Colorful Questioning: Student-Led Discussions

Shai D Klima, Kettle Moraine High School, klimas @

By nature, English teachers are talkers: We talk about books, writing, our students. And our students are talkers, forever discussing what’s happening in their own lives, on social media, on television. As a talker, I’ve always been interested in how best to harness my suburban high school students’ natural gift of gab and make it a classroom-worthy activity connected to the novels and non-fiction that I teach.

The answer began to develop while I was earning my 316 license from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In Reading 702: Reading Across the Curriculum, I was introduced to a colorful Question/Answer relationship strategy developed by Billmeyer (2006): student-generated Red, White, Blue and Gold questions. Students create book-club worthy questions as they work in groups to discuss texts. They then divide these questions into colored categories: those whose answers come from the text (red), think and search across the text (white), ask-the-author inferences (blue), and connections to self/world (gold). (More of the work regarding how this technique is useful in the classroom can be found on the Prezi created for that course).

My own students are familiar with literature circles as created by Daniels (2002) because we facilitate them in language arts classes from upper elementary school through high school, and they are familiar with the roles and the turn-taking included in good book-club discussions. What my students needed was a way to use their discussion skills and roles for more meaningful interaction with higher level critical thinking, building “thought-provoking questions [that] can transform students from passive learners to active, curious learners” (Billmeyer, 2006, p. 131). In order to do this, I needed to connect their ability to talk with their ability to think.

Initial Lesson
I began with what my students know, that is, the difference between a thin question (with little to discuss) and a fat question (open to interpretations) because this is the language used in my district. I gave groups of 4 to 5 a set of Post-it notes and asked them to construct one fat and one thin question after reading Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.” Each group easily wrote these and checked each other’s work. For example, they sorted questions like “According to the poem, what happened to Annabel Lee?” as thin because the poem gives all readers the same answer (that she is killed by a “chill” from the “wind” [15]). They also know that readers might infer as fat the questions that sustain various answers, such as “What is the mental state of the speaker in this poem?”

Next, I used Google Slides and the tip sheet to introduce the four color questions. Afterward, my students learned how to write each type, recognize the questions as listeners, and sort these questions into the four-square grid, then practiced producing each one for “Annabel Lee”:


They discovered that not all questions fit neatly into one of the four boxes. These multi-color questions are very elusive as they invite multiple ways to respond at several levels. For example, a white/blue/gold question such as “ What comment is Poe making about Christianity by using multiple allusions to it in the poem?” asks the students to probe the text for multiple examples of these allusions, consider why the poet might use these, and how these hint at the theme of Poe’s own religious views. In the book club speaking role, these multi-color questions allow for depth of thought and the ability to build on their peers’ responses in order to elicit further discussion. As listeners and responders, they have various ways to respond, giving them multicolor options to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation.

Group Discussion Procedures
For our next class meeting, they wrote six discussion questions on Post-it notes to be used in small group Socratic circles.


Before discussion begins, they set personal goals for their participation, listening, or other meaningful contributions. I ask them to write these down above the debrief questions on our outside-circle grid. While in the inner circle, they record their peers’ responses to questions they ask, pushing for variety and complexity. Outside circle members also record ideas in the four areas: what they agree with, disagree with/see differently, what provokes them, and what they wish to discuss further.


Self Score: Select a score window that fits how you performed today. Justify your scoring by explaining what you did that earns this score. Contrast your choice against the other options. You may write in only one box in each criteria!


Group discussions follow the Socratic seminar “fishbowl” style. On the day of discussion, students come with colored questions revolving around a specific text quote/reference.


Discussion begins with about 8 students in an inner circle for 12-15 minutes, with all others listening outside the circle. Everyone has an opportunity to be part of the small discussion circle during our 90-minute block. As part of the discussion, I expect all members, whether in the inner discussion or the outer circle, to take notes on what they hear. This approach is two-fold: they will have a record of new learning acquired during the discussion, and I will capture questions or comments to share during debriefing with the large group, done after all small circles have finished their discussions.

While they are discussing, I am assessing their engagement using the spider-web technique (Wiggins, 2017) in order to grade them in the same targets that they will self-assess after discussion: preparation, listening/note-taking, and participation. I often reveal the webs I create between small-circle discussions, informally assessing what we are doing well and where changes could be made for the next discussion group. Students also get a copy of the web from their small-circle discussion session so they have the visual graphic of their work, including the labeled ideas I am tracking.


