By Julie Sochaki
As we fully settle into the brand-new school year, I cannot help but think of having a growth mindset and integrating our individual strengths into our practices. While identifying key strengths can help our students build confidence and increase performance in the classroom, I integrate these elements into my own life as well, especially when I hit a roadblock or need some extra inspiration on this teaching journey.
Recently in my class of first-year college students, I invited them to choose one element from Dr. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Then I asked the learners how they can integrate this element into their lives this week. I ultimately wanted to know how they shifted their thinking in order to succeed. Many students chose “embracing challenges” (growth) instead of “avoiding challenges” (fixed). One student shared that in order for her to embrace challenges she needs to take risks and move outside of her comfort zone. Another student told the story of how he had “failed” at ice skating multiple times, only to make the school ice hockey team a year later. That doesn’t sound like failure to me. Their combined strengths of determination and passion allowed them to continue without giving up. It reminds me of Thomas Edison’s experience when he discovered the light bulb. He said the lightbulb is an invention with 1,000 steps.
Similarly, we as mentors and mentees can embrace a growth mindset and cultivate our individual character strengths. Strengths inventories helped me to identify these empowering characteristics within myself such as creativity, gratitude, perseverance, zest, teamwork, and optimism. Identifying and then leveraging our strengths are essential when making small incremental changes in our practices that lead to larger shifts in our thinking and in our classrooms. Why not embark on a journey for this school year with a fellow traveler? Perhaps you crave support or a good listener, or maybe you would like to share some of your wisdom with another teacher outside of your building.
If you are interested in becoming a mentor or mentee, more information can be found here. If you decide to apply to be a mentor or mentee click here. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to Nicole Martone or Julie Sochacki, mentoring program co-chairs.
By Catherine Sosnowski
“The places in which we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings. They give us the strength to go on.”
- Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
In a few weeks, I’ll celebrate my thirty-eighth anniversary as a teacher. It seems like yesterday. Dressed in a khaki pencil skirt and a lilac top, I felt so professional, armed with the mantra don’t smile before Christmas and 250 pages of suggested activities.
I have such vivid memories of that day. Who knew sweat circles could stretch to your waist? Not smiling lasted 30 minutes into the first class. I couldn’t be someone other than me. It was one of many decisions I made that year – good and bad- that shaped who I became as a teacher. While trying to have seventh graders write a ghazal was not my finest moment, attending the NCTE annual convention that year was. My methods teacher insisted we join NCTE, a place she knew we would find support and a sense of community. She was right. So right. Being a first-year teacher was just hard. Overwhelmed, I worried if what I was doing was really teaching. I learned how hard it can be to ask for direction or advice from colleagues. Who wants to admit they don’t really know what they’re doing? Being that vulnerable was out of the question. Worse still, I felt I was the only one, a lonely imposter.
Attending the NCTE convention that first year reframed that for me. I met teachers from all over the country, all levels of experience who talked about the challenges they faced. They were my challenges too. It wasn’t just my class or my school or my district. I learned in our profession we try and fail and reflect and revise. And we try again. I learned there is no one magic way or answer, but multiple ways. My problems were the same as the teacher from Guam and Kansas. In short, I learned these are English teacher challenges. As I attended different workshops and listened to others, my head filled with ideas and possibilities I’d never considered. I came home with books signed by my favorite author, an armload of handouts from the Idea Exchange, feeling empowered to take on this task. Now that I knew this was hard for everyone, no matter their years of experience, I felt more grounded. One step at a time, I learned. One step at a time. I joined the CT Council of Teachers of English shortly afterward.
