up in the bottom left section of the auditorium which immediately faced the side of the stage that the podium was on. Eeeep! Not to be creepy, but it was incredible. Yet, even more incredible was what I learned.

The first to speak was Nancie Atwell, who I was first introduced to in The Theory and Practice of Teaching Writing course. However, looking back I find my initial experience with her to be insufficient and I cannot wait to read her professional development books. The story she told was incredible. A male student, I believe an eighth grader, entered Atwell’s classroom as an adamant opponent against reading. Through book talks, it did not take Atwell long to hook (the Penny Kittle metaphor lives on) this student by giving a book talk over works that covered topics this student enjoyed. As she stated, “Any achievement, child or adult, is driven by interest.” This boy ended up becoming what one could easily consider a voracious reader, all within the span of a single year.

But this tale is not one with a happy ending. After devouring one book after another in Atwell’s class, he moved onto high school where his reading habits regressed to fake reading the two or three assigned books in English class in order to receive a passing grade. The passion was squelched in this child, arguably as a means of standardization. How sad is that? Yet it is important information. We can work hard to encourage students to develop identities as readers and writers, but without a strong foundation and firm support that lasts the identities may crumble. Luckily, there is a secret weapon. My favorite quote from Atwell’s speech was as follows: “Human beings are built to love stories.” So, what do you say? Let’s give our students these stories.

Next up were Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher who presented on a learning experiment they had been pioneering over the last three years. Essentially, it has turned into a cross country book club between Gallagher’s students in California, Kittle’s students in New Hampshire, and a collegiate English class from the school that Tom Romano teaches at in Ohio, Miami University. What they do is extraordinary. The greatest testament to this is the actual videos they showed of their students corresponding with their long-distance peers. To see the collaboration, insight, and respect these students shared with one another was a neat experience. Here are some of my favorite snippets:

“This year is different than last year; this year’s students are different than last year’s students. So how can one assume what they need from you?” Penny Kittle

“I’m not a literature teacher, I’m a literacy teacher.” Kelly Gallagher

“We write every day.” Penny Kittle

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell

“We create a live circuit between books, kids, and culture.” Kelly Gallagher

I still get goosebumps just thinking about hearing these words. What Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher did was leave me with a yearning to connect students to reading and writing like they did… To make these activities not only worthwhile, but meaningful. That is the word that describes the work each of these three distinguished educators have done, are doing, and will do—meaningful. Every assignment that is completed within our classrooms should be saturated with intention that strives to make the most of student education. Simple as that.

P.S. Thanks to Kelly Gallagher, I also will most definitely have a crappy prize box in my classroom and I can’t wait to stock it. 😊

NCTE17 The Real Life of Fiction: Using Nonfiction Texts with Literacy Texts Session Review (Blog #9)

I would describe my first ever small NCTE session in this way—sometimes first impressions just aren’t great.

I remember being so excited as I split from the group that I attended the Jimmy Santiago Baca general session with, leaving them with the words, “I’m going to check out the one on nonfiction texts!” I nervously opened the NCTE app on my phone, pulling up the map to show that all I needed to do was go straight down the hall and look for a room next to the bathrooms. I was by myself. I walked the short distance, pulling the door open quickly so as to assuage the butterflies in my stomach. The session didn’t start for another 15 minutes but the room was almost full. I took a seat next to an older woman. It seemed as though everyone else was talking, but she was engrossed with her phone. So I busied myself with pulling my notebook out of my backpack, selecting a pen to go with it.

Shortly thereafter, the session started. A woman by the name of Tracy Sholz opened it with the following statement, “Texts that we read in the classroom are not just for a grade in the gradebook.” My heart calmed a little. Okay. I can get behind that thinking. But… it did not last. We were given handouts that contained an excerpt from the short story “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan. We were to skim read it, and then they gave us questions to answer with our partner. They all dealt with analyzation. It was not what I was expecting; rather, it felt like I was the unsuspecting student being assessed on what I didn’t know. I do not remember the first question they asked (I ended up “losing” my handout), but I do remember that the older woman seated next to me, who ended up being my partner, had a textbook answer. I could not have said it better myself. I stuttered, and essentially regurgitated her information back to her. Thankfully, the session leaders called for our attention. They asked people to volunteer their answers. Two teachers raised their hands, and produced answers that were equally as perfect. I started to freak out. Is that what teaching is like? Always having the right answer? I felt like a fraud.