Post Discussion and Next Steps
After small group discussion, the students assess themselves in two ways: first, their performance, and second, the overall flow/discussion process. By setting their personal goals at the start of the session, they give written assessment of that goal, and they assess procedures, time allotments, or other processes involved in the day’s discussions. Finally, they assess themselves and justify their scoring in the three target areas that I also assess. Giving students their webs helps them see what they can do to create realistic goals for their next discussions because their assessment of strengths and weaknesses directly impacts the processes and flow in future sessions, and these suggestions track their own growth from session to session.

I read and reflect on these processes, including what needs to be adjusted or retaught, as well as how to develop the next session’s challenges. I have gotten some of the best insights about what students need or where sessions are lacking from their feedback. In turn, I share their feedback with them and discuss how I will make changes for future sessions. Some of the best challenges that I have gotten include how to organize our use of time and the number of students involved in each small discussion. Two thought-provoking suggestions stand out. First, they felt that they were unable to really “know” what they were doing as they were discussing because they could not objectively see their own work until it was shown in post-session webs.

In essence, we add a middle circle of peers who record what their partner did during the session as a contributor and listener. I found a form that helped peer coaches map their partner’s work and coach areas for improvement. We ran the timed session with one “coaching” break, when they could help each other see what was working well and what changes they might make in order to increase their effectiveness and scores. This has helped them consider their own interpersonal skills and has furthered their metacognition and evaluation of each other during discussion.


Another technique that I developed because of feedback was discussion “Uno.”


Students said that depth and time spent on each question was too short. They felt as though group members were more interested in getting through as many questions as possible rather than on deeper contemplation of the text. I implemented a common language for them to create stronger supplemental questions, using ideas borrowed from the specialty cards in the game Uno: They could ask each other to “skip” to another part of the text to prove their response, could “draw two” conclusions about their thinking, “reverse” their thinking and try to prove the opposite view, or come up with a provable “wild card” reading of the text. These skills became part of later discussions, helping students spend more time on individual questions and push each other for deeper thinking.

The discussions have begun to harness the power of talk. Students know that their goals matter and that the feedback they get from one another and from me has potential for implementation. This means that they possess the power to make meaning of the texts we encounter and how we work together to encounter what is meaningful. How we discuss texts allows us to play with the format of the class, its procedures, and the knowledge that comes from discussions. As talkers, this feels like meaningful, worthwhile discussion of their own and each other’s thinking. As a teacher, I get to respond to their needs and talk to them about both the books we share, and also how we share them. Talking about texts becomes playful, student-centered, and a natural extension of the human desire to talk with purpose.

Billmeyer, R. (2006). Strategies to engage the mind of the learner: Building strategic learners (2nd ed.). Omaha: Rachel & Associates.

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voices and choices in book clubs and reading groups. (2nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Poe, E. A. (n.d.). Annabel Lee. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

Wiggins, A. (2017). The best class you never taught: How spider web discussions can turn students into learning leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Review: Backbiters by Debra Leea Glasheen (Montag Press, 2017. 320 pp.)

Karen Ambrosh, Audubon High School, Milwaukee, kambrosh @

In Debra Leea Glasheen’s debut novel, Backbiters, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Giluli, maneuvers between her own culture of mahogany-eyed mutants and the culture of her pre-evolved high school classmates (pre-evolved means you and me and all humans in our current stage of evolution).

In line with its dystopian genre, the story takes place fifty four years after a Corporate World War of 2020. Giluli wavers between angst and courage as she faces the prejudice that caused her people, the Red Mighties, to create their own Nationland in a territory in which squirrels and deer are extinct, clover and dandelion are nutritional staples, and even the water of the Great Lakes is putrid.

When a pre-evolutionite leader attempts to extort the Nationland’s water by threatening their future and past adoptions of mutant children, Giluli is selected to help the Red Mighty leader, Padrin Kongkassa. Meanwhile Giluli fantasizes about her own pre-evolutionite biofamily and tussles with her brooding childhood friend, Harsh, who can’t seem to compete with the charming Tariq, a pre-evolutionite boy from Giluli’s track team. Giluli is eventually betrayed by those around her and must choose sides.


Major themes of the novel are ethnic understanding, intelligent loyalty, coping with anger, protecting the environment, and anti-bullying. I am using it in my 10th-grade English classroom with great success. The students love the familiarity of the Wisconsin setting, and the exotic qualities of a warped environment caused by a nuclear war.

