#StayWoke: Empowering Students to Respond to Fake News

Mariah Morin and Heather Hurst

As my (Mariah’s) own social media feeds were flooded with fake news and articles about fake news, my thoughts turned to students who must also be grappling with the tricky questions of reliability and veracity in this digital landscape. In English classes, we often ask students to be critical consumers of texts and media. The Common Core State Standards require that high school students “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8). The news has existed, for many of us, as fact-based and credible, yet these times call for us to help our students make sense of what may be false or fallacious in media we once trusted unquestioningly. We wonder how students themselves are experiencing the news writ large. And perhaps more importantly, we wonder how we can empower our students not only to critique these existing “news” sources but also to produce thoughtful and substantiated responses. Just as the Common Core standards require that students evaluate existing texts, they articulate the need for students to learn to rise above the fallacies and fake news in the texts they themselves create: “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concern” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B). Fake news fails to reasonably consider counterclaims, and perhaps more importantly, counterevidence.

Discussions about our students’ ability to interpret the news media they consume aren’t new. For instance, Regina Marchi interviewed teens from 2007 to 2011 to investigate their news preferences and found that most tended not to read newspapers or watch televised news; instead, they accessed news from sites like Facebook and YouTube. She wrote that the adolescents’ friends’ lists “served as news ‘filters,’ bringing various stories to the teens’ attention and helping them understand their relevance via posted commentaries” (252). Interestingly, more than 25% of these adolescents reported consuming “fake news,” although they meant satirical news productions such as The Colbert Report, and they in fact rejected the notion that the news media should be objective. As Marchi explains, “In contrast to the disinterested observations about the political world typical of ‘boring’ professional news, the ironic and passionate remarks of blogs and humorous or acerbic current events shows ‘put things in context,’ offered ‘different opinions,’ and were ‘not afraid to tell it like it is’” (256). In the past couple of years, however, the definition of “fake news” has evolved to mean texts (including non-print media) that are not satirical but instead masquerade as objective truth. Donna Alvermann, a prominent researcher of adolescent literacies, says that we are in a “post-factual era” and suggests that adolescents operate “in a digital culture that tolerates fakeness in its various disguises” (225). She urges us, as English educators, to engage in critical inquiry with our adolescents to help them discern factual news from fake.

Heather and I met in the spring 2017 semester when I enrolled in her adolescent literacy course. Although I have a master’s degree in English education, I am not currently teaching and needed a course to update my certification. One of the learning activities in Heather’s course was to develop a writing-to-learn activity. I created my writing-to-learn activity shortly after President Trump, concerned with “fake news,” tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people.” Because I take inquiry stance in my own thinking, learning, and teaching, I found myself preoccupied with what Trump’s remarks might mean for our society. My assignment evolved organically from my curiosity about how students would interpret and shape the conversation about fake news and the media. I wondered: How do students navigate this complicated digital and informational web? How would students situate themselves within the conversation about fake news? How might they build knowledge collaboratively and individually, demonstrate power, and make sense of their own agency in their writing about fake news? Essentially, how do students interrogate texts, and how do they influence and create texts?

Teaching the Assignment

After I submitted my assignment, Heather encouraged me to find a classroom in which I could teach it because the questions I explored in this assignment felt pressing and tied to the current moment. The topic of fake news seemed like one that mattered, both in terms of student interest (it was accessible and engaging) and educational value (with an emphasis on digital literacy, fact-finding, and crafting meaningful responses). We found a willing English teacher and arranged for me to investigate these questions in a living, breathing classroom. We also received IRB approval to collect data (which included student artifacts and my own notes) during my lesson and collected consent and assent forms from the students and their parents. The class at a school in Western Maryland was a blend of about fifteen sophomores and juniors whom their teacher described as “good critical thinkers.” I introduced President Trump’s role in the conversation around fake news by including a screenshot of his tweet about the media being the enemy of the people with other images of relevant headlines.

Designing the Lesson

I designed my lesson to give students the space to investigate the concept of “fake news” and disseminate important information about it to real audiences. The two-day lesson took place in stages comprised of a whole class discussion about prior knowledge of fake news, a quick-write to record their initial thoughts on the topic, further discussion, and student-driven research on their questions that developed from our discussions and their own “writing to learn.” Each student received a paper “Facebook post” template (see Figure 1) and instructions to “Write a post you could imagine going viral on Facebook. What do you think people need to know about fake news?” The bulk of the second day’s activity centered on creating the “posts” and responding to each other’s work.

Facebook seemed like an appropriate literacy tool as defined by Beach et al. because it is “neither static nor detached from social situations” and provides an opportunity and a venue “to transform relationships, spaces, the focus of people’s inquiry, and identities” (14). As demonstrated in Figure 2, the authors describe a literacy tool as one that contributes to transformation with its purposes of engaging in critical inquiry, constructing spaces, establishing agency, and enacting identities, existing in a “synergistic relationship” (21). Facebook seems to fit the criteria as it is a text to be read and written; it is text and tool. Additionally, it is a medium that most students are intimately familiar with, is tied to their identities, and has a direct relationship to the topic of fake news because so much of the conversation and fake news itself finds its way onto Facebook. Paradoxically, this digital literacy lesson took place without any actual digital tools. I assumed that an offline “simulation” would translate into online skills and stances and vice versa. In designing the assignment for the offline classroom, I built in opportunities to mimic the conventions and connectivity of Facebook: I encouraged students to use hashtags and tags to situate themselves in a larger conversation, and provided the opportunity to respond to each other’s work during a gallery walk via smiley and heart stickers (“likes” and “loves”) and sticky notes (“comments”).

What Did Students Have to Say About #FakeNews?

The students and I first engaged in a whole-class discussion about fake news. Because I am not their regular teacher, I wanted to assess their prior knowledge on the topic. Immediately, Darren (all names are pseudonyms) referred to “fake news” as a term used by President Trump to discredit news that puts him in a negative light. As we unpacked this statement through questions like, “What makes the news fake or real?” and “What are our expectations of journalists and the media?” students seemed to arrive collectively at the definition of fake news as, essentially, bias. Students then had ten minutes to write about these questions: “How should the media operate in a democracy such as ours? Is it currently operating that way? How has fake news influenced society?”

Given the collaborative definition the class had developed, many students focused their responses on bias. The majority of their answers went something like Margo’s: “I think in a democracy like ours the news should give us information straight up.” Joni echoed the sentiment, writing that the media “should speak the truth and let the people decide for themselves what is right and wrong.” She added, “Fake news changes people (sic) perspectives and some sources tell you what to believe or what they believe is right. They don’t let us have our own opinions.” She addressed issues of power by positioning the bias in the media as effectively silencing or reducing citizens’ ability to form their own opinions. Many of these initial responses included various levels of mistrust of the media. For example, Hayden directly wrote, “I would say fake news makes our society worry about if the system is corrupted or begs the question ‘who can we trust?’” Students seemed to be deeply ambivalent regarding the news and its effects on individuals and society as a whole.

Jonathan gave a slightly more nuanced interpretation: “The media’s job is to report the news. They should do it in a straight, fair manner. However, opinionated news cannot be illegal; that goes against the 1st Amendment… Our job, as good citizens, is to filter the news ourselves and realize what is factual and what is an opinion.” Jonathan demonstrated an unusual sense of agency and personal responsibility. Although some students, like Joni, felt that the media constrict and constrain our ability to respond, Jonathan saw private citizens as capable of and responsible for critiquing and responding to fake news and the media.

Next Steps: Posing the Questions

After sharing some of their quick-write responses, students created questions about what they wanted to know about fake news. I introduced the next step: independent research. I asked students to find three sources that would help to illuminate their questions about fake news. To support this research (and so I could map their thought processes), I provided students with a graphic organizer (see Figure 3). I also asked them to evaluate their sources and to talk about the bias represented and the reliability (or not) of the sources they chose. To this end, I showed students a viral graphic that positions a variety of news outlets across a spectrum of liberal to conservative bias and low to high journalistic integrity (see Figure 4). (The graphic I shared has been recently updated, reflective of the dynamic metadiscussion about the role of the news media.) “Source” was a flexible term; students were free to explore things like news articles, Twitter feeds, or YouTube videos. The only real criterion was that the sources would somehow advance the conversation or their knowledge of fake news.

This phase of the lesson is where student autonomy really began to emerge. Students asked a range of probing questions based on their interest in the topic. The questions fell into six broad categories: “What is fake news?”; “Why is fake news relevant/how does it affect society?”; “When did fake news start?”; “How is it created?”; “How does it spread?”; and “How to spot fake news.” Interestingly, and again reflecting students’ apparent belief that they are acted upon rather than actors in the conversation about fake news, Ellen was the only student to directly tackle the question of “potential solutions to the use of fake news.”

Our opening activity on day two involved an interactive sticky note activity in which students chose one of their sources and positioned it along the spectrum, similar to the viral infographic we viewed the day before. In this way, students could situate their sources in a complex landscape of media bias and reliability. Supporting students in recognizing the bias in their sources was one element of empowerment. In this activity, we conceptualized writing not only as the act of putting words to the page but also the act of articulating an interpretive response to these texts. This expanded definition of writing helps us position as writers those students who contribute thoughtfully to our collective thinking through class discussions but who would not traditionally be considered writers. As they had expressed distrust in the media and even in consumers of media to identify bias, including this activity was a subtle way to reinforce their own power in confronting and analyzing the media.

Going Viral?: Students’ Posts

Whereas students’ quick-writes were generally similar in content and style, their “posts” provided a great deal of individuality and variety. For example, Darren began his post with, “Yoooooo! It’s Darren here. I’ve been feeling really weird over this whole #fakenews thing @realdonaldtrump has been trying to push on us. I think I will finally speak my mind.” Hayden took a more philosophical approach: “Take such things as a grain of sand. Let it be there only to be there, the news. Do not let the waves of the ocean, one of opinions, engulf your thoughts. Believe none but what your mind and heart tell you, not what others force upon you.” Margo used rhetorical style to discuss the impact of fake news overseas, “Macron’s presidential campaign has been financed by Saudi Arabia? Wrong! Marine Le Pen criticizing a kids (sic) show because the little girl wears a veil? Wrong again!” Bea used more colorful descriptors when introducing her thoughts: “Contrary to popular belief our zany President, Donald Trump, did NOT make up ‘fake news’.” It seems that when students are offered the opportunity to write in a non-academic genre for their own interests, they potentially produce interesting, provocative, and powerful texts.

Their posts were also more authoritative, demonstrating greater agency, than their original quick-writes. As Beach et al. write, “We define agency as having the potential or capacity to enact change in status-quo practices, beliefs, or self-perceptions… Students who view themselves as change agents believe that they can make a difference in the world. They are willing not only to voice their beliefs about the need for change but also to enact change through active participation despite difficulties” (52). Many students called on their audience to “do a little research” and to “educate the people” about fake news. Hash tags that students used to reiterate the point included ones used by multiple students (including in their comments on each other’s work)–“#stopfakenews” and “#notmynews,”–and those used by individuals “#geteducated,” “#evaluatenews,” and “#staywoke.” A few students still mentioned being a “victim” of fake news or distrust of the media, but the majority of students seemed to demonstrate their belief that they could spot fake news and help others learn to do the same.

With some students, it was easy to see how their research influenced their final posts. Jonathan synthesized a couple of sources from his research organizer: “As good citizens, we have a responsibility to become educated and filter the news ourselves. According to one study, facts can ‘combat’ fake news effectively. Fake news goes both ways (liberal and conservative) and no side is to blame. False stories have always existed (yellow journalism) and we have a duty to know what is and what isn’t.” Margo used the BBC and CrossCheck to help compose her post about the French election, and Cassie referenced The Guardian as a resource for self-education about fake news.

Most students didn’t necessarily change their opinions but strengthened them (which they themselves acknowledged in the follow-up reflection questions). Miley originally wrote in her quick-write, “Fake news has changed the way Americans interpret things. Most people believe what they see because we usually trust the internet to give us correct information about certain issues.” But in her viral post, she wrote, “Fake news is taking over the internet and we need to do something about it.” Additionally, her follow-up writing offered more of her own opinion and demonstrates the desire for people to act in response to fake news rather than passively accept it. Tommy initially wrote, “The media should be truthful and unbiased to give citizens a proper view on current events… Fake news can misinform people and change their outlook on politicians and recent events.” By the end of the lesson he advocated for individuals to take responsibility for evaluating their news: “If a story seems fake, check multiple sources to confirm or deny its legitimacy. Inform others of the issue of fake news. Then we can all make sure we receive truthful news that allows us to make proper decisions and stances on events.” While their responses weren’t wildly different from start to finish, they clearly progressed in their thinking and evolved in their vision of themselves and others as active, critical consumers of media, which they expressed, at times powerfully, through their writing.