And then this feeling was compounded. The next question was worded in such a way that it required intimate knowledge of students. I did not have that. So, I decided to be honest. My partner asked me what I thought, and I told her that I was a pre-service teacher and was unable to apply this question to my own experiences. It could have been my nerves, but I swore after that moment our brief interactions became tinged with condescension. This disheartened me. As did the content for which I was being looked down upon… It did not fit with the reading values that I want my classroom to have.

I left feeling frustrated. Was this what the whole conference was going to be like? Thankfully, no. Redemption was right around the corner. Yet, it was still a difficult experience. I did not learn until after the fact that it is totally okay to walk out of a session you don’t enjoy. Oh well. I still learned a valuable lesson from the older lady who sat to my left. It is quite possible that not all of my future co-workers are going to support me as a new teacher. This is okay. I cannot let what they may think of me discourage my passion. Because ultimately that is the driving force, passion. And someday, if my passion helps carry me through twenty years of teaching, then you bet your bottom dollar that I will support the next generation of educators. After all, people may forget what you say but they will never forget how you made them feel.

I’m Hooked on The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching by Penny Kittle (Professional Development Book #1, Blog #8)

Turns out, Penny Kittle loves to fish. Considering she grew up in Oregon, this is no surprise. In the introduction section of her book The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching, Kittle explains how fishing was the way she bonded with her father. Yet the relationship with her father was not the only place where fishing bridged gaps. Kittle paints a picture, “My father caught a beautiful steelhead that morning and I caught nothing but trees across the river with my errant casts. I loved the trying, though . . . A warm sweater, grey dawn, and Dad and I in love with the water made a sweet harmony in life I continue to seek. And then I became a teacher. And it was a lot like fishing” (2). Kittle carries this comparison throughout each section of her book, many of which chronicle an experience with certain students from her twenty years of teaching. Though I could easily write an eager account on all of Kittle’s stories, I am only going to share two in this blog post.

The first is a chapter entitled “grace” and in addition to making me laugh out of relatability, it taught me a truth that often is not toted in teacher education programs. Let me set the stage: in this scene, Kittle is observing a class of first graders. She got caught up working with the same group of children during reading time for five days in a row, so her mentor teacher sent her outside with a book and a different group of students.

Once they reached the playground, two girls ran away. Kittle called them back, and the girls came sprinting with arms outstretched. Kittle reached out with her arms too. Focused on the girls, she failed to notice the jungle gym… and the bar collided straight into her nose. Ouch. As a side note, I did the exact same thing as a 5th grader after I had moved to a new school— except I was playing chase with a group of kids and it was the support beam to the big slide that I ran into. Luckily, I did not break my nose! But Kittle did. Naturally, she was in extreme pain but she did not want to leave the students. Its quite amazing what happens next. A little first grader offers to read the book for the hurt Miss Ostrem. Kittle states, “I nodded. She held the book before her and made sure we could see the pictures as she turned the pages” (29). I don’t think kids get enough credit. Sure, there are tough cases, but so many are willing to rise above and beyond the occasion. As she writes a little later on, “Teaching has taught me about the essential goodness in people—in teenagers, even—the wish to help, not hurt” (Kittle 30). It seems as though there is a constant drone about how difficult our given profession will be, and a lot of it is true. However, what this drone fails to take account of is the fact that teaching is a profession steeped in humanity. This means that people, especially students, will surprise you over and over again by providing grace, even when you expect it least.