Backbiters is a rich story with layers of thought-provoking concepts, all presented in a readable style and believable futuristic world. The story touches on many social issues with sensitivity and humanity. It has traditional teen experiences—crushes, identity issues, competition, conflict, and hope – all wrapped in a culturally diverse landscape. The theme of intelligent loyalty provides for rich conversations with students, giving them decision-making scenarios in which they can put themselves in the protagonist’s place and visualize what they would do in her shoes.

Glasheen deserves praise and recognition for creating such a strong female character for teens. Giluli has all of the normal insecurities of a teenager with questions about life and love, but when presented with a challenging task and high risk decisions, she stands by herself and finds her own way. Giluli’s inner dialogue is powerfully and memorably written. My students were able to imagine many possible scenarios and challenges for Giluli to face as she grows and develops in future books. Let’s hope there are more on the way soon!

Teaching materials for Glasheen’s novel are available at; Glasheen is also available to speak to classrooms in person or via Skype.

The Appeal of Rural Schools: “Old Sport” Day in Northern Wisconsin

Paul Wiegel, Ripon High School/Lumen Charter High School,
wiegelp @

As a kid growing up in Green Bay, I really only wanted one thing when I grew up: I wanted my address to be a fire number. You know, those pre-2000 signs mounted in every rural neighborhood in the state–small white squares with bold black letters and numbers. N6789. Believe me when I tell you that there are scores of people across the country who are completely thrown off when confronted with a letter at the beginning of an address. I used to be one of those. There were Ns and Ws, but I never saw an E or an S. I figured that this was some kind of rural Wisconsin address system quirk that you only understood if you lived “out there” among the country roads. There were no curbs or stop lights to prevent the unfailing optimism that having an address that began with a letter could bring.

As an adult, I got that wish. I’ve been teaching in rural schools ever since I began my career in education twenty-two years ago. I can safely say that all of my ideas about the perceived advantages of rural schools have mostly proven to be true. You get to know students and their families. Every day, you can make offhand remarks about homework to your students working in the grocery store. You can measure your throwing skills against your students by tossing hay bales for the fundraiser during FFA week.


Back when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (a rural school in its own right), I didn’t even apply to city schools. I didn’t want to work there. What was the advantage to working in a building with over one thousand students? As I teacher, I wanted to work closely with colleagues to understand everything that was going on in the 9-12 English classrooms, not be a part of a department of twenty people who might not even see each other. Somehow I thought the trees and corn fields would foster a love of literature among students. “Of course they’ll like to read some Thoreau, they live in rural America. We’ll all scoff at Gatsby and his excess–they’ll get it.”

It was all a bit naive, but I’ve never looked back. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a nature person anyway. Perhaps that was the biggest advantage I had. The crickets and owls in the neighborhoods I’ve lived in have always been part of what I liked, and one of my first big purchases with my early paychecks was an aluminum canoe. But the small-town classroom elements have their own rewards aside from the natural settings. In many rural Wisconsin towns, the high school is the central element. There are more people in the high school building on most days than in any other building in the town. Almost everyone knows a teenager who is sitting in a classroom. For those reasons, what goes on there seems to carry a little more weight. How the building looks is a marker for the town–and that doesn’t mean it has to be pretty. I’ve seen some old, red brick high schools in parts of northern Wisconsin that would be the envy of any district. They were built as a monument to what that small town thinks about educating its youth. Bricks mean “We’re not going anywhere. This is our school.”

One of the more interesting parts of teaching in a rural school is the way things quickly take on a life beyond the classroom walls. A number of years ago, I created “Old Sport Day.” This is an activity that I began while Juniors were reading The Great Gatsby which required, as an “official” assignment, all of my American Literature students to say “old sport” at the end of everything they said that day. I usually did it around chapter six, when even those who were “lightly reading” were aware of Gatsby’s idiosyncrasies with language. I would make about 300 paper buttons for the occasion and hand them out all morning: “Happy Old Sport Day!” “Darth Vader is an Old Sport” “I’ve got ‘gonnegtions’ with Meyer Wolfshiem.” I don’t let anybody speak to me without ending their statement with “old sport.”

“Can I run to my locker?”
“I’m sorry, what’s that?”
“Can I go to my locker?”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Oh. Can I go to my locker, old sport?”
“That’s better. Yes, go ahead…old sport.”