Reflecting: Do Students See Themselves as Powerful Contributors to Current Conversations?

I suppose I was asking students to make the mental leap from completing a hypothetical, in-class, offline assignment to imagining themselves as active participants in online discussions. Their willingness to engage in an in-class activity did not necessarily translate to an inclination to insert themselves into a broader social media conversation. Despite the overall strength and tone in their Facebook posts and their clear ease in writing in the genre, most students still did not express a desire to take their opinions online. As Bea wrote, “I prefer to look at what other people are saying rather than put myself out there just because I feel as if it’s pointless to comment on social media. The only thing that will happen is an online squabble with someone who has a dissenting opinion.” Miley felt similarly, saying, “I would not want to start an argument.” Cassie said she wouldn’t post her thoughts on Facebook “because a lot of social media discussions about these topics are arguments and I don’t like that.” Darren merged a few thoughts about social media discussions, saying “they tend to become negative… the internet isn’t the best place for political discussion.” Ellen and Jonathan both said they prefer to share their opinions “in real life.” Generally, it seems like these students wanted to add their voice “locally” with familiar people and in a familiar environment. This tendency leads us to consider how our students are conceptualizing digital spaces and social media; although they often share personal and intimate details on social media, these students are clearly reluctant to engage in political discussions in these spaces. Do they see face-to-face discourse as less argumentative and, thus, more productive, or is it that they have personal relationships with those with whom they engage face-to-face, whereas they imagine engaging with combative strangers on social media?

The Media: A Malevolent Force?

During our discussions, some students talked about the ways in which we tend to seek out news that affirms our beliefs. Reinforcing their own observations, many students claimed that their opinions weren’t changed by the sources they found, but were strengthened. Bruce Pirie queries, “Once we see audience and text engaged in a meaning-making transaction, two interrelated questions arise. First, how and to what extent is the audience constructing the text? Second, how and to what extent is the text constructing its own audience?” (29). I found it interesting that though social media are interactive, students still do not see themselves as capable of significantly influencing conversations on social media. To that end, Margo wrote, “I feel like my opinions are not important in social media discussion. I think this because I believe I do not have a big enough ‘Fan base’ to get my point around.” Some of their posts, and, even more so, their reflections demonstrate a reluctance to engage with what they perceive to be a force greater than themselves, one that has almost a sinister ability to cause division, arguments, and mistrust. For instance, Miley wrote, “I do not like the fact that I cannot trust sources that might have once been reliable. Americans cannot trust anything now.” In developing and enacting agency around the topic of fake news, I hoped to encourage students to be critical and active versus fearful and passive, but for some, the distrust remained.

So What Does It Mean to Have Power and Agency in Digital Spaces?

When creating this lesson, I imagined that students, by interacting with literacy tools, would somehow be transformed, and that they themselves would transform the literacy tools (in this case, a larger “Facebook” discourse). But agency and transformation didn’t happen in exactly the ways I thought they would. I imagined students would “take up the cause” to a higher degree, envisioning themselves as major change agents. Instead, transformation and agency were subtler. Students demonstrated agency and participated in meaning-making by:

  1. Taking responsibility for determining the credibility of their sources (both in their research and in their recommendations to their audiences in their posts).
  2. Creating and using hashtags that positioned themselves firmly within the conversation as knowledge creators and “interacting with each other’s texts” (Beach et al 48).
  3. Creating their own research questions based on their interests and charting their own course for their internet search.
  4. Using their unique voices that emerged to create more powerful and interesting writing; and
  5. Using the conventions of the genre (social media posts) proficiently to increase the impact of their positions about fake news.

The Inquiry Cycle Continues: Concluding Thoughts

The assignment was designed to support students in the development of their knowledge, and ultimately, their stance regarding fake news. As Beach et al write, “Adopting a critical inquiry stance also involves engaging in dialogue with others, and collective action leading to change” (30). My goal was to see a change in students’ views of themselves as influencers as well as a change in the actual dialogue regarding fake news—that students would feel empowered to affect this change through their writing.

As the teacher/researcher, I assumed that students would have a high level of engagement with the topic because of its relevance. Furthermore, I expected that students would have a strong sense of, and interest in, their own identities as creators and disseminators of knowledge. While the writing and research process included many elements of personal agency, culminating in what I would characterize as strongly-voiced manifestos on fake news, students still did not seem to perceive themselves as powerful contributors to the online discourse. Neither did they seem to desire to participate in such change-making conversations.

We’re left wondering how, as educators, we can mediate our wish for students to participate genuinely, especially in digital spaces, with students’ agentic responses of “I don’t want to.” How can—or should—students’ social and educational, personal and political, digital and local worlds overlap? We find ourselves thinking about ways to negotiate student interests with our pedagogical interest in social change, acknowledging that we assume that creating change is valuable and desirable. We recognize the myriad ways in which students enact power throughout the writing process and affirm their agency in choosing their audience. Meanwhile, we can continue to encourage them to shift toward a more nuanced understanding of “argument,” from a “squabble” to a well-researched, well-reasoned exchange of ideas. We can challenge them to strengthen their own capacities for civil discourse both online and off, skills that in these contentious times are desperately needed.

 

Works Cited

Alvermann, Donna E. “Social Media Texts and Critical Inquiry in a Post-Factual Era.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 61, no. 3, 2017, pp. 335-338.

Beach, Richard, et al. Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12. Teachers College Press, 2010.

Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.

Marchi, Regina. “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic ‘Objectivity.’” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 246-262.

Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.

@realDonaldTrump. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Twitter, 17 Feb 2017, 1:48 p.m., twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/832708293516632065

@vlotero. “I made this chart about news sources.” Twitter, 13 Dec 2016, 7:33 a.m., twitter.com/vlotero/status/808696317174288387/photo/1

 

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Centering LGBTQ People of Color with Young Adult Literature in Secondary ELA

Cody Miller and Kathleen Colantonio-Yurko

As English language arts teachers, we believe young adult literature offers an avenue for voices and experiences that are largely ignored by canonical texts. LGBTQ voices are among those omitted from many English language arts textbooks. In the past, we relied heavily on young adult literature to provide our students LGBTQ texts. However, the mostly white faces on LGBTQ young adult titles did not reflect the racial diversity of LGBTQ students we taught. Finding and teaching young adult literature that focused on LGBTQ people of color became a professional missions of ours. Similarly, Durand calls for researchers to study young adult literature featuring LGBTQ people of color (83). Our paper seeks to answer Durand’s call through classroom practice by providing teachers texts and strategies to incorporate young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ people of color into secondary English language arts curricula.

We offer texts that we have taught before in our 9th and 10th grade English language arts classes or texts we suggested to individual students. However, we want to recognize that there is no singular LGBTQ experience. There is no monolithic white LGBTQ experience, nor is there a monolithic experience for LGBTQ people of color. Furthermore, within the identifier “people of color” there exists broad cultural and racial diversity. Students and teachers must be cautious of not perpetuating singular views about LGBTQ people of color; they must recognize that race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, ability, language, gender identity, sex, class and other social identities intersect with sexuality to form an individual’s experiences of society and power. We offer texts we have taught and suggest other texts that we have read, but these lists are just a beginning; teachers, teacher educators, and students should work together to find, read, and teach more texts that center on the lives of LGBTQ people of color.

LGBTQ Young Adult Literature and Race

Recent writings on multicultural literature have been updated to include LGBTQ narratives under the umbrella of “multicultural literature” (Temple, Martinez, and Yokota). However, it is important to avoid the common tendency of treating “racial diversity” as a wholly separate and removed category from “sexuality.” Previous scholarship has found that intersectionality is typically lost when LGBTQ literature is used within secondary classrooms due to the myopic focus on characters’ sexualities, which is problematic considering “no one is solely sexual” (Blackburn and Smith 633). Furthermore, a narrow focus on the sexuality of characters for the sake of inclusion simplifies the realities and experiences of LGBTQ people and allows students to disregard sociopolitical and cultural factors that contribute to inequities and marginalization (Blackburn and Clark).

Unfortunately, too much of LGBTQ young adult literature has focused on white experiences (Garcia; Garden). White people do not hold a unique claim to LGBTQ identities, but we reproduce the idea that LGBTQ identities are white when we fail to acknowledge the role race plays while naming and teaching LGBTQ young adult literature. As Puar notes, “Any singular-axis identity analysis will reiterate the most normative versions of that identity” (93). In other words, a focus solely on sexuality will reinforce whiteness, while a focus solely on race will reinforce heteronormativity. All LGBTQ young adult literature is racialized, so we should call the majority of LGBTQ young adult literature what it is: white LGBTQ young adult literature. A failure to acknowledge the whiteness in most young adult literature will only perpetuate the message that LGBTQ identities are coupled to whiteness.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of young adult texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color. These texts can become powerful curricular material in secondary English language arts classrooms. Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan note that texts focusing on LGBTQ people of color “help readers expand their notions of who ‘counts’ in various racial, sexual minority, and religious communities” (97). It is important to acknowledge that among the growing number of young adult literature focusing on LGTBQ people of color, the “T” is still largely underrepresented. Young adult literature publishing agencies must do more to support the work of trans writers of color and their work. Supporting trans writers of color means supporting work about trans youth of color. A report co-authored by the Trans People of Color Coalition and the Human Rights Campaign found that transgender women of color face an increased risk of violence and often feel unsafe in seeking resources due to the intersecting forces of racism, sexism, and transphobia. Our work does not remedy this problem, nor does it dismantle the political and cultural forces centering LGBTQ issues on whiteness. Nevertheless, honoring the reality of LGBTQ people of color in the classroom through literary studies is an important first step for fostering critical consciousness in students.

Instructional Strategies

We are critical of the standards movement, especially its emphasis on mandated testing and its neoliberal foundations which seek to usurp the democratic aims of education in favor of market-based approaches. Yet we also recognize that teachers and students live in a standards-based policy landscape. Thus, part of being a multicultural educator is understanding how to do social justice work while navigating oppressive school systems and mandates. Scholars like Beach, Thein, and Webb and Duncan-Andrade and Morrell have called for teachers to use the mandated standards to advance the aims of a social justice-oriented English education. We concur with their call and their assessment that critical curriculum and instruction will ensure that students exceed the demands of standardized tests. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell argue that teachers should be able to “justify” their social justice curriculum and teaching to cautious audiences, including parents and administrators. To that end, we have acknowledged how our strategies fulfill the needs of the Common Core State Standards. The standards do not drive our work. Rather, a commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms grounds our curriculum and teaching. But being able to use mandated standards to “justify” the teaching of texts that feature LGBTQ characters of color is essential in navigating our educational reality while simultaneously working to change it.

Book Clubs   

We understand that homophobia and transphobia embedded in school systems makes teaching LGBTQ texts difficult. For many teachers across the nation, including ourselves, teaching an LGBTQ text as an entire class novel may be nearly impossible. Thus, we believe it is important to “do what you can” (Hermann-Wilmarth and Ryan) within your professional context. For us, that meant structuring “book clubs” for students and including titles that focus on LGBTQ people of color. We refer to “book clubs” as a curricular and classroom structure in which teacher select a variety of books and group them based on common themes so that students can read choice texts within a thematic unit. Incorporating LGBTQ texts through book clubs was an effective way for us to prevent parental pushback.

Clark and Blackburn have suggested that presenting LGBTQ texts as optional readings perpetuates homophobic and transphobic attitudes because students are able to opt out and thus avoid reading about LGBTQ experiences. While we find that argument defensible, we also feel it is important to acknowledge Burke and Greenfield’s suggestions that students may choose to not read LGBTQ texts because they themselves are LGBTQ or have LGBTQ family members but are not ready to share that publicly. Furthermore, sometimes the only way to incorporate LGBTQ texts into the classrooms is through choice reading due to the politics of the school. Teachers, parents, and administrators should do more to change those politics, but we want to honor the reality that many classroom teachers, especially new teachers, face. Book clubs are a seemingly small, but important, first step.