What that convention and subsequent CT Council conferences did for me over my career was to provide a place I felt seen and heard, where my experience and ideas had value. I have worked in a district where I was blessed to feel that way. However, I’ve also worked in more where I didn’t. As tired as I may be, as much as I might want to skip a conference, because sometimes it feels like just one straw too many, I know I will leave lighter, engaged, more valued than I was going in. I still have and use strategies from those first conferences. Others have served as a springboard for my own ideas. I came to know teachers from other parts of the state, comparing notes on our experiences and leaving knowing we were not the only ones. It is so easy in our profession when we don’t attend conferences and meet colleagues to assume our class/ school/ district is far behind. I came to use these conferences as an opportunity to calibrate my experience. Sometimes we were on the lower end of the spectrum, but sometimes we weren’t. The support of colleagues who share this work - to engage the disengaged, balance work and home, to agonize over how to manage the sheer volume of grading, mandates, standardized testing – being with people who walk in my shoes is healing itself.
Standing on the threshold of a new year I can feel the nervous excitement as we start new classes. These first weeks are unique in the possibility they hold. We have had the summer to rest, to heal, to reflect, to plan. If last year was difficult, we work to make this year better. If last year was good, we work to repeat it. We hate to leave the freedom of summer, but the challenge of the new year can be a siren song to get it better, righter, stronger. Please know CTCTE is here to support you in those challenges. May this new year bring you joy and blessings.
By Catherine Sosnowski
In the first half marathon I did, I was okay for the first nine miles. Now mind you, I wasn’t setting any speed records. I was walking at a decent clip, but I hadn’t collapsed in a sweaty, whining heap either. I was full of self-congratulations…until I passed mile 9 marker. My body was done. My energy was tapped out. My mind resembled tapioca. D.O.N.E. Done. I thought about all the sneaky, cheaty ways I could shave those last 4.1 miles off. I wanted to. I really did. But my better angel intervened, much to the chagrin of my body, and I continued honorably, if slower, to the finish.
As we round the stretch into the last weeks of school, I think of mile 9. My body is done. My energy is tapped out. My mind resembles a drop of water color paint in water, it fades so fast. D.O.N.E. Except we still have 3 weeks left. It is always a white-knuckle ride to the end of the last day.
The site We Are Teachers shared the following online during Teacher Appreciation Week. “What people don’t understand about teaching is that it sticks with you all the time. There is no getting up from your desk at the end of the day and walking away.
I think about my students as I fall asleep at night and the first thing in the morning. I realize a lot of jobs are 24/7 these days, but there’s a unique emotional labor to teaching that goes unnoticed.”
We even have lingo for this now: compassion fatigue, empathetic fatigue, vicarious trauma. Education has started to consider the impact of trauma on our students, especially their mental health. This is a good thing. Yet, the solution is always teachers will do this work. Sometimes there is training for this – a day, maybe a few- and then teachers add this to a plate that is not full as much as overflowing. Worse, the assumption is made that we are emotionally and mentally healthy enough to take on this difficult, necessary work. This is the emotional labor We Are Teachers referred to. In many ways, teachers are first responders. This is especially true for us as ELA teachers. We often know, through discussions, through student writing, where students are emotionally. I think of John who mailed his suicide letter to me because he knew he could talk with me. (I am grateful the U.S. mail was fast, and John was safe.) Or Jeanette who wrote a poem about her sexual abuse and trying to prevent her father from doing the same to her sister. Or Devin whose father was murdered by a neighbor. I think of the faces of his classmates the next day asking me, “What do we do?” and I remind myself that no matter where we work these things happen everywhere. There is no immunity.. This is the stuff they don’t teach us in teacher school.
In my new status as semi-retired, I’ve been working with a colleague at CCSU on teacher resilience. In the lit review we discovered there is very little research being done in the U.S., but there is a lot of research being done internationally. This is, it seems, not unique to us here, but part and parcel of being a teacher. There’s some comfort in that, I suppose. My wonder is why? We know that 82% of teachers come into the profession to make a difference in the lives of their students. We know 50% of first year teachers will leave by year 5. We know one of the most cited reasons for leaving is lack of support. Unless we have a group of like-minded colleagues, an affinity group, to share our stories and our concerns, the weight of each day is harder and harder until it is unbearable.