Seniors want to get in on it remembering all the fun from last year, and everyone has a blast. Now, I’m sure bigger schools can create this kind of vibe. I don’t think that just because the student handbook features instructions for proper parking of snowmobiles that we’ve cornered the market on building community. The difference, I think, is the almost total visibility. I never announce this ahead of time, but by second hour, the whole school knows it’s Old Sport Day. By lunch I’m out of buttons. I don’t think we’re having more fun than an urban school, I just think things like this can’t spread so quickly in a bigger school to become a “thing.”




One of the biggest advantages, though, is exemplified in my school’s bike racks. I took this picture at lunch one day when I noticed that none of them were locked–even the one with an actual unused lock wrapped around the handle bars. This is a perfect example of the appeal of teaching in rural Wisconsin. At the back of the school, away from traffic and lots of witnesses, a handful of kids didn’t see a need to lock their bikes. Why? This isn’t a utopia–kids steal stuff here. But to me, this marked an overall trust and faith in the community as a whole.


It’s likely that nobody is going to steal your bike, and one of the reasons is because if someone sees you riding it, they’ll likely know who the bike really belongs to. The unlocked bikes suggest a faith in small towns that goes beyond students and teachers. They seem to indicate that the students believe this school and the community as a whole are going to do right by everyone. Maybe one of the reasons the kids don’t lock their bikes is because this belief is just part of growing up here. I’m not saying bigger districts are less caring or less safe. I do, however, think kids in rural districts in Wisconsin feel like they are safer. And, as we all know, when kids feel safe and welcomed, they tend to be more engaged with their education.

In my experience, this is the biggest advantage that rural Wisconsin schools can claim, and as a teacher I’ve gained the benefits from. I’m sure I’ll finish out my career in Wisconsin’s rural schools. I’ll keep making the daily commute in much the same way I’ve always done–factoring the extra time for tractors on Hwy. D as fall harvest time or spring planting requires–and enjoying every minute of it.

Editor’s Introduction: Shakespeare in Wisconsin

John Pruitt, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Rock County, pruittj @

Not too long ago I read Katherine West Scheil’s book She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, which uncovers archival research in order to to show us the role that Shakespeare, and literature in general, played and still plays in the social and political lives of ordinary people. Among more than 500 Shakespeare clubs meeting across the country in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Scheil lists 12 in Wisconsin, including the Mary Arden Shakespeare Club in Superior, the Shakespeare Society of Kenosha, and the William Shakespeare Club of Marinette.

I contacted a number of local and regional historical societies in order to locate records of these clubs and received some interesting news clippings from the Cambria-Friesland Historical Society about a community service project that took place in the 1930s.

Cemetery Chapel Plans Article (405x800)

In the fall of 1936, the women of the Cambria Shakespeare Club agreed to collaborate with the Cambria Cemetery Association to collect donations to erect a Memorial Chapel. And it was about time! According to the announcement, “The need of such a structure which would provide, in addition to its ordinary function, a receiving vault, has long been realized in the community.”

After months of fundraising, the city gathered for the laying of the cornerstone in October 1938, a ceremony including a poetic dedication to the Shakespeare Club.

After this dedication, Mrs E A Rowlands, the club’s president, announced the articles deposited into the cornerstone, including a number from the Shakespeare Club plus newspapers, photographs, programs, and the dedicatory poem.





In May 1939, the Memorial Chapel was dedicated, and the Shakespeare Club received its due acknowledgement.

Cambria Memorial Chapel

You’ll notice that Shakespeare himself (and his oeuvre) is absent from this project, or at least from these accounts. As Scheil argues, “Shakespeare” seemed to be an umbrella term for a number of activities, and with more research, perhaps we can discover how the Cambria Shakespeare Club and others around the state connected Bardolotry to its community involvement.

How do you and your students connect Shakespeare to the civic life of your school and community?


Review: Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 2005. 272 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for
K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

I loved the other great books by Frank McCourt, but I had never read this one. I was lucky to come across a copy in one of my favorite Chicago thrift shops—where I find lots of goodies! Angela’s Ashes is one of my favorite books, and other writing by McCourt calls to me also. I hope I can find the time to read the rest of his work.

In Teacher Man, McCourt is able to make the tragic something we can endure and the crazy something we can laugh at. He can also take the impossible, the terrible, and the disgusting and turn it into the stuff of lessons—literally and symbolically. He teaches through his story-telling.