The following list outlines how we structure book club units:

  1. We provide an overview of all the available texts during a book club unit to the entire class when we begin a new unit. We note the basic premise of the plot and the major characters’ identities.
  2. We provide time for students to examine each book that seemed interesting to them in class after the introduction. Students usually take five minutes on each book they noted seemed interesting. Students are prompted to read the back of the book, the first few pages, and the synopsis.
  3. Students write down and rank their top three choices from the book club options. Students note why they want to read each book.
  4. We organize students into groups based on their book club comments. We strive to ensure that all students receive their top pick, but cannot guarantee it since the quantity of books is not limitless.
  5. Students create a plan for how they’ll complete the book given our schedule. We let students know how many reading days they’ll have in class. Students then note how many pages they need to read and if they need to plan to come in during lunch to catch up.
  6. From this point, students are given 30 minutes each day in class to read their book club. Students make annotations for the text after each reading period. Students can use these annotations for classroom discussions.
  7. Once a week, students are allotted time to discuss their book club text with their peers. These discussions can take a variety of formats as outlined further in the section below.
  8. We typically require students to complete a multi-piece project at the end of the book club units to demonstrate their understanding and meaning-making process with the texts.

Multimedia Character Analysis

Teachers should create assignments that require students to analyze topics around identity and power. Our Multimedia Character Analysis (Figure One) is an assignment to help students analyze characters in terms of identities, relationships, experiences, and changes. The cycle symbol in the center of the graphic indicates the relational nature of all four categories.

Students curate images from other texts to illustrate the four categories for a character from their book. In Figure One, we require students to select different number of images for different categories, but this can be amended. Students can create their Multimedia Character Analysis using technology tools like Piktochart, Glogster, Google Drawing or any other preferred application. We encourage students to use video or audio clips as their “images” if the platform allows permits. Finally, students should be required to write a reflection in which they explain the significance of their images to their books with textual evidence. Students should also be asked to explain how the four categories intersect within the text. This assignment can be implemented for all students during a book club unit, but we are most interested in helping students analyze LGBTQ characters of color. Students use this assignment to understand that no character (or person) is solely one identity, and the various identities characters hold shape their relationship to power.

In analyzing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe using the multimedia character analysis, one student used the scene in which one of the titular characters is the victim of a homophobic attack point out that “men are socialized to be afraid of showing any affection for another male regardless of sexuality.” She placed this analysis in the “experience” section and used it to connect to the “identities” section. The student also used the identities section to observe that Dante’s shame of being Mexican is “related to his shame of being gay.” The student continued by adding that the “dominant racial group, white, made Dante ashamed of being Mexican. The dominant sexual group, straight, made Dante ashamed of being gay.” The student also noted how this shame impacts the character’s relationships with others for the “relationship” segment, and notes that the homophobic experiences the character faces cause a shift in the character in the “changes” segment. The student used the multimedia character analysis to connect the character’s identities, relationships, changes, and experiences throughout the course of the book.

Book Club Discussions

Book clubs usually offer small, intimate avenues for discussion that are different from whole class discussion formats such as the Socratic Seminar. The smaller setting of book clubs offers a wide range of types of discussion formats students can partake in. Figure Two provides different formats for discussions that we have used, as well as their strengths and points of concern based on our experiences. Students should be given a range of options for discussion formats and then select the one they and their group feel most comfortable with. Regardless of format, students should be given the autonomy to create their own discussion questions to pose to their groups. Teachers need to model how to write high-quality, open-ended, text-based discussion questions, and then allow students to generate questions to bring to their discussions. The content in students’ graphic organizers from the previous section can be a starting point for generating discussion questions.

Offering multiple ways to engage in discussions for the book clubs results in discussion days where some students are in a section of the room recording short videos while some students are at their desk writing blog posts, and other students are huddled together having a face-to-face conversation. Regardless of format, we provide students with 20 to 25 minutes to unpack their thinking about the books they’re reading. Face-to-face groups use this time to chat in real time while students who opt for digital responses can use this time reading and responding to their peers digitally. Students then write a brief reflection on what they discussed, what they learned, and how their thinking of the book has developed due to their discussion.

Additionally, teachers and students should collaborate to establish norms of discussion to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. At the beginning of the school year, we ask students to list what they think is necessary to have a dialogic classroom for our collective learning. From students’ responses, we establish our classroom norms. For instance, students note that it is important for us to focus on the content of classroom discussion contributions rather than the person making the contribution. Students also ask that we “call in” rather than “call out” peers when something problematic has been stated. Protocols can help ensure everyone’s voice is heard. We often use text protocols from the National School Reform Faculty to help structure our classroom discussions. Many of the protocols provided by the National School Reform Faculty are adaptable to the various types of discussion we outlined earlier in this section. It’s important to solicit student feedback when implanting a new protocol. We ask students what they believe the strengths and weaknesses of specific protocols are in order to tailor our instruction for future classroom sessions.

Teachers should also be prepared to challenge students’ thinking, especially if students are engaging in homophobic or transphobic discourse. Book discussions can be a powerful vehicle to transform students’ understanding of experiences dissimilar to theirs. However, teachers need to ensure that harmful myths and damaging misconceptions students may hold about LGBTQ individuals and communities are swiftly corrected. One way teachers can address such misconceptions is to provide an overview of important terms relating to LGBTQ topics. For instance, our students sometimes conflated sexuality with gender identity. Students would note that a character is “gay but not transgender,” thus setting up a gay or transgender binary. This observation opens up an opportunity to inform students that a character can be gay and transgender or gay and cisgender since all people have a sexuality and a gender identity. We would then provide an overview of the difference between sexuality and gender identity. It was also important for us to challenge notions of “normal” in book club discussions. Terminology plays an important role here. Students would note that one character is transgender while another character is “normal.” To disrupt this thinking, we introduced the term “cisgender” to students. Providing students with language like “cisgender” allows students to see that all people have gender identities, which decenters cisgender as the default identity. The organizations Teaching Tolerance and Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) have teacher-friendly guides to important terms and concepts relating to LGBTQ topics. We suggest that teachers first develop a robust understanding of the terms and concepts before attempting to address the terms and concepts with students.

Suggested Books

We have our list of suggested young adult literature focusing on LGBTQ people of color (Figure Three). By no means is this list exhaustive. Rather, the list is composed of books we taught in book clubs or texts we recommended to students individually. Nearly all of the texts on our list are realistic fiction. We recognize that as a limitation. The number of science fiction and fantasy young adult titles feature LGBTQ characters of color is growing, and it is important for students to understand that LGBTQ people of color belong in all genres. Incorporating young adult literature that focuses on LGBTQ characters of color in other genres, like fantasy, is an important next step for this work.

Our list also includes suggested pairings for the titles. Dodge and Crutcher suggest that pairing LGBTQ texts with canonical texts can fulfill the demands of the Common Core State Standards while promoting the aims of social justice teaching and creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQ students. Our own high school English language arts teaching experiences bolster their argument. One way we organized our curriculum is to have the entire class read the suggested “pairs well with” text and then provide book club options that thematically relate to the whole class read. Many, but not all, of our “pairs well with” texts come from the Common Core Text Exemplars for grades 6-12. Teachers can then construct thematic essential questions to allow students to analyze across the texts. These essential questions can guides students with writing sub-questions for small group discussions. We have provided sample essential questions for the pairings in Figure Three. Of course, we encourage teachers to create their own “pairs well with” texts and essential questions for their students.

Conclusion

Despite legal wins such as the right to marry and serve openly in the military, LGBTQ students and teachers still live in a society and learn in a school system that is structured to oppress them. To say that LGBTQ students endure less safe and affirming school environments than their straight peers would be an understatement. In addition, LGBTQ students of color face more types of discrimination than their white LGBTQ peers in public schools across the nation due to their racial and ethnic identities (Diaz and Kosciw; Fondas).

Too many schools still lack LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and affirming teachers. Even teachers who see themselves as supportive of LGBTQ individuals and rights express trepidation in using LGBTQ literature in their classrooms (Thein). Malo-Juvaro’s mixed-methods study found that pre-service teachers held a variety of views about using LGBTQ YAL in their future classrooms. Some saw LGBTQ YAL as a way to reduce homophobia and support inclusion for LGBTQ students in schools, while others suggested that LGBTQ issues were unnecessary to teach and could offend other students. Greathouse and Diccio found that pre-service teachers who develop an ally stance by studying LGBTQ YAL in their teacher education programs do not implement ally work in the classroom due to fears about negative responses from parents, community members, and administrators. These findings reveal that the potential for LGBTQ literature instruction to transform classrooms and schools has yet to be met in teacher education programs or classroom practice. In short, serious obstacles still remain for creating inclusive schools for LGBTQ students.

Given this less than ideal picture, our commitment to equitable and inclusive classrooms remains crucial. Making our classrooms inclusive and equitable spaces for LGBTQ students must involve acknowledging that “LGBTQ” is not synonymous with “white.” In working to implement anti-heterosexist pedagogy, teachers must include the impact of race in their content, analysis, and instruction. Our article offers suggestions for how that work might look while still adhering to state-mandated standards. It is our hope that providing instructional tools, texts, and ways to “justify” the work to other stakeholders will open the door for more teachers to teach young adult literature titles that center on LGBTQ people of color. Our students deserve nothing less.

 

Works Cited

Beach, Richard, Amanda Haertling Thein, and Allen Webb. Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: A Critical Inquiry Approach for 6-12 Classrooms. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2016.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Caroline T. Clark. “Analyzing Talk in a Long‐term Literature Discussion Group: Ways of Operating Within LGBT‐inclusive and Queer Discourses.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2011, pp. 222-248.

Blackburn, Mollie V., and Jill M. Smith. “Moving Beyond the Inclusion of LGBT‐themed Literature in English Language Arts Classrooms: Interrogating Heteronormativity and Exploring Intersectionality.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 8, 2010, 625-634.

Burke, Brianna R., and Kristina Greenfield. “Challenging Heteronormativity: Raising LGBTQ Awareness in a High School English Language Arts Classroom.” English Journal, vol. 105, no. 6, 2016, pp. 46-51.

Clark, Caroline T., and Mollie V. Blackburn. “Reading LGBT-themed Literature with Young People: What’s Possible?.” English Journal, vol. 98, no. 4, 2009, pp. 25-32.

Diaz, Elizabeth M., and Joseph Gregory Kosciw. Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. GLESN, 2009.

Dodge, Autumn M., and Paul A. Crutcher. “Inclusive Classrooms for LGBTQ students: Using Linked Texts Sets to Challenge the Hegemonic ‘Single Story.’” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol.  59, no. 1, 2015, pp. 95-105.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey Michael Reyes, and Ernest Morrell. The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. Vol. 285. Peter Lang, 2008.

Durand, Elizabeth Sybil. “At the Intersections of Identity: Race and Sexuality in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature.” Beyond Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 73-84.

Fondas, Nanette. “Schools are Failing Minority LGBTQ Students.” The Atlantic, 18 Nov. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/schools-are-failing-minority-lgbt-students/281600/.

Garcia, Antero. Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging genres. Vol. 4. Sense Publishers, 2013.

Garden, Nancy. “LGBTQ Young Adult Literature: How It Began, How It Grew, and Where It Is Now.” The ALAN Review, vol. 41, no. 3, 2014, pp. 79-83.

Greathouse, Paula, and Mike Diccio. “Standing but not Delivering: Preparing Pre-service Teachers to use LGBTQ Young Adult Literature in the Secondary English Classroom.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  2, no. 1, 2016, pp.  35-52.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Destabilizing the Homonormative for Young Readers: Exploring Tash’s Queerness in Woodson’s After Tupac and D Doster.” Beyond  Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature, edited by Darla Linville and David Lee Carlson, Peter Lang Publishing, 2016, pp. 85-100.

Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill M., and Caitlin L. Ryan. “Doing What You Can: Considering Ways to Address LGBT Topics in Language Arts Curricula.” Language Arts, vol.  92, no. 6, 2015, 436-443.

Human Rights Campaign & the Trans People of Color Coalition. A Matter of Life and Death: Fatal Violence Against Transgender People in America 2016. Human Rights Campaign & Trans People of Color Coalition, 2016.   

Malo-Juvera, Victor. “A Mixed Methods Study of Pre-service Teachers’ Attitudes Toward LGBTQ Themed Literature.” Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, vol.  1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-45.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press, 2007.

Temple, Charles, Miriam Martinez, and Junko Yokota. Children’s Books in Children’s Hands. 5th ed., Pearson, 2014.

Thein, Amanda Haertling. “Language Arts Teachers’ Resistance to Teaching LGBT Literature and Issues.” Language Arts, vol. 90, no. 3, 2013, pp. 169-180.

 

Literature Cited 

Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little, Brown, 2007.