A meme making the rounds on self-care sites is “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Such a prefect line to explain what we need to do. If we don’t attend to our health – mental and physical, we cannot attend to the needs of our students. Self-care is not selfish; it is critical to our survival and thrival (I know it’s not a word, but it should be). As we move toward our mile 9 marker, I ask that you take a bit of time – to sit quietly, to turn your face to the sun, and just breathe.
Thank you for your work this year, for making a difference. You are my affinity group, and I look forward to seeing you when we are rested and full of ideas for the new school year. It will be epic! Enjoy your summer!
Side note: To celebrate the end of the school year, join CT CTE at the Florence Griswold Museum on June 20th from 1:00-4:00. See https://www.ctcte.net/upcoming-events.html for more information.
by Dina Secchiaroli
Professional Learning Specialist at Area Cooperative Educational Services
Membership Chair for CTCTE
Have you ever read student writing that looked good but didn’t say much? You know the kind of writing I’m talking about - the grammar is mostly correct, the writing is organized, the evidence is detailed, the voice is inauthentic, and the thinking, regurgitated.
When it comes to writing instruction, too often we spend classroom time focused on how to write rather than on how to think. We have lessons on how to write a thesis or claim, how to incorporate evidence, how to hook your reader, how to use a comma, etc. That’s not to say these aren’t important components to effective writing, but they won’t improve writing if we don’t also provide instructional time for students to figure out what they want to say. What percentage of class time do we allot towards exploratory writing and discussion, where students are writing and speaking to discover and clarify their thinking, both during and after reading? What strategies and protocols do we teach students to have these meaningful conversations? What structures have we created so they can capture the thinking of the class and be able to return to it throughout the year?
One way to explore thinking is through a Discovery Draft where students, in paragraph form, think through their fingers without worrying about structure or correctness. Students reference their reading journals and discussion notes to inform their thinking. Once their discovery draft is written, usually a 20-30 minute endeavor, in pairs or small groups they read aloud their discovery drafts while the group listens for the following:
For all types of writing:
In addition to the above, for argument:
In addition to the above, for analysis:
In addition to the above, for narrative:
When we read student writing that while polished and organized lacks substance, we should consider how many in-class opportunities we provided for students to explore their thinking. Certainly polished and organized writing is important, but so is the quality of the content in the writing. If we say we value student thinking, then our lesson design and time structures need to reflect its importance.
Novice English/language arts teachers have a great deal to learn as they take on new schools, new students and new curriculum. Mentors and cooperating teachers across the state of Connecticut have taught me what it means to best support our newest colleagues. Here are three of the many lessons I’ve learned:
1. Always remember the needs of the novice.
Stop for a moment and recall yourself as a novice teacher. How would you describe your student teaching experience or your first year? What challenges did you face? How did you feel? Remembering our own experiences helps us garner the empathy necessary to be effective support teachers. It also reminds us that although we are now experienced and use structures and strategies to enhance our work, on any given day we may experience some of the same concerns as our novice colleagues. How will I establish a positive classroom environment when I have particularly challenging students? How will I engage all learners? Will I have time to make it to the bathroom today?
As we remember the needs of the novice and ourselves as new teachers, let’s be honest: we have made our fair share of mistakes. In fact, we may have learned more from those mistakes than from our initial successes. Over time, making thoughtful (and sometimes not so thoughtful) choices and reflecting on the impact of those choices has improved our decision making and outcomes for the students in our classrooms. Sharing this truth will help our novice teachers set realistic goals for professional growth and provide assurance that with guided support and reflection, they, too, will build expertise and confidence.
2. Embrace a positive attitude that demonstrates your passion for teaching.
It’s important that we ask ourselves: Do we still embrace a positive attitude for teaching? In what ways do we demonstrate a passion for teaching English/language arts?