Teachers will all see through a lot of his yarns and predicaments … discovering underneath a lot of the foolishness of everyday life the author’s ability to teach. Through his writing, through this book, and of course through the classroom activities and memories he shares, he is always a teacher.

Remember that he was a teacher of English, and of literature, and most importantly, of writing. It is his unorthodox approaches to the teaching of writing that any teacher will marvel at in this book. Certainly good teachers of writing will see themselves in his actions and words used for many years in the classroom.

He tells some very heartfelt stories, and tells us about the crazy characters he teaches in many classes during his career. He also tells us about the crazy bosses, and the excellent ones, he has to deal with over the years. We have all had those bosses who “just do not get it” and others whose shoes we would gladly shine for them. His encounters with colorful personalities in the classroom and hallway are just as fun as the ones with helpful or deranged or intrusive parents in the different – and disparate – types of schools in which he teaches.

He taught in public high schools in New York City and a year in the college system there. His ancestors, family, and neighbors of old in Ireland, and his current comrades in America, show the influences all the others people have in an individual’s life. He has met many interesting people in his life, had relationships, and struggled to figure out the meaning of life (he even worked on the docks). He gives us great insight to all kinds of immigrant experiences, including his own. 

He includes some of the funniest passages I have ever seen in a book. His style and his ability to manipulate the reader—through the use of sardonic and twisting adventures—are enthralling aspects of his writing. Teachers will love how he talks about all the typical personalities in a high school class and the way he lets each of them shine in their own way.

The story is, of course, a wonderful one if people are into teaching. Although others will like the book—especially if they have grown up with tales of Ireland in their kitchen—but teachers will by far be the ones who enjoy this book. What are you waiting for?

Just One More Thing

Amy L Menzel, Waukesha West High School, almenzel @

We’ve all seen the teacher memes. You know, the all-too-relatable ones that depict teachers eager and energized on the first day of school, overwhelmed and exhausted on the last day (or at the end of the first week). We go in ready to roll, ready to do things bigger and better than we’ve ever done them and sometimes we do, but all of August’s ambitions have tough competition when faced with dreary December days and the mania that is May. It’s easy to feel dejected when you realize it’s February and you haven’t made good on your promise to infuse more poetry into your lessons, or when you realize you never made those bookmarks you’ve been promising students since October … and it’s now March. So much to do, so little time: the adage of the teacher.

That’s why I’ve decided to focus my efforts, to identify one specific change I can and WILL make each school year that will most benefit my students and their learning. This one thing is a non-negotiable. Come what may (and May will come), I will make sure this one thing gets done.

I have Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to thank for this shift in perspective. Last summer I had the good fortune of attending their conference hosted by CESA 6, where they started the first day with a quote from Steve Jobs: “To go forward, you have to leave something behind.” Read: you can’t do it all. Phew. Right from the get-go I was given permission to let something go. (Cue that song from Frozen. It’s just too bad it can’t be standardized testing.)

As the two-day conference continued, the sentiment shared in those first few minutes was reiterated in various ways. “We tell students what matters by what we pay attention to,” I wrote in my notes after, I’m sure, one of them said it. It reminded me of a phrase a yoga instructor regularly used: “Where your eyes go, your body will follow.” The conference was turning out to be a yoga session for my teaching mind. I was bending and stretching and centering my teacher self. I was finding focus.

Kittle and Gallagher’s book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents begins with a chapter titled “Start with Beliefs.” It’s more English teacher yoga, guided instruction for thinking through your purpose and approach. It guides you to find your focus and prioritize your efforts since, as they note in the closing thoughts in this chapter, “the budget of time is limited.”

So it all comes back to that ol’ adage: so much to do, so little time.

I’m no longer overwhelmed by this reality. Instead, I’m inspired. I have this currency of time and I get to choose how to spend it. I need to spend it wisely, of course, since there’s not a lot of it, so I need to think about what will best help my students learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Last year I determined that the one move I was going to make was to incorporate daily book talks. Every day I would talk about a different book. This was non-negotiable. And it was SMART. Not only is the practice backed by research by Wozniak (2011), Homan (2015), and Cremin et al (2014) (in which it is noted that “The will to read influences the skills as well”), so it’s smart in the traditional sense, but it was also smart in the SMART sense. It was a goal that was Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. It provided me focus for making a move that would help engage and empower my students.