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books, 1991.

Bambara, Toni Cade. Gorilla, My Love. Reissue ed., Vintage Books, 1992.

Beam, Cris. I am J. Hachette Book Group, 2012.

Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Vintage Books, 1992.

Davis, Tanita S. Happy Families. Random House, 2013.

Farizan, Sara. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Algonquin Young Readers, 2015.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, 1995.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Lippincott, 1960.

Revoyr, Nina. The Necessary Hunger. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Rice-Gonzalez, Charles. Chulito: A Novel. Magnus Books, 2011.

Rivera, Gabby. Juliet Takes a Breath. Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. No Fear Shakespeare Ed., SparkNotes, (Original work published 1602), 2003.

Woodson, Jacqueline. The House You Pass on the Way. Penguin Group, 2010.

Yee, Paul. Money Boy. Groundwood Books, 2013.

 

Organizations Cited

“Creating an LGBT-Inclusive School Climate.” Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center, 30 Nov. 2017, www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/creating-an-lgbtinclusive-school-climate.

“GLSEN Terms and Definitions.” GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, www.glsen.org/chapters/massachusetts/terms.

“NSRF Protocols and Activities … from A to Z.” Protocols A-Z | National School Reform Faculty, National School Reform Faculty, 2015, www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z.

 

Figure One: Multimedia Character Analysis

 charanalysis.png
Common Core English Language Arts Reading Literature standards addressed:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Common Core English Language Arts Writing standards addressed:

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

 

Figure Two: Small Group Discussion Formats

Discussion Format Strengths Points of concern
Small group discussion Students are probably most familiar with this format of discussion.

Students are able to receive support or challenge from their peers and teach immediately.

Students have a limited audience as they are only able to discuss with peers in their class.
Book chats on Twitter Students can have real time conversations with peers, including peers in other classes.

Students can create their own hashtags, which makes following and archiving the discussion easier.

Students learn how to cultivate a professional identity on social media.

Students need parent permission to create a Twitter account.

Some schools may block Twitter. The use of Twitter relies on school’s Internet access.

Blogging Students can set up their own blogs, post their questions and insights, and respond to peers. Responses from students will not be immediate due to nature of posting and responding.
Video Responses Students can create video responses to share with their peers and respond to their peers via video. Flipgrid is a good tool for this type of discussion.

This format supports students who are more comfortable with speaking than writing as their form of expression.

Teachers will need a learning management system to post and store the videos for students to view and post a reply.

Responses from students will not be immediate due to the nature of uploading and watching a video.

Common Core English Language Arts Speaking and Listening standards addressed:

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

 

Figure Three: Suggested Books

Title Centers on Pairs well with Sample essential questions
Chulito: A Novel by Charles Rice-Gonzalez Protagonist is a gay Latino.  Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare How does society define and regulate “masculinity”?
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz Titular characters are Mexican-American boys who are questioning their sexuality. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie How do community expectations impact individual’s actions and choices?
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis Protagonists have a transgender African American parent. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry What responsibilities do family members have to each other?
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson Protagonist is a biracial (white and black) female questioning her sexuality. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee How do gender and race shape an individual’s power within a community?
I am J by Cris Beam Protagonist is a biracial (Puerto Rican and Jewish) transgender boy. “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros What signifies someone’s growth from “childhood” to “adolescence”?
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan Protagonist is a lesbian daughter of Iranian immigrants. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez What social and cultural factors impact the relationship between parents and their children?
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera Protagonist is a Puerto Rican lesbian. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger How do gender, race, and class shape “coming of ages” narratives?
Money Boy by Paul Yee Protagonist is a gay Chinese-Canadian immigrant. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri How does being situated between two cultures impact individuals?
The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr Protagonist a gay Japanese-American female. “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara

Centering Students’ Voices in a Public Speaking Genre Study

Burke Scarbrough

Today’s students have access to stirring, powerful text in an ever widening array of forms. As we invite our students to discover the power of the carefully crafted written word, many of those students are even more strongly inclined to celebrate the power of language in oral performance. I’m referring to the genres and media in which artists breathe life into the written word through a sort of magic trick: they develop performances that make painstakingly crafted writing look and sound natural, spontaneous, or even effortless. In speeches that inspire, songs that transfix, movie moments that land, stand-up comedy that doubles us over, and spoken word poetry that sets fingers snapping, artists are hard at work behind the scenes—sweating the details, practicing to exhaustion.

English teachers can invite these oral performance genres into the classroom as the stuff of rigorous literacy learning. Whatever else they leave out, the Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of organizing opportunities for students to read and write in a range of forms, and as they do, to learn to see writers’ choices as careful design moves that authors make depending on their genre, audience and purpose. They should make different decisions depending on whether they’re trying to persuade, inform, or tell a story. They should make and defend choices about language depending on what sort of communicating they’re doing, and to whom. And, we keep telling them, they should read like a fellow writer and write with their reader in mind. Too often, though, school reading and writing assignments come with the substantial baggage of being business as usual in the classroom; some students read with the hope of enjoying a good story, but when that doesn’t work out, they read and write (or don’t) because they’re told to.

Bringing public speaking into the English classroom, and widening the definition of public speaking to include many sorts of oral performance of written text, lets students treat popular and engaging works as texts worth studying. It can empower students to crack the codes of texts that move them and put those codes to use in the arguments they want to make and the stories they need to tell.

A Workshop for Text and Performance

As a former high school English teacher turned teacher educator, I scratch my secondary school teaching itch these days by teaching at a summer academic enrichment program at a New England boarding school. I work with high school students who come from around the US and the world to challenge themselves with enrichment courses and try out a boarding experience before many of them encounter it in college. When they walk through the door on the first day of my Speechmaking class, they’re not chasing grades or transcript credits; they want the academic challenge that they associate with a prep school, but they also want to be excited and inspired in ways that justify their choice to spend the summer back in a classroom. This is a motivated and self-selected student population, and the class sizes are small, so the summer program has always been an exciting space for me to try out engaging teaching units before doing the head-scratching work of adapting them for the other school settings in which I’ve worked.

The structure of the summer Speechmaking class follows an approach to writing workshop I got to know well through an earlier study of a high school English class taking on spoken word poetry (Scarbrough and Allen). While some famous examples of reading and writing workshop involve letting students choose the sorts of texts they want to read and write (Atwell), Speechmaking is different in two ways. First, the whole class works together to study a single genre—speeches—as a strange and mysterious type of text that the class needs to hack. As Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer ask students to do individually in their Unfamiliar Genre Project, I ask the whole class to join me in an inductive inquiry process: to “gather and analyze model examples of that genre, to identify key characteristics of that genre, [and] to write in the genre” (38). Students have quite a bit of choice in what they want to communicate and accomplish through oral performance, but as they make those decisions, we are there to help each other figure out the rules and moves that characterize powerful public speaking.

Second, the class treats both written speeches and the performances of those speeches as types of text that we are there to study, draft, and revise. As obvious as it might seem that delivery is its own set of skills in public speaking, we bring that point home by switching our focus back and forth between the moves that seem to characterize effectively-written speeches and the performance choices that seem to do the most justice to those words. Part writing workshop, part performance workshop, the class gives me the chance to fuse my experience teaching English and teaching drama—a pair of skill sets many language arts teachers bring to their jobs or are asked to develop after they arrive.

Cracking the Code of a New Genre

Doing this inductive study of a genre—poring over examples in order to derive important features and patterns together—empowers students to do the noticing and thinking that teachers and textbook authors so often do for them. That said, it is time-consuming to have our students derive the very things we could show them. The Speechmaking class takes something of a middle ground, using a book about effective speechmaking to get us started with some important features, and then using extended discussion of sample speeches to first look for the features we’d read about and then widen our view to other aspects of the speech that we found valuable.

Public speaking textbooks are pricey, but Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED is an inexpensive paperback that presents features of popular TED Talks through the same sort of inductive process the Speechmaking class was undertaking; Gallo reviewed dozens of TED Talks, determined what many of them have in common, and suggests ways we might do something similar in all sorts of public speaking situations. Each chapter focuses on a particular facet of effective public speaking, and it refers to numerous famous TED talks as illustrations. Of course, there is more to public speaking than TED Talks—in fact, such a lengthy staged lecture might bore or scare off many students, including those with a strong interest in a distinctly different form of public speaking (spoken word poetry, perhaps, or church sermons). Still, TED is a vast, free digital resource for storytelling, teaching, and persuasion, so it offers us a starting point as we develop our own language for effective speechmaking. Moreover, Gallo approaches the crucial but sometimes tired trio of classical appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos—as a modern set of speaking principles that students can see and hear in many of the TED Talks he cites. Students can study ethos through chapters that emphasize how good speakers unleash their passion and reveal themselves authentically through their speeches; they can consider pathos in chapters that examine how good speakers tell stories, make the audience smile, and deliver jaw-dropping moments; and they can approach logos by being exhorted to teach the audience something new and organize clear main points and supporting evidence around the “rule of 3s.”

Of course, there are many other public speaking textbooks and online primers available. I have found excerpts and sample speeches in Stephen Lucas’s The Art of Public Speaking to be useful. In particular, I have used (with permission) an excerpt about different ways speakers establish credibility, another about different approaches to introductions in speeches, and some model informative or persuasive speeches (of manageable length) written by college students. Crucially, though, our purpose is not to march through any public speaking textbook from start to finish; textbook readings are there to model and reinforce the sorts of patterns we might go on to notice as a class as we spend time responding to all sorts of speeches. A few days each week—and numerous homework assignments—are devoted to reading or watching a growing variety of texts: TED Talks, political speeches, spoken word poetry (see YouTube channels for All Def Poetry or Youth Speaks), personal stories (see themoth.org), speeches from movies or TV, videos by YouTube celebrities, and written speeches by former students. While I come to the unit with numerous examples, it isn’t long before students begin nominating all sorts of oral performances that they love, and as time permits, I challenge interested students to prepare a rationale for why a given speech is worth studying and, if their rationale is compelling, invite them to present their chosen speech and facilitate the class’s analysis.

One way to keep track of the traits of good speechwriting and delivery that we discover is to develop a shared Speech Feedback Form and update it every few days. This Google Doc rubric includes a growing and reshuffling set of traits that the class is ready to hold each other accountable for in our own writing and speaking. By the time we add a new trait to this rubric, the class has identified it as a key to good speechmaking, discussed it in the context of several speeches, and talked about tips for adapting that trait to other speaking situations. Students’ speech assignments then follow this growing rubric: for instance, once we discover and discuss “passion” and “credibility” as keys to good speechmaking, students draft short informative speeches that teach the class something meaningful to the speaker; once we become aware of an effective “rate of speech” and study how speakers make a main point clear and relatable through “storytelling” as well as “volume” and “tone” of voice, students draft and revise a speech that makes a point by telling a story (see Figure 1 for how the co-constructed rubric might look at this point); and as we go on to focus on “body language,” clear and engaging “introductions” and “conclusions,” and “content” that brings together evidence and storytelling around the rule of threes, students begin to research, draft and revise persuasive speeches on a topic that moves them. In other words, our rubric serves as common ground between the features we notice through reading and the writing and performances students develop.

What’s Worth Speaking About?

With structures in place for annotating sample speeches and assessing what students come up with, I want to make sure that my students have ways to generate speech ideas that matter to them. For some, this is as easy as pausing after the speeches we study to let students take note of possible speech topics in a growing notebook list. Upon hearing a spoken word poet or a storyteller on The Moth recount a personal story with deep significance, some students quickly identify life-altering incidents or deceptively significant small stories that they want to craft for an audience. Upon hearing TED Talks or political speeches or speeches by students addressing social injustices, some students identify issues that make them want to speak out. Others come to class already motivated to speak out about current events. And on a lighter note, a few have been interested in the rhetorical challenge of arguing a counterintuitive point, as I have sometimes done by inviting students to give me an “impossible” topic to address in a speech at the end of the unit. Past examples have included “Water: A Threat to Us All” and “The Many Uses of Rubber Ducks.”

As students brainstorm topics of personal interest, I challenge them to go one step further and consider—particularly in their persuasive speech, the longest speech I assign, and one that includes a research component—speech topics that occupy a “sweet spot” among three criteria: being of interest to the speaker, being of likely interest to the listener, and being something that many people don’t know or disagree about (See Figure 2). I also have students come to class with two potential speech topics, and for each one, a brief rationale and a few questions they wish they could ask their audience before preparing the speech. After writing this information at the top of blank sheets of paper (or posting it electronically), students pass papers from one classmate to the next, engaging in a “silent conversation” (Wilhelm) that lets each speaker read reactions and answers to a few audience analysis questions before committing to a topic and beginning a draft. Amid the hard work of reconciling their own interests with the varied responses of their classmates, speakers are learning to consider their responsibilities to an audience and to strategize about what it will take to persuade that audience.