Something interesting happens when we strive to be more specific in our reflection here. As we reflect, we might wonder: what does a positive attitude and passion for teaching look like or sound like? How might we see evidence of it in a classroom filled with students or in a hallway between classes? What does it look like in a professional learning community or a data team meeting? How is this evidenced in our interactions with our colleagues? The next time you are in the teacher’s room or a department meeting, pay attention to your own words and actions and those of your colleagues. Where do you see evidence of a positive attitude or a passion for teaching? Perhaps you’ll be surprised by what you discover, and, hopefully, pleasantly so.
As support teachers, the messages that we send about teachers and about our students are heard loud and clear. Our novice colleagues are watching and listening. Let’s continue to demonstrate the positive attitude and passion for English education that we hold so dear and that we hope to engender in those newest to the profession.
3. Believe there’s an opportunity for you to learn as much as your novice teacher.
We know that it takes time, hard work, and continuous reflection to become an effective English/language arts teacher; the same is true of becoming an effective support teacher. While you will find initial successes in this support role, there will likely be challenges, too. You may find yourself working alongside a novice with a different learning style, a novice who lacks a depth of content understanding, or even a novice who feels she doesn’t need the guided support of an experienced teacher. When you face a challenge and feel unsure of how to proceed or are not initially successful, what will your problem-solving strategy be? Will you seek the help of a colleague? If so, how will you collaborate in a way that is respectful to the novice you are supporting? Remaining actively engaged in the process provides an opportunity to develop and apply new learning to ensure that the teacher you’re supporting will be successful. Ultimately, we hope this willingness to learn and improve practice, whether it’s in the classroom or as a support teacher, will continue to inspire our learning partners, too.
Remember the novice. Embrace a positive attitude. Be open to learning. The three ideas shared might seem simple, but it’s something else altogether to put them into practice. In the spirit of on-going learning and continuous improvement, I invite you to watch for evidence of how these three ideas show up in your practice as you support novices and then reflect more deeply on what you notice. What does it make you wonder? What next steps will you take?
Carly Weiland Quiros (firstname.lastname@example.org) serves as the CT-CTE RESC Liaison and is a Professional Learning Specialist at EdAdvance in Litchfield, Connecticut.
by Victoria Hulse
Library Media Specialist
Webmaster for CTCTE
The literary canon--a “sacred” phrase to English teachers. Novels that have stood the test of time such as The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations, and let’s not forget anything by Shakespeare. Yes, as English teachers we want students to read “good” literature, but why are these the stories we’re promoting? I recently reflected on my own experiences in high school English. I was exposed to Canterbury Tales, Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and more. I enjoyed English class, but that was because of the teachers--not because of what they were actually teaching. Frankly, I didn’t read most of the assigned texts in high school.
As a young child, I was an avid reader. I have lucid memories of visiting bookstores like Waldenbooks and Barnes and Noble with my parents. The smell of the stores was intoxicating. Everyone knew how much I loved to read--so much that I can recall a birthday where I received over $200 in gift certificates to Barnes and Noble; and this excited me to no end. So if I loved reading so much, what happened in high school?
Ultimately, it comes down to this. I couldn’t relate to the literature. We often didn’t read stories about things I understood or to which I could relate. Predominantly, I read novels written by “dead white men”. I attempted to read many assigned books in high school and can recall thinking “This is sooooo boring” or “The characters in these stories are insane”. So I would refer to the Cliff Notes or skim read, and that ended up being more than enough to get excellent grades in high school English class. But this doesn’t still happen, does it?