I think transparency in teaching is important and spend a significant amount of time discussing the rationale behind my teaching and our practice, so I shared my SMART goal with my students on day one. I told them why I was going to book talk every day (beyond the fact that it would be a ton of fun), and I told them that I wanted to be held accountable. I made a book talk display to preview the week’s coming literary attractions and to keep me honest about my efforts. “If you don’t see new book covers in the frames each week, call me out!” I said. I also told them to let me know if they felt I wasn’t providing enough suggestions in a certain genre or if they weren’t feeling any of the titles I was suggesting. “These book talks are for you, folks, so let me know what you want to hear!” I took requests and sometimes created themes for a week of book talks. One week was designed in response to some not-so-tactful feedback I received from a self-identified “non-reader.” “This week’s for you, Bobby!” I said, determined to make a reader out of him yet.


Menzel1I see each of my classes four times each week.
Every day a new book talk.

And I kept at it. I read about books and I talked about books, and the interest, if not the love (but, yes, sometimes the love) spread. While I was focused on this one thing, I realized that I was telling students what matters by showing them what I pay attention to. Reading matters and I was focused on reading so that they would read and become better readers, better writers, and better thinkers. My eyes were focused on books and my students’ eyes followed. It was all because of just one thing.


Menzel2I added this approach after seeing it modeled on social media.
More books, more talk, more reading.

I finished the year having book talked a different title every single day. I dropped the last book after my last book talk of the year–like a mic drop, because I’m nerdy like that. And because I was proud. I was proud of having completed my goal, but more proud of the progress my students had made as readers, writers, and thinkers. It was all because of just one thing.

Now that I have the book talk routine down, I’m going to focus my efforts this year on daily notebook work. It’ll be like the research-based practice I started at the beginning of last year–the practice that fizzled as the year went on. This year, there will be no fizzling. There will be writing. Every day. I will pay attention to this because it matters. Students will come to understand it matters because it will be what I pay attention to. When everything else vies for my teaching attention and I feel frazzled and overwhelmed, I will find my teaching center, and further student success, in just this one thing.

I’m already envisioning our collective celebratory pen drop after another successful year.


Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F. M., Powell, S., & Safford, K. (2014). Building communities of engaged readers: Reading for pleasure. London: Routledge.

Homan, J. S. (2015). Using book talks and choice to increase reading motivation (Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-River Falls). Retrieved from

Wozniak, C. L. (2011). Reading and talking about books: A critical foundation for intervention. Voices From the Middle, 19(2), 17-21. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ951876)

Because Student Voice Promotes Equity in the Classroom

J Scott Baker, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Studies, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, jbaker3 @

Max Holden, Preservice Teacher, UW-La Crosse, holden.max @

Elizabeth Hubing, Preservice Teacher, UW-La Crosse, hubing.elizabe @

Kyle Kolar, Preservice Teacher, UW-La Crosse, kolar.kyle @

Educators in pluralistic classrooms are frustrated, guarded, and exhausted from addressing complicated current events with their students – especially after the 2016 election. Basing classroom assignments on headlines plastered across media is not only difficult but scary; however, in the tumultuous political climate of today’s America, the ability to provide a community where students are free to express their voices reinforces cultural and political literacy and ensures an inclusive classroom environment.  

In my classroom, I utilize the writing of poetry as a mechanism for self-expression, political debate, and controversial conversations. These assignments not only require students to understand current events, but also to explore their opinions of the world around them. While many teachers may shy away from partaking in discussions of these issues, I find that poetry allows students to discover their own voices while simultaneously exploring complex terrains of political discourse. These student-written poetry assignments encourage students to think critically and contextually about current events and how they pertain to their own unique experiences.

“So, what?”
During my years creating high school English, speech, and debate lessons, I always asked myself, “so, what?” What does any topic matter to someone with different lived experiences than mine? Lessons are not worth teaching if they do not allow for students to learn and develop from a position that is meaningful to them. The classroom should be a place where those of all religions, races, and socioeconomic classes can learn through the prism of their own experiences, while being introduced to the viewpoints of others. Poetry pushes students to move beyond regurgitation of facts and figures and into a process of developing their own unique voices.

My students, both in high school and in college, remind me of the poet, Steve Colman: “I wanna hear a poem / I wanna learn something I didn’t know / I wanna say ‘yes’ at the end, / because I’m sick of saying ‘so?’” (Simmons, 2005, p. 3). It is this “so?” feeling that prohibits students from thriving academically in any classroom, while simultaneously and systematically excluding diverse voices from being heard. When students fail to see a personal connection to a lesson or fail to see how a piece of literature matters to them, they stop paying attention, and with good reason. They lose their voice in the classroom, turning their literature studies into meaningless text devoid of the humanity, which we as English teachers want our students to appreciate.