Studying Performance As a Text

The classic features of a writing process workshop appear in the Speechmaking class: students spend time generating ideas, drafting and revising text, and giving and receiving feedback from peers and from me. But a key feature of studying the public speaking genre is splitting this workshop time between drafting and revising written speeches and drafting and revising performances of those written words. One of the first challenges I find in studying performance with students is helping students to see performance choices as choices. One powerful way to make that visible is to show students short scripts or transcripts from a video performance before they have the chance to see the performance. Many genres can work nicely with this, but I tend to use TV and movie scenes. Students read and mark up bits of text that range from a single line to a full dramatic monologue, and they use annotation markings to indicate where they would use pacing, pauses, pitch, or volume to bring the words to life. Hearing volunteers share different choices about the same text, and then turning to the filmed performance by a famous actor or passionate spoken word poet, students see how much decision-making there is in the move from page to stage. Once we began to play with vocal performance choices in this way—and, soon, eye contact and gestures as well—students are also more likely to refer to these features of speechmaking in each of the speeches we watch and discuss as a class.

Another challenge in performance workshop is getting students to commit to trying out strong performance choices, including some that might be more extreme than what the speaker will ultimately settle on. I explain this as a version of the goldilocks story: for choices about volume, rate of speech, variety in pitch and tone, emphasis through volume and pauses, or emphasis through facial expression and gestures, sometimes it is useful to make a choice too extreme in one direction, and then too extreme in another direction, before settling on a middle ground that is (for the particular situation) just right. Sometimes students practice delivering portions of a speech draft in each of these three ways, playing with what it would mean to go “too far” in one direction or another and, in the process, discovering the full range of performance choices they have available. Other times, I bring children’s books or short ghost stories to class for shared reading—for many, a familiar context for making dramatic choices about vocal delivery when reading. As we make these performance styles visible, we begin to discuss the sometimes subtle similarities and differences between reading, acting, and delivering a speech without quite sounding like one is reading or acting.

Above all, students need rounds of practice that let them try to bring words to life, get quick feedback, set a manageable goal, and try again. While there isn’t time for me to give every student individual coaching during each day of performance workshop, I try to create spaces for students to accumulate some “reps” making and evaluating performance choices. Sometimes, students pair up and practice delivering part or all of a draft speech for a peer; these sessions go best when each speaker identifies one aspect of performance that would be a particular focus in this round of practice. When technology allows (and, increasingly, it does), students might film or audiorecord their partners so that each speaker can spend time doing the awkward but private work of seeing oneself on screen. Other times, I organize students into an inner circle and simulate “speed dates” in which pairs would take turns delivering part of a speech, hear a moment of focused feedback from a partner, and then rotate to a new partner for another round of practice. Sometimes students would tell their partners what they were interested in working on with this round of delivery; other times, I would call out instructions for a given round of practice (“this time, try adding in one really dramatic pause,” or “this time, see what happens if you deliver the speech a little too loudly”). Students are often surprised how well-received their attempts are when they thought they were speaking too loudly, too slowly, or with too much emphasis on important words or phrases. Whatever they discover, the best way for them to develop performance choices that work is to have numerous rounds of low-stakes practice with the chance to see how choices look and sound to oneself and others.

An Adaptable Unit

For a final speech of the unit, I want students to have lots of freedom, but I also want us to be able to organize some speaking situations that were one step more authentic than sitting in our classroom pretending to be one audience or another. As a middle ground, I often have students choose one of several types of speeches, and the class then travels to a different space each day to hear the relevant speech: toasts in the cafeteria, stories or spoken word poems in the theater, and mini-TED Talks in the classroom. Grading student work isn’t a priority in my summer course, and the speeches that closely match our developing speech rubrics are already behind us, so we focus on positive feedback after each speech and only record them if the speaker wishes. Rather than a culminating assessment, this final speech is a low-stakes celebration; the students’ hard work and learning is evident in their annotations, discussions, co-constructed feedback forms, and many cycles of drafting, revising, assessing, and goal-setting for written speeches and performances.

Over nearly two decades of teaching Speechmaking in the summer, I have expanded and contracted the course to prioritize different speech assignments, different speaking traits worth working on, different ways of balancing textbook readings with analysis of real speeches, different ways of balancing reading and writing emphases, different ways of balancing writing and performance workshop time, and different outside-of-class expectations given students’ workloads and access to technology. What has stayed constant for me is the power of defining “public speaking” in a way that includes a variety of texts that many students already find powerful, treating students as capable critical analysts who can help author the speechmaking principles we study, and treating skilled writing and performance as important enough to hand over to students.

That said, the scope of the unit will change depending on how many students are in the room, how safe the classroom community is for sharing writing and taking risks with performance, and what sorts of work can be expected outside of class. This unit is useful in that the oral performances we study are short; each of them can be viewed, discussed, and even emulated within a class period. Similarly, the writing and performance workshop process can unfold largely or entirely during class time. With students who are less immersed in a discussion-driven pedagogy, as students in my summer enrichment setting are, I would be more deliberate in modeling the ways of annotating and responding to printed speeches. I would also ramp up to student-driven discussions by making explicit the sorts of moves that help people build on and politely challenge each other’s comments. And with students who are less likely to think of themselves as current or future leaders likely to speak in public, I would spend more time uncovering the interests and issues that might motivate students to speak out, making sure that analysis and workshop practice are clearly serving goals that students find relevant.

There are many other ways to adapt the broad strokes of this unit into assignments and daily lessons that match different school settings and learning goals.In addition to the perennial balancing acts I listed above, here are a few more choices and challenges that I’m excited to think about each time I prepare to teach Speechmaking:

  • How can I organize authentic audiences for my students? It’s not easy to create spaces for someone other than teachers and classmates to give the gift of their attention, and it’s even harder to organize this for many students at once. Often, my summer speechmaking students write and deliver speeches to the class with future audiences in mind—they write toasts for upcoming family events, speeches for student government campaigns, public service announcements about issues in their home towns, or speeches to motivate their sports teams. But I continue to look for ways to use the school, the community, and the virtual world as audiences my students can address and hear back from.
  • Should textbook excerpts lead or follow? In some ways, Talk Like TED presents the very sorts of insights I’d like my students to notice on their own. Students come with substantial prior knowledge about what moves them, so consider how you’d like to balance letting students work up best practices from studying speeches together vs. letting a text like Talk Like TED lead the way.
  • Is there time for play? I value bringing a real sense of play into the classroom, letting students enjoy the creative challenges of performance in a low-stakes setting. When time allows, one way to do this is to play theater games; I recommend Glyn Trefor-Jones’s book Drama Menu as a useful compendium of fun games that get students working together to make performance choices. Another way is to practice impromptu speechmaking, in which students draft speech topics they’d be excited to take on, and then they are assigned one of these at random. (There are also many lists of fun impromptu speech topics available online.)  In a first round of practice, students might have three minutes for jotting a few main points on an index card plus one minute of practice speaking to the classroom wall before turning and delivering the short speech to a partner. After a round or two like this, students might get only 30 seconds to think (no jotting) before it is time to speak. Once they are reminded that this is a nearly impossible challenge, many students are excited to give it a try.
  • How much work can I hand over to students? For classrooms with widespread technology access, consider letting students take charge of choosing and presenting analyses of speeches in class. A service like Vibby (www.vibby.com) lets users highlight and clip specific segments of YouTube videos, helping presenters move seamlessly from one highlight to another as they share their thoughts or pose questions to the class. Users can also post and respond to comments on each video highlight. A different approach to involving most students more of the time is to adapt a Toastmasters meeting format for a class (or, through a fishbowl structure, half a class at a time), distributing the work of giving prepared speeches, giving short impromptu speeches, giving oral feedback to speakers, and running the meeting itself (“Club”).
  • How can I make self-assessment and feedback quicker? Technology is making it easier to integrate cycles of practice, feedback, and self-reflection into the unit as students work on speech performances. A variety of apps can capture audio or video and, if necessary, push it to storage spaces for students and teachers to review. Consider ways to help students get quick access to recordings of their own rehearsals, describe what they notice, and set a goal for their next attempt.

Oral performance is a vital part of language arts, and it is too often either neglected or relegated to elective courses and after-school experiences. Workshop and genre study pedagogy gives students the opportunity to analyze, draft, revise, and “publish” oral performance in many of the same ways, and in service of the same learning standards, that teachers readily apply to print genres. The more widely teachers can define “text” (and “public speaking”) in the classroom, the more that literacy learning can emerge from forms of art that truly stir students’ passions.

Works Cited

Andrew-Vaughan, Sarah, and Cathy Fleischer. “Researching Writing: The Unfamiliar-Genre Research Project.” English Journal, vol. 95, no. 4, 2006, pp. 26-42.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle. 3rd ed. Heinemann, 2015.

“Club Meeting Roles.” Toastmasters International. www.toastmasters.org/membership/club-meeting-roles. Accessed 29 August 2017.

Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking. 11th ed. McGraw Hill, 2012.

Scarbrough, Burke, and Anna-Ruth Allen. “Writing Workshop Revisited: Confronting Communicative Dilemmas Through Spoken Word Poetry in a High School English Classroom.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 46, no.4, 2014, pp. 475-505.

Trefor-Jones, Glyn. Drama Menu: Theatre Games in Three Courses. Nick Hern Books, 2015.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension. Scholastic, 2002.

Feedback form for storytelling speech.png

Fig. 1  How our co-constructed feedback form might look by the time of a “Storytelling Speech” assignment

Persuasive speech topic venn diagram.png

Fig. 2  What makes a good persuasive speech topic?

Public Grammar: Creating Community

Larry Gavin

There are five things most educators can agree on. First, most educators value student questions as a measure of student engagement in the classroom. Actually, questions are frequently the most important thing because they move the conversation forward and verbalize learning. They make learning occur “out loud.”

Second, the more heterogeneous, the better. The beautiful thing about questions is that, even if they come from an unexpected place, they can move the class’s learning forward. Classes that are democratic create the chance for divergent questions to exist.

A third important characteristic is that classroom learning unfolds into learning that is connected to the world.  Reading about the isolation and loneliness of Santiago as a result of his age in The Old Man and the Sea leaves the classroom and connects to a realization about the isolation and loneliness of grandfather or grandmother that you haven’t talked to because you are so busy. Then you call or visit.

Fourth, good classrooms offer choices. Students make decisions, and those decisions have meaning and are scaffolded for student success. What that success looks like is also clear, because it is defined by learning targets. In addition, there are ample opportunities to practice learning.

Finally, students want to feel welcome and be heard. They want to get their voices into the room. They want to see an interest in them. They want to move, and that goes beyond just school. Classrooms that make students feel connected are cognitively driven.

I teach grammar publicly. I teach grammar with the only context being grammar. I teach grammar in isolation. All of these are things that language arts gurus hate. This is triage grammar, performed before the student knows they need it. The only context is the sentence problem with which we are dealing. Grammar taught from the students’ own writing comes later, but with this instruction, many of the errors in that writing don’t occur in the first place. I do what works—what works for me, what works for my students, and what fulfills the characteristics research shows makes a good classroom.

How do I know? It began about four years ago with a note. “Mr. Gavin, thanks for doing grammar prep each day. After a semester with you, my score on the xxx test went up three percentage points.” There were no grammatical errors in the note.

And then another: “You may not remember me….” And then many more. At one time I kept the notes because of their rarity. Now I don’t, because they are common.

Students write me and comment on lessons that in some cases happened in 2004. At first, grammar in isolation was just my secret. I never talked about it. Now I’m going public.

Each day, students come into the room and sit down to complete the three grammar sentences on the board. Usually students start before the class period bell rings. They are starting class before class starts. I consider that a positive. Then one student volunteers to go to the board and make changes in the sentence. They say what they are changing and why. I provide any additional instruction needed. Then the marker is handed to the next person. They make a change. Student stuck? The whole class helps them, because we’ve all been in the position of not knowing the answer. And the questions are the important thing. The whole process takes ten minutes.