The second chapter that had a profound impact on me is entitled, “our last day of school.” Let me preface this with a short story. Last summer a teacher I knew ended up fostering one of her students from the previous year. I do not know why she was taken away from her parents in the first place, but when CPS asked the student who she would be most comfortable staying with she immediately answered, “My teacher.” How powerful is that? Kittle writes of a similar situation that occurred when she was just starting out in education. She had a set of real money that was used in her elementary classroom as practice for counting change. After two years of no issues, money suddenly disappeared… as did other classroom artifacts. Eventually, she deduced it was a student named Darlene who had been sexually abused by her father for much of her young life. As punishment, Darlene was sentenced to detention on the last day of school while the other students enjoyed playing games during field day. Darlene accepted this penalty, and used her time to write Kittle a letter. Upon opening the note after all the kids were gone for the summer, she read a plea. “Her apology was sincere” Kittle describes, “her explanations a jumbled mess of things she herself did not understand. She just couldn’t control herself no matter how she tried. And then she asked if I’d let her come and live with me. She begged. She said she knew I’d say no, but she’d never wanted anything as much as this and couldn’t I please just let her live at my house and be her mother? She promised to be good and my sobs absorbed her pleas of forgiveness and mercy” (42). My heart broke reading this section. For $30,000 a year, teachers are tasked with not only assigning A Separate Peace or grading vocabulary worksheets but helping students endure the unthinkable. When home is no longer home, students search for love elsewhere—often the first place they look is at school, within the teachers who consistently show students that they are valuable in so many other ways than a grade in the gradebook. As teachers, we should strive to make our classrooms this sort of safe haven. Life is messy and difficult, but we have some power to be a steady presence in a student’s tumultuous existence. Remember that.

The Greatest Catch JPEG

Ignore my poor attempt at drawing a fishing pole, and focus instead on the fact that Penny Kittle’s book is amazing—fishing metaphors and all! Picture is my own.

I suppose I will end this review by saying that what impacted by the most about Penny Kittle’s book was not necessarily the words, but the way it made me feel. When I closed the final page there was a tightening in my chest that embodied the weighty responsibility our chosen career path entails. Our students are going to look to us for much more than assignments, and we would be wise to live each day with that in mind. I don’t mean to sound like a downer—but at the same time I recognize that it is a serious calling. This book is heavy, but it is even more inspiring. I HIGHLY recommend every teacher, regardless of subject, to read it. I am blown away. Like her own students, through the teaching in this text Penny Kittle has caught me hook, line, and sinker.

Works Cited

Kittle, Penny. The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching. Heinemann, 2005.

NCTE17 Jimmy Santiago Baca General Session Review (Blog #7)

To be completely honest, I have never read any of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s works. Until this year, I am unsure whether or not I had heard his name. I am disappointed in this. He has an incredible story, going from prisoner to poet. But even more so he has an incredible gift to tell stories. Hearing him speak of his teaching endeavors left me with tears in my eyes, laughter on my lips, and happiness in my heart.

First, I want to list some of his quotes from the session that I felt impelled to jot down:

  • “Write to keep the light lit” (This Baca quote is going to be printed on a sign that will hang over the door of my future classroom).
  • “True poetry happens when you’re not supposed to and you do.”
  • “True poetry comes from the deepest recesses of our heart that allow us to cross the bridge anyway.”
  • “Wherever there is controversy, there is teachers. Because that’s who we are.”


Clearly, there is no doubt that this man is a poet. However, he is so much more. Teacher, mentor, encourager of hope… He proved in his speech that he wears many hats. One such illustration of this is a tale he told that struck a chord with me. After having a fight with his wife over money, they pulled into a gas station. His writing and speaking were not supporting the family like she wanted. After going to a speaking engagement where the group could not even afford to pay for Jimmy’s gas, his wife almost had him convinced that he needed to pursue other career options. He was on the ropes. As he handed a small amount of money to the attendant, the man asked if he was Jimmy Baca. Jimmy said yes. The man explained how one time Jimmy talked to his class, and the man never forgot. He said he had been struggling with addiction to drugs (or alcohol… some of the details are fuzzy). As a form of self-control, he had begun journaling because he remembered Jimmy’s encouragement of writing. It helped the man, and he thanked Jimmy.

Here’s the deal: that is what teaching is all about. The connections. Though the man only experienced a passing encounter, Jimmy had a long-lasting influence over the man’s life. As teachers we only have a short time with our students. Sometimes a year or two or three, but after that they set out on their own. It is our responsibility to make the most out of the time we have, to help students make the most of theirs. Jimmy accomplished in one encounter what most educators fail to do in a lifetime; he helped one young man see writing as a safe space. Further, he helped the young man believe that he is a writer. That is all I want—for my students to see that writing not only staves away darkness, but helps them to keep the light lit. Because each and every one of them has the ability to shine.