Students are still being assigned many of the same classic texts that my own parents and I read in high school. And frankly, they are still not reading them, which implies “Nothing important is happening because student development of reading and interpretive abilities requires engaged reading” (Broz 2011, 15). English teachers obviously don’t want this to happen, so why are we resistant to change the books we assign? I’m not promoting the idea of abandoning the literary canon altogether as it is referenced frequently in the Common Core Standards. In Book Love Penny Kittle argues “We need to balance pleasure with challenge, increasing volume for all readers and setting up an environment in our classroom that manages kids as they choose books, set goals, and develop a reading habit” (8). I strongly believe that we should allow students an opportunity to choose something they would like to read. There is a world full of wonderful stories, both fiction and nonfiction, that students are not exposed to because there isn’t time. But is there? What if we abandon one assigned text a year and give students the opportunity to personalize their learning by choosing a book? Would it be so terrible if students read books of their own choosing such as The Hate U Give, Laughing at my own Nightmare or Love Hate and Other Filters? Maya Angelou is reported to have said, “Any book that helps a child form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Let’s find time in our curriculum to allow students the power to choose what they read. Perhaps our students will then truly develop a love for reading, and ultimately, become better readers.
Citations and Recommended Resources:
“Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” William J. Broz
Book Love by Penny Kittle
The Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading
Connecting the Canon to Current Young Adult Literature
Follow #DisruptTexts on Twitter
The last week of September is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. It always dovetailed with the exploration my classes started on why we read. As a class we would go through the list of the 25 most challenged books and why they were banned. Students were shocked, perplexed, and just plain angry at how adults could so misunderstand one of their favorite books. “Bridge to Terabithia promotes witchcraft?? Really? That was my favorite book!” And so it would go as we went down the list. “Do these people even read the book, the whole book?” one student fumed. It was, to say the least, a great motivator to get even my most reluctant readers reading. It also was a clear illustration of the power of the written word.
The understanding that words have power seems even more important. We have seen the impact of words – in court rulings, on social platforms like Twitter and news shows, in colleges, and in the halls of government. Lately it seems as if word choices are made for the shock value or for what will evoke the most visceral reaction. That worries me a lot. Visceral reactions shut down speech and shut up people instead facilitating reasoned discussions on larger issues. Who are we as a nation? A society? As individuals? What exactly do we value? How do we ensure those values are reflected in our laws? How do we balance those values in a country of many cultural, ethnic, religious beliefs? It is the more reasoned discussion among that plurality of beliefs that is our hallmark and our strength as a country. Yet lately words are honed to a laser focus on our differences. That makes it almost impossible to find common ground. In her poem “The Human Family” Maya Angelou puts it best:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
As long as we cannot see what we have in common, that divide will continue to grow, and, I fear, to strengthen. Worse, it will tempt us further to silence those voices we do not agree with.
Which brings us back to the critical importance, of students reading a wide range of materials from a diverse range of voices. Some materials students may agree with; some they may find more challenging, maybe even uncomfortable. It is only in reading and reflecting on things that challenge and discomfort us that we grow. Note I said reflect. This does not mean to suggest there will be a change of belief, though that may happen. More important, as Kylene Beers and Robert Probst describe in Disrupting Thinking, is the reflection on what we know, how the book makes us feel, and how we reconcile that dissonance that offers our students a path to a better world. When we are willing to reflect on how a book adds to our understanding of the world around us, to question what we know and think, we allow for the space to find likeness where it may not seem to exist.
St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Even centuries ago he realized the danger of a limited perspective. Research shows we develop empathy when we read. By reading diverse texts, we are afforded the opportunity to put on another’s skin and experience their reality. It is another tool to ensure we do not suffer from the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently warns us of in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”.
My fervent hope for your school year is that it is filled with a wonderfully rich variety of literature. May there be the joy of discovery as well as the discomfort of examining deeply held beliefs. Below are some resources to explore this topic further.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks Resources on top ten most challenged books by the year
http://www.ncte.org/action/anti-censorship Guidelines for choosing ELA materials, rationales for the teaching of books that have been challenged, NCTE position statements on intellectual freedom and censorship as well as the support the NCTE can offer.
Speak Loudly is a collection of some YA authors on the topic of censorship. With thanks to Wendy Glenn for submitting this on behalf of the ALAN Anti-Censorship Committee.