That’s the mechanics; here is the real story. Students are engaged in class work immediately in the period. They are talking about language right away. They are engaged in a mechanical activity that connects to their cognition and allows them to struggle with making meaning. As students approach the board, I use the opportunity to learn their names. It usually only takes a few days before I know every person in every class. That way I can address them by name early in the semester. We all like to be called by name. Students are moving, walking through the room, and getting out of their seat, but moving with a mission, a purpose.

Where this all really comes alive for the citizens of my classroom is when people have questions, and they always do. They actually ask questions about tense, pronouns, subordinate clauses, independent and dependent clauses, and the myriad of meanings the language suggests. They are also making choices, deciding what to do about specific problems, stating their ideas about why a change makes sense. Learning about the language becomes a habit. It becomes, as Aristotle said of excellence, “what we repeatedly do.”

The learning goes into the world too. Students come in and say, “Walmart’s express lane says ‘twenty items or less.’ It should be fewer. Less is volume: fewer is number.” Not a big thing—in fact, perhaps the smallest of things—but maybe what is learned by having school spill into the world is a big thing.

The most important learning occurs between getting the marker and sitting back down. The conversation we have about the learning. And after the student makes the changes, I say, “Good job, thanks.” I get to talk to every student every couple of days, and I get to show them that they are important. We have a focused daily conversation centered on learning. That seems like a good thing.

Seriously, What’s the Difference?

Jeanette Lukowski

It all began with an article from The New York Times titled “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide.” The article was part of an assessment tool being used by the community college for whom I was an Adjunct English Instructor that fall semester of 2016; the Assessment Coordinator was asking all teachers of Composition I to use a set of common articles in the beginning of the course, and again at the end of the course. I had two sections, so agreed to help.

In December, then, as my Composition I students were working through the assessment activity during our last day of class, I read Kristin O’Keefe’s article for the first time. Published on The New York Times’s blog in February of 2015, O’Keefe seemed inflamed by comments made by “an educator explaining criteria for high school graduation…to her audience of parents and incoming freshmen: ‘here’s what you should take if you want to go to a real college – you know, not community college.’” Although I was not as annoyed as O’Keefe appeared to be, I was intrigued by the suggestion of there being a “divide” between the two types of schools.

I have a personal history with both 4-year universities and community colleges.

I grew up in Chicago, moving to Minnesota when I was in my twenties. While living in Chicago, I attended both community college and university; I also attended both types of schools in Minnesota, before receiving my B.A. as a non-traditional commuting mother of two young children.

My teaching credentials also encompass a wide array of experiences, from traditional classroom experience at both universities and community colleges to online teaching for each type of institution.

What, I wondered specifically, is this “divide” O’Keefe refers to?

When I met with the Provost several hours later to discuss his invitation to teach additional courses for the community college during spring semester (I was already committed to an adjunct load for the year with a four-year university seventy-five miles away), I asked about my ability to use the same textbook for the spring semester Composition II course as I would be using with the university’s equivalent course. Since many of the community college students transferred to that particular university, I would see if I could unearth this suggested “divide” in northern Minnesota.

The Provost agreed to my proposal; my rather informal, semester-long “assessment project” began.

*          *          *

The first challenge I faced was to align course syllabi for a M/W/F fifty-minute class with a T/Th seventy-five-minute class.

Additionally, the university ran on a fifteen-week class schedule, while the community college’s course would last sixteen weeks.

Oh, and their Spring Break weeks occurred at different times.

I wasn’t given much time to dwell on these matters, though, since there were only two weeks of “break” between the community college’s semesters—and the office personnel who do the printing of syllabi and ordering of textbooks close for official holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.

Again, because this was an informal assessment project being pulled together in a hurry, I made no firm plan of how to track the “data” I would be collecting; I simply made notes on one of the many legal tablets I carry around with me from class to class. Some notes were made while students were freewriting in class (to use Peter Elbow’s term), and some more notes were made while I sat alone, holding formal office hours on one or the other of the campuses.

The journal entries that follow are observations of and conversations with students I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years, and the correlations I choose to draw by way of possible connections.

*          *          *

Week 1:

The first day of every course, no matter where I am teaching, runs pretty much the same way. I hand out the syllabus, run through introductions and such, and—if time allows—have students compose an in-class journal entry.

The second day of class, the university students received a “fresh” version of a lecture, while the community college students received a more polished, practiced version of the same lecture—followed by class discussion about the set of essays they were assigned to have read for homework.

The class discussion with the university students the next day began with a similar opening question, but followed an entirely different trajectory, as all such conversations are apt to do.

*          *          *

Journal from February 9, 2017:

Conversation styles are throwing me this week. I have been having an impossible time getting the [university] students to talk—while almost the exact opposite is occurring at [the community college].

Tuesday, for instance, I was “lecturing” the class about the highlights of chapter 3 in our textbook—“Arguments in Media,” or whatever. [Female student] was answering every question—with her deep, loud voice—and never raised her hand.

When [male student] in the second row opened his mouth to contribute (also a deep voice, but not quite as loud), he was almost “silenced” (drowned-out) by the building lull of conversations going on behind him. Now, usually there are two groups (pairs) of young women talking all the time—but this day it was all three back rows?

I regularly practice two distinct types of teaching styles with students: Lecture Mode, when I instruct students about the serious matters I would like them to know from each portion of the textbook, and Discussion Circles, when we collaboratively explore the many nuances of writing in published essays. Pedagogically speaking, Lecture Mode is the time when I convey the many “rules” of writing (in this particular case, the ways academic arguments are constructed, and how to locate—then cite—all sources used according to MLA style), while Discussion Circle time is used to examine the many ways a variety of writers have incorporated argument(s) into their work.

When I am “imparting knowledge” during Lecture Mode, students sit in their regular rows or columns, depending on the configuration of each specific classroom, and while I neither require nor request it, most students will automatically raise their hand if they have a question or want to offer a comment. By contrast, when it is time for Discussion Circles, I ask students to arrange themselves in such a way that no one has his or her back to another student; they are invited to contribute to what I hope becomes a hearty conversation, the only requirements being that they respect our right to disagree with one another—and they don’t take the “debate” out of the classroom’s conversation.

Although I have heard about teachers who use tools such as a talking stick to maintain order within the discussion circle, I have never felt the need to micro-manage the conversation until this particular class at the community college. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, too many of my group of twenty-eight community college students were maintaining their rigid behaviors from high school: playing with their cell phones while I was in Lecture Mode and chit-chatting with their neighbors whenever the spirit moved them. (Discussion Circles made cell phone use during class too obvious for all but one of my most defiant students, but we as a class chose to ignore her bad behavior, and all breathed a collective sigh of relief on days she was absent.)

The twenty-five university students, on the other hand, would pretty much rely on five of their classmates to speak, no matter what the topic, or how the seating was arranged. I tried everything short of standing on my head or placing electric shock buzzers in their chairs, but there were literally only two days when I heard most of those students speak in class: the first day, when I asked them to introduce themselves, and the last few days, when each student was asked to give a five-minute informal presentation on the topic of their final paper.

Pulling teeth.

*          *          *

Journal from February 16, 2017:

What if the “difference” between a four-year university and a community college is nothing more than the difference between a city and a small town?

  • Everyone knows everyone else at C.C., vs. larger populations of Univ.
  • Many more opportunities at Univ.—since kids “live” on campus, vs. commuting from home to C.C.
  • People attending Univ. “move away” from home—perhaps staying in Univ. “town” after graduation, vs. C.C. students who have no intention of moving (part of reason they are at C.C. in first place?)
  • Students are focused: four years to completion (perhaps five), vs. C.C. students who fit college in, when they can, around other life events
  • Activities are focused on-campus—students don’t have tons of contact with off-campus locations early in their “careers” as students because many lack transportation, vs. C.C. activities taking place in a commons-area (high traffic)—or in partnership with an entity in the community (since most are commuting to the typical small—one-building—campus)

*          *          *

Journal from March 3, 2017:

While it is not scientifically proven, student athletes in each institution seem to have different foci. At [the community college], student athletes are being imported from other states—and the school seems to make extra “accommodations” for those students. (Academic struggle means withdrawing from the course just days before it ends, rather than letting the student fail?)

I have also read / heard about the “one-and-done” student athlete rule / philosophy at [the community college]; attendance is lax, attention to skills-learning in the classroom doesn’t seem to matter.

[The university], on the other hand, has presented me with two young men who have placed academics first. Both are “from” small towns in Minnesota (Roseau for one, Detroit Lakes for the other); one plays basketball for [the university], while the other decided to drop his hockey career for academics.

In the news, at the very time I was drafting this essay, a family of basketball players was under the lens of scrutiny. Although I have no connection to either the family or the institution, my retired teacher mother asked me the night the news broke, “How do those young men think they can get away with theft like that?”

I simply replied, “They weren’t thinking, Mom,” because I had seen similar attitudes of nonchalance from other student athletes.

I have had the opportunity to teach some very fine, honorable student athletes. Just as all teachers are not cut from the same cloth, students athletes run the gamut as well. But that incident brings the question back around for me: are colleges holding all students to the same level of academic rigor—whether athlete or musician, artist or writer?

*          *          *

Journal from March 14, 2017:

This morning, my clear-headed thought was that [the community college] teachers are focused on teaching a specific set of skills—but perhaps overlook the importance of critical thinking. [I had overheard a community college instructor giving students oral exams in the office space we shared. The instructor’s technique was problematic for me.]

Skills aren’t always “transferable” from one discipline to another, and students never think about using many of the skills beyond the immediate classroom.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, could/should be part of everything they do, once mastered.

Anyone can learn to use a computer; anyone can figure out a way to memorize “data” like the Periodic Table in chemistry; anyone can be taught the rudimentary skills of cooking, playing an instrument, or even learning how to dance. But THINKING, especially CRITICALLY, that takes a whole new layer of…changing computer keyboarding skills to programming, transforming a student into a scientist, a master-chef, a talented musician, a prima-ballerina.

Critical thinking raises the bar from proficiency to mastery. It makes one self-reliant. It allows us to problem-solve, not just monitor or identify that a problem exists.

My class(es) and I were also reading a novel this semester, an activity I like to include as part of their expanding look at published writing. I approach it like a book club rather than a literary analysis, and ask the different levels of classes to engage with the novel in differing ways.

This semester’s selection was T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, because it allowed us the opportunity to engage in some of the nation’s hot-button topics (immigration, the wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico) without the extra layer of political affiliation (the book was published in 1995).

One of my students at the community college—a young woman who had been home-schooled by what I assume are very conservative, Christian parents (based on conversations I had with the student throughout the semester)—was stunned by the compassion exhibited by the Mexican immigrant male towards his wealthy, Caucasian male “rival” at the novel’s end. While I no longer recall her specific words, I remember the feeling of euphoria accompanying me on my seventy-five-mile drive home that afternoon; oh, happy day, her critical thinking skills were developing!

*          *          *

Journal from April 2, 2017:

The hammer falls hard on the position essay.

 [The community college] problems include two students presenting papers written for another class (one talking about her experience at [XYZ] Community College? Another using the I-Search final paper she wrote for me in Comp. I, complete with multiple online sources viewed in Dec. of 2016), and one young man who turned in a paper with the clear statement, “women like me…”

Ugh.

Students are often still childlike; children test boundaries. Each semester, no matter where I teach, I tend to run across a student who blatantly plagiarizes a paper. This discovery was recorded so specifically because I was sitting on campus, either grading in my office between classes or silently fuming in the library with my students while they were independently researching for their final paper.

Each college has a specific protocol for handling plagiarism. I publish the institution’s specific language in my course syllabus, “punish” the student based on the infraction, and pass the information up the chain-of-command if deemed appropriate.

After that, I entrust the administration with the situation—never inquiring about their decision—just as I hope they trust me to continue to do my job without interference.

*          *          *

Going back to O’Keefe’s, “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide,” she writes of a “divide” between “people who believe in community colleges, and people who dismiss and even diminish them.”

I do not know where O’Keefe lives, nor what region she is writing about with regard to this article—but I know what I heard when my children were each introduced to their high school in Minnesota. The high school’s guidance counselors promoted a very specific set of courses for students who tested well in the years leading up to ninth grade, making them “college ready,” while the students who had not tested well were simply given a plan to graduate.

Is that the “divide” O’Keefe means?

When I look into a classroom of students each semester, I do see a different set of people depending on whether it is a community college or a four-year university; I also see a difference in student population with the time of day, regional location of the school, and current state of the nation’s economy.

The similarities vs. differences I observed this one semester in northern Minnesota were:

  1. The community college students were younger than what I encountered in another community college in another time and state. Without asking for their Name, Rank, and Serial Number (although three of them shared specific information about being sixteen years old in their writing), I ascertained that approximately half of my community college students were enrolled through their high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option (meaning they were driving over to the community college for a class or two while still engaging in high school curricula and activities). By contrast, I don’t recall a single PSEO student being in the university class, so the maturity level of any topic discussed was always higher in the university than the community college.
  2. Most of the PSEO students were attending the community college without a clear sense of purpose. Without a defined career path / major in mind, the PSEO students were working in a vacuum of sorts; their work was unfocused and random when compared to their university “peers” who were working towards a very specific goal—and already had enough knowledge about their field from which to prepare a decent academic argument.
  3. Finances seemed to dictate the students’ attending college. Since the local area had recently experienced an economic recession of its own, many of the students were identified as First Generation college students. Were they attending the community college as a way for their parents to avoid the financial burden in a year or two? Were they attending the community college because they couldn’t find a “good paying” job in the area? Were they attending the community college because the local high schools were cutting budgets by hiring fewer teachers / offering fewer courses? If one is offered an athletic scholarship to a top-tier program, or has parents who are financially supporting the venture, students tend to gravitate towards universities; if students are coming from homes where money is a concern, and/or students are paying for it themselves, community college tuition is often a more affordable way to complete those “core” courses most Bachelor’s degrees require.

Yes, there are tangible differences between the four-year university and a community college—reputations of specific programs, athletic team classifications, and the variety of Majors/Minors each can offer—but a “divide,” as in a chasm, or to separate into opposing factions? No.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term “divide” right now, thanks to the divisive nature of the language many people in positions of power are using.

To borrow from Karl Marx, “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” So I challenge us all—as teachers, and as students—to focus on the value our education has brought into our life. The use will deem it a quality education.

A Few Confessions of an English Teacher

Alexandra Glynn

Preparing for classes rouses up the guilt again. I teach writing, but I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I plagiarize, in a sense, all the time. I don’t read articles; I skim them enough to make them seem read. And when I write, I really don’t consider any of the items that my textbook says to consider when considering audience.

Scorn not the plagiarist. If you are not plagiarizing, you are not reading; you are not bringing ancient music to our modern hearts. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself, as I browse through books looking for something someone wrote that I can put in my sentence, to cast the glory into it and dart a kind of luster into it that I could never fabricate on my own. I tell my students not to plagiarize, but I do it. If I haven’t knitted in some of the poets, the way the psalmist weaved through some of Moses (Botha 1) into Psalm 119, [1] I haven’t really said anything, and certainly haven’t said anything that is commonly thought but never so well expressed.

And I have a two hundred second rule for reading articles. I allow myself two hundred seconds per article and look for what argument the writer is making (fortunately, this is almost always in the beginning of the paper), then for what kinds of words they use, and based on those two data points, I decide whether or not I will look for any good quotes in the article. Then I cast almost all the articles aside, like lords lain low. And yet I tell my students to do diligent research, not to be lazy, and to carefully consider what they are reading. I console myself with Hegel, whose words I skew to mean that one should read “prefaces and first paragraphs” (43), and only those. [2]

And finally, I ignore large segments of my textbook, which right now is Bullock, Brody, and Weinberg’s Little Seagull Handbook. For example, they suggest that in considering audience, we consider which audience we want to reach, their background, their interests, demographic information, what they “already know—or believe—about [my] topic,” and the like. I skip all this, and only take the last suggestion: “How can you best appeal to your audience?” (W-1c 3). And I answer it the same for everything I write: I can best appeal “by patterning of sounds.” Everything else about my audience, which I am always telling my students to consider—faithfully referring them to the second book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—I ignore it all. I only care that the members of my audience have a “Dr. Seuss gene” and they are caught by patterns of sound.

And of course, I would never advise my students to do anything like this. How would I dare? For what am I doing? Teaching them to chant the music like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong? Or training them all to be Shakespeare, who “was not a genius” but rather “he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well” (Forsyth 1). It often seems like I am lazily and lotus-like laboring to bleed out all the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” that Orwell feuded with. But meanwhile, I know that “the will to produce citizenship through the teaching of writing is strong” (Wan 28) and that since it is probably also true that “the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices” (Duffy 230), I ought to spend all my time ensconcing my students in citizenship and ethics, or at least grammar. So I do this. I do this for their practicing of writing what I would not ever do for myself. And meanwhile, at a few moments during the sixteen weeks, like attempted flashes onto the inward eye, I slip unconscious crooks into the psyches of my students, hoping they will be enchanted into the poets, and after class, turn to them. For don’t they already do this in their music? Isn’t it true that a human being “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody” (Shelley)?

Unresolved on this, I go to prepare for classes again, a hypocrite, pondering all these things weak and weary. And I consider that I am a poser, consoled only by the thought that not all my colleagues are such actors. That I am in a noble profession, in a place where, as the poet says, “walls come down, / valleys rise, / bridges stretch outward” (Kurtti 9).

Notes

[1] The full quote: “By alluding to, borrowing from, rephrasing, and reinterpreting segments of the Torah, Prophets, wisdom literature, and Psalms, the author of Psalm 119 created a new authoritative text by replicating and re-contextualising what must have been considered to be authoritative texts in his day” (Botha 1).

[2] The full quote: “Should anyone ask for a royal road to Science, there is no more easy-going way than to rely on sound common sense and for the rest, in order to keep up with the times, and with advances in philosophy, to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs” (Hegel 43).

Works Cited

Botha, Philippus. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the light of Psalm 119” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 68.1 (2012).

Bullock, Richard, and Michal Brody and Francine Weinberg. “Writing Contexts” in The Little Seagull Handbook. Norton 2017, pp. W1-5.

Duffy, John. “The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing” College English, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 229-250.

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. Penguin, 2013.

Hegel, G. F. W. Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]. A. V. Miller (transl). Oxford U Press, 1997.

Kurtti Pylvainen, Sandra. “Close Reading.English Journal, vol. 104, no. 4, 2015, p. 9.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language [1946]” orwell.ru. Retrieved from http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Shelley, Percy. “A defense of poetry [1840]” PoetryFoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.

Wan, Amy. “In the name of citizenship: The writing classroom and the promise of citizenship” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-49.

Works Plagiarized

Addison, Joseph. “The Spectator No 421. Thursday, July 3, 1712.” The Spectator. Retrieved from http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison421.htm.

McKay, Claude. “Invocation” in Selected Poems. Dover, 1999, p. 23.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven” in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. G. R. Thompson (ed). Norton, 2004, pp. 58-61.

Pope, Alexander. “An essay on criticism.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the men of England” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, pp. 149-150.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lotus-eaters [1832]” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45364/the-lotos-eaters.

Wordsworth, William “I wandered lonely.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.

Wordsworth, William. “Scorn not the sonnet” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, p. 58.

 

Listening to the Silence: Addressing Anxiety Disorders in Our Schools

Abby Rosen

As teachers, we ask a lot of our students. We demand not only respect for our authority, but curiosity, effort, and perseverance in the face of failure and humiliation. They also ask a lot of us: content mastery, understanding, and the ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. Usually, students rise to our expectations with ease, as we do to theirs. But others struggle with grades, motivation, and self-esteem, while teachers face student disengagement, isolation, and—too often—burnout. Some students receive Individualized Education Programs to accommodate their learning challenges. Others who fail to meet our expectations are deemed lazy or unwilling, but a quieter but equally vicious cause is often at the root: anxiety disorders. Anxiety in teens is increasing (Schrobsdorff), and our schools have a responsibility to pay as much attention to these silent struggles as they do to the louder, more disruptive ones. Without proper training and ongoing support from mental health professionals, too many students and staff will continue to suffer and slink away from our schools in silence. Just like I did, until now.

Everyone has experienced anxiety—butterflies in the stomach or nervous excitement—but it also manifests as intense fear and behavioral paralysis leading to avoidance or social isolation. In other words, for those with clinical anxiety disorders, the butterflies never go away. They flutter from the moment you wake up until the second you fall asleep, coloring every thought you have and decision you make, sometimes making it impossible to act or ask for help. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. One in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eighty percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment (“Children and Teens”). These illnesses exist just under the surface and are compensated for or hidden, so others don’t know until it dramatically impacts that person’s life. Oftentimes, people like myself don’t even realize they have an anxiety disorder for years. They just think that they were made to overthink, worry, obsess or panic. People with anxiety disorders look at others being happy, taking risks, meeting deadlines, and achieving their goals with wistful envy. They also watch as others receive attention and care for their outward issues while they continue to quietly deteriorate. I’ve seen it in my own eyes and the eyes of my students in every classroom I’ve ever entered.

As far back as my memories go, so does my anxiety disorder. Most flashbacks play out like TV reruns because, like a studio audience, I sat still while my peers moved around me. I always wanted to know the rules of the game before I started to play, and I insisted everyone else adhere to the letter. In a lot of ways, I was lucky. My anxiety manifested itself as perfectionism, which served me well in school. I got good grades and was well-respected by teachers. No one noticed me struggling because why would they? Lots of my friends battled openly and viciously with self-injury, eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. Like many mentally ill teens, they did not want to tell their parents, so we spent hours online talking about their issues without any real progress being made. It brought us closer together, but this secret keeping harmed everyone involved. Over time, their behavior alerted concerned parents and school staff, leading to offers of therapy and school accommodations. This did not cure them of their mental illnesses, but it did allow them to deal with these issues in tandem with the social and academic problems their illnesses caused. I, on the other hand, told myself that my problems weren’t “bad enough,” and I stayed quiet. This allowed my anxiety to fester, and I graduated high school more anxious than ever.

Once I started college, I received my generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and I decided to pursue teaching to spread my own love of reading, the one thing that always quieted my mind. My teaching classes were full of people like me: INFJ’s bursting at the seams to help others, spread a love of learning and support each other through the next few years of teacher training. Again, I excelled in the academic aspects of my program, but I was wracked with constant worry. While others asked questions about “best practices for advanced students,” I stopped myself from asking things like, “What do you do once your students realize you’re incompetent?” The closer we got to student teaching, the more I realized that we were all about to be handed real classrooms full of real students who we really had to teach. While this concept terrified me, it excited my classmates and I felt the familiar divide of mentally healthy and mentally ill pushing me away from the otherwise like-minded people I once related to. The more stressed I became, the more I retreated into myself despite all the people around me reaching out to help. I saw this same retreat in a number of students during student teaching, but I didn’t know how to teach them and help them at the same time. I could have turned to my cooperating teacher for help, but I wanted to be seen as competent no matter what. Instead of committing my energy to becoming a better teacher, I gave in to the feelings of helplessness that came from being unable to help everyone and myself at the same time. Once student teaching ended and I got my degree, I told myself I’d done my due diligence, but teaching just wasn’t for me.

After only a year working in retail, I had enough distance to see what happened to me and to my students. School stress can compound feelings of anxiety and depression, as does isolation and self-doubt. School is a minefield for an anxious person, whether they are teaching or learning: lots of people in narrow hallways and cramped classrooms; unpredictability; forced social interaction and class participation; pressures to achieve, befriend, perform, and behave according to ever-changing rules out of your own control. I always expected to look around and see my colleagues fighting the same losing battle against these forces, but they weren’t. No one talked out loud about struggling mentally. The closest anyone got was joking about being Jekyll and Hyde before and after their morning caffeine. A mentor of mine once told me that I would “suck as a teacher for three years.” If I could just accept that, she said, I would be fine. Though she knew me well, I don’t think she knew just how hard it was to know I sucked for three minutes. I imagined my struggling students felt the same way. They saw themselves falling behind while others excelled without any signs of distress. This learned helplessness was enough to almost knock me out of the profession entirely, so it is no surprise that it claims so many students as well.

During our college courses, teacher stress was discussed but typically met with generic advice like “focus on your hobbies” or “find a healthy balance between work and home life.” For teachers not struggling with anxiety or depression, these things are still difficult to implement. While those platitudes are enough for some, others who struggle with boundary setting and emotional management are left with no real advice or strategies to deal with the onslaught of new stressors. Most of the long-term teachers I knew weren’t cold and jaded from the work they did; they just drew clear boundaries are stayed within them, insisting that others did the same. For others, like myself, the ability to define the line between my job performance and my self-worth would eventually prove to be too much. Before I even got my own classroom, I imagined myself failing over and over and over again if anyone ever gave me the chance to ruin my own classroom someday. All the while, I typed sincere cover letters and perfected my resume to trick some poor school into believing in me more than I believed in myself. It worked: I found my first job. It was a high school focusing on credit recovery. These students, I thought, knew what it’s like to struggle. Maybe, I thought, we could learn how to overcome our demons together. I reminded myself that my desire to help others was stronger than my inability to help myself. I told myself that my experience with anxiety gave me an advantage.

When I got hired, I shared a room with a math teacher. The two of us, both young white women, handled upwards of 70 “at-risk” students, managing their credit recovery, classroom engagement, and access to school and government resources. All teachers on our school’s small staff ran advisories, but our motley crew was a little different. We got the more “delicate” students, as one administrator put it, who struggled with mental health, addiction, identity, personal and social issues. At first, I held my roster of “fragile” students like a mother hen. I talked with them when I should have been differentiating my lesson plans, but the connections I made were more valuable than my planning time. Unlike my lessons, which often felt ineffective at best, I knew that these talks were significant to my students and to myself. Then, the world outside of my room started to seep in. I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my students at once. I had to teach. After parent calls, chasing down transcripts and missing credits, taking attendance and making sure they got to (and stayed in) class, I spent the rest of my time lesson planning in what little silence I could steal. More days that not, my carefully planned lessons dissolved within the first five minutes. When I wasn’t teaching or planning, there were always students waiting for help or to talk about today’s crisis. Every twenty, ten, or even five minutes I spent talking to one student meant another chunk of time I couldn’t give to the other thirty or to myself. I felt myself getting overwhelmed, but I had support, momentum, and I could feel myself making a difference. I was open with my students about my own struggles, and they trusted me and respected my honesty. They confided in me about their addictions, pregnancies, financial hardships, sexual assaults, self-harm, and gender identity issues. Some talks required mandatory reporting, and others only required me to listen and let them know they were heard. Those moments are what I think of after more than a year away from the classroom. Those are the things I worry I may have given up too soon.

But those moments were often shattered by thrown chairs and slammed doors. The sound a fist makes when it hits a wall. Or a window. Or someone’s face. The noise a human head makes when it hits the ground. Noises I never knew growing up. Those are the things I remember when I question why I left—why I can tell the difference between happy-loud and angry-loud from a mile away. Why multiple loud voices at once now trigger panic attacks. Why I look around a room sometimes and identify all the things that could be used as a weapon. This violence, anger, and chaos I witnessed for the first time at 24 was nothing new to my fellow staff members. When I, still shaking, told my co-workers about the fight I got caught in the middle of on my first day, they listened but were not impressed or appalled. They told me about students wielding weapons, ripping each other’s hair out and the full-scale riot that broke out the year before I started. I was horrified by how casual this all seemed to them, but this is not unique to our school. 11.5 percent of Minnesota teachers were threatened with physical violence by a student and over 6 percent were physically attacked (Zhang, Anlan, et al.). One year in my district, a student choked a teacher unconscious, resulting in permanent brain damage. I knew teaching was going to be stressful, but these were more than occupational hazards. These incidents would be reasonable grounds for leaving any “normal” job, but instead, they were elements of a normal Tuesday. After only my first week at school, I had already faced a reality that felt harsher than I could handle, but once again, my inner turmoil was deprioritized by constant crisis.

One day, during a PTSD-induced altercation, one of my students, “Mark,” threatened his girlfriend and two staff members who tried to intervene. As a result, he was not allowed back in the building without a restorative justice meeting. Mark was an otherwise quiet and respectful student who rarely participated in class despite performing well on most assignments. At 9:45 the next morning, I got a call Mark’s mother. He drove forty-five minutes with no heat in his car to pick up some work and have his meeting, but he was not being allowed in the building on his own. Sitting in his car in single-digit temperatures, he called his mom to let her know that he was done. He was at his limit. He was threatening suicide. His mother told me this was my fault. I was his advisor, and I was responsible. I was reviewing a chapter in a book with a student who could only make it to school one day a week, but I had to put my phone down, run outside without my coat and try to calm this student down. Our social worker was meeting with another student with others waiting outside to speak to her. In this moment, I’d never been more aware of the fact that I chose teaching over psychology. All I could do was throw promises at his brick wall and hope something got through. I begged and pleaded with school security and our intervention staff to let him in. This was, after all, life or death. After he was allowed back in the building, I returned to that student patiently waiting at my desk. I wiped my tears on the way up the stairs, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t know what just happened. Mark was admitted to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold later that day. Only two hours later, a student I was very close to joined him in the same psychiatric ward after confiding in another staff member about her suicidal ideations. She’d tried to come see me earlier that day, but I was too busy. There was only one of me, after all. Despite all this, I still had five class periods full of students waiting for me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, what my students felt every day: overwhelming emotional stress coupled with the pressure to perform perfectly in front of a room full of people. I don’t remember the lessons I taught that day, but I will never forget the look of despair on Mark’s face or the pain in his mother’s voice telling me it was all my fault.

Before I started teaching, I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans and refugees. Though we covered it in my college classes, it was only one on a long list of disorders whose percentages seemed too low to worry about in mainstream schools. Yet a fifth to a half of all children will experience a significant trauma during childhood. Three to fifteen percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD as a result (“PTSD in Children and Teens”). The rate where I worked was significantly higher than that, and studies have shown incidence of PTSD in as high as half of students exposed to interpersonal violence (Kletter, Hilit, et al.). Those students who had a PTSD diagnosis were very open about it because it clearly explained their issues with anger, impulse control, trust, and low tolerance for chaotic environments. At their most violent and disruptive, many students were in the throes of a PTSD-induced blackout. However, my quieter students also struggled with PTSD every day. During class, students would often get up and leave the room without explanation. In a more typical school environment, this would be frowned upon, but, as a school filled with students fighting any number of mental battles, we understood the need for self-regulation. Most students would eventually rejoin the class, and when I asked them afterwards why they left, they would tell me that they just needed a minute away from the distractions, the topic of discussion, or the other students. These students were punished at previous schools for exercising a coping skill that some adults never master. After living for years without any professional mental health help, these students learned how to navigate a world that fundamentally misunderstands and reprimands them for the very things they can’t control. I found myself frantically googling “PTSD in teens” on my lunch break and crying. By creating lesson plans including loud noises, close quarters between students, and even topics directly related to past trauma, I was unwittingly re-traumatizing my students. At the very least, by not having all of the information about this serious mental health issue, I could not create curriculum specifically to combat it.

I tried over and over to see how we, with our limited resources, could have prevented this crisis and others like it, but everyone was doing above and beyond what they could. We, like many schools across the country, just didn’t have the bodies to attend to everyone’s needs at once. In a school of hundreds of students, many with at least one significant mental illness, it felt impossible to approach every situation without doing harm to someone. No matter how much training I’d received, I often had nowhere to turn with new questions as my understanding of these and other anxiety disorders evolved. That said, I was privileged to work at a school so hyper-focused on students who struggle with mental illness. Though we only had one social worker and one rotating psychologist for 400 students, they did all they could. A large number of our staff worked exclusively on conflict resolution, security, student retention, job placement, and skills training. I’m fortunate to never have experienced the threats or the actual violence that others in my position did, but that didn’t stop the fear. I still feared for my safety on the off chance that one of my students turned on me. In desperation, I turned to our social worker for advice, adding another body to the already heavy weight on her shoulders. I felt guilty but was desperate for professional advice. My direct supervisor, a fellow teacher familiar with mental illness, emphasized the importance of self-care. We were given ample paid time off because our administrators knew the burdens we shouldered could not and should not be compensated for with sick or vacation time. When I needed to leave after a particularly rough day, as long as my work was done and my obligations covered, I didn’t have to explain myself. I still lied and told my colleagues I had migraines to avoid telling them that I was just overwhelmed. For overworked and overstretched staff, there is still pressure to handle it all with quiet grace. I told myself that our students were the ones with real problems, and I didn’t want to become another liability.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to help others are the most harmed by doing so. Many of my students with their own mental illnesses spent hours and hours supporting other friends in crisis because they knew what it felt like to be helpless. Like us teachers, they diverted attention away from learning to stand with their peers in corner of hallways, talking them down or talking them up. Taking on this emotional weight without any outside support can be overwhelming and compound existing mental health issues. When it comes to mental illness, the desire to help is constantly met with the reality that the impact you can make is limited by the amount of energy you can contribute. There is always more to do and only so much time in the day to do it. I found myself talking to students on my school-sanctioned Facebook page late at night, just like my students did for their friends. No matter the day I had, there was always someone who needed me more than I needed myself. This constant giving of self is seen as dedicated, compassionate and admirable, but the true impact of overextension is not talked about enough. Students in crisis and teachers aren’t the only one being hurt by this. Because of limited time and resources, the students who weren’t “needy” didn’t get any attention. Students who were excelling were left to fend for themselves on independent projects with little supervision. I didn’t have the time or energy left to make sure that they were getting extra resources because I was too busy playing therapist instead of using my position in the classroom to support my students in other ways.

Eventually, the reality set in that I was not a professional. I was not qualified to give advice. Without proper mental health training, warning signs go unnoticed. We are expected to be mandatory reporters, but we are unable to provide real, in-the-moment advice or guidance. Though teacher-student relationships are valuable, they are not a replacement for qualified mental health professionals. This is why providing mental health support at school is so critical. We have the opportunity to embody the community ideals so many schools are based on. By providing in-school therapy, opportunities for restorative justice, and avenues for safe self-expression, we can lift up our students in ways they may never experience outside our walls. We need to encourage students and teachers to speak up about their experiences, or let them whisper them to someone safe until they are ready to speak aloud. And when they do, when our students speak up and make the brave choice to let their mental illness see the light of day, we need to embrace them. Give them English credit for reflection on their experiences. Let them write about the history and treatment of the mentally ill in this country. Teach them what neurotransmitters are and how they affect mood and behavior. Because those struggling with anxiety disorders are often ashamed, they are unlikely to bring up the topic themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to shine light on the darker parts of our students’ lives and do what we can to help. Our students want strategies to deal with anxiety and depression. We constantly restrict and criticize cell phone use, but what is the first thing most people do when we get uncomfortable in a social situation? People lose interest or feign apathy when they do not understand something or feel up to the challenge in front of them. These aren’t “deviant” behaviors that need to be punished out of our students. These are clear indicators that the current climate is not working for them, and they are looking for a way to cope.

Though it is far from a comprehensive solution, I had great success implementing a teaching unit specifically focusing on mental health. It was by far my best-attended and most-engaged-with unit during my two years in the classroom. Students made posters about specific mental illnesses, highlighting statistics and little-known facts about these common but unspoken ailments affecting them and their peers. Many of them chose to research a mental illness that personally affected them. Each poster included information about the illness and a call to action. “Talk to someone!” “It’s okay to be sad!” and “See your advisor for more information” peppered the walls and prompted productive discussions. I don’t believe that making students make posters will change the face of mental illness in our schools, but I know it raised awareness. Students opened up to me, other teachers, and their advisors about struggles they faced or saw people they loved facing. Teachers came to talk to me because they knew I understood how significant mental health issues are today. Even though we, as a staff, saw countless powerpoints on the high prevalence of PTSD, emotional behavior disorder, anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder and more, our students didn’t. I don’t think they knew just how many of their peers shared their hidden burdens.

Often, mental health issues are only addressed after they boil over. Students receive counseling, diagnoses and support only after they’ve disrupted a class or come to blows with another student. It is possible, however, to stop these mental health issues from becoming crises. Mental health education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for students and the subject of continued staff development for teachers. When something is stigmatized, it only stays that way because people feel more comfortable leaving it unsaid. Only after I named my anxiety and depression was I able to start fighting back. Only after we acknowledge the existence of mental illness in our schools can we join hands with our students silently fighting alone. But acknowledgment isn’t enough. In the battle against mental illness in schools, numbers matter. We need to know which of our students are struggling, and we need mental health professionals proportionate to that number. Without awareness, mental illness will remain a silent killer. Without continued support from professionals, staffs with good intentions will still fall short of students’ needs. By removing boundaries to mental health access, making necessary accommodations for students, and destigmatizing mental illness, we stand a much better chance of keeping struggling but passionate students and teachers in our schools where they belong.

Works Cited

“Children and Teens.” Learn From Us, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children.

Kletter, Hilit, et al. “Helping Children Exposed to War and Violence: Perspectives from an International Work Group on Interventions for Youth and Families.” Child Youth Care Forum, med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/elspap/documents/A48.pdf.

“PTSD in Children and Teens.” PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/.

Zhang, Anlan, et al. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2017.