The Difference is Context
In my university multicultural education courses, we focus on social justice conversations that make many educators nervous: race, socio-economics, gender, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, and ability. These issues scare some K-12 educators, too, since “the phrase ‘teaching for social justice’ may conjure images of facing off against opponents or carrying protest placards while marching in the streets” (Kelly, 2012, p. 151). However, many high school literature pieces commonly studied provide a natural platform for these discussions to take place without feeling forced or even inappropriate. For example, conversations about racism arise organically from Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Why is it we can explore and discuss these societally relevant topics in the context of required readings, but not in current events?

Furthermore, as educators, is it not our job to bridge the context of literature into our students’ lives? If we do not allow students to link today’s events to what we are reading in canonical classics – if we fail to make those connections – we hinder student voices. Poetry focused on current events allows them to discover and understand their position(s) on issues, which leads to increased engagement and ownership of their education and individual beliefs.

The Possibilities of Poetry
Inevitably, every semester a first-year teacher candidate (TC) asks, “why haven’t we ever talked about these things before?” I look around the room at many heads nodding in agreement. While these future educators have studied racism through a historical lens in high school classes, they indicate they have never spoken about systemic oppression and privilege, or had deep discussions about contemporary racism. This suggests a lack of current events discussions and/or correlations with mandated curriculum in their schooling. If students never discuss issues of social justice, identity, and oppression inside the classroom, we are not providing equity for our students who live these issues outside the classroom.

While I have the luxury of including poetic writings in my university classroom, I am aware poetry gets a bad rap in PK-12 classrooms. I know many English educators who do not even like poetry – as it is often rooted in archaic language and texts – burdening educators and students already facing too many curricular demands. My hope is to challenge teachers opposed to curricular-based poetry to reevaluate and attempt current events-based poetic exploration as a platform for social justice and student self-actualization.

In order to promote these values, I ask TCs in my multicultural education classes to write poetry regarding current events, giving them the flexibility to write from their perspective and style. Thomas (2015) offers that “school with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart” (p. 92), and I am consistently encouraging future teachers to find their hearts. Instead of forcing upon them structured argumentative essays, which identify barriers to systemic oppression or analyze the complexities of sexual identity, I ask TCs to write their ideas poetically – which provides them with voice – on a current event or issue.

I find that students produce stronger arguments when they write or speak from their perspectives, not what they think the instructor wants them to regurgitate to earn an “A.” Coates (2015) offers that “poetry aims for an economy of truth … poetry was the processing of my thought until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life” (pp. 21-22). Here among these truths, the emotional underpinning of poetry as human experiences, students learn to make an argument; here among these truths, they find their voices.

Poetic Response to Current Events
During fall of 2017, as part of an ongoing research project to demonstrate this pedagogical strategy, I asked three TCs (who eventually co-authored this article with me) to write two poems each, offering insight into a 2017 current event. I chose TCs who plan to teach secondary English, and I gave them as much latitude in style or subject as they needed, only ensuring they wrote about current events. When they finished their poetry, I asked them to write a response explaining 1) why they selected the issue, and 2) why they felt it would be important for their future students to learn about each current event. As a result, the TC-written poems dove into the political turmoil over Civil War monuments and White supremacy in Charlottesville, the 2017 U.S. immigration ban, and aid for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  

These poems address complicated, multi-layered issues of politics, belief systems, religion, and perspectives of life. Giving TC-participants the opportunity to express themselves resulted in greater appreciation of difficult discussions that arise in pluralistic classrooms, which in turn creates “open classroom climates that empower students of all ages to engage with complex issues, stand up for their positions, and work to understand differing opinions” (McCafferty-Wright & Knowles, 2016, p. 117). Moreover, I engage these difficult discussions with my college students now, as I did with those in the high school classroom, because student voice promotes equity in the classroom.

Neutrality is Not an Option
Max, in his first year of education courses, explains his rationale for writing the poem, “Somewhere in Charlottesville”:

As a kid, I had heard the stories of racist groups, but I never thought of them as real people. To me, they were ethereal, used only to show the epitome of prejudice. I wrote this poem because I had to wrestle with a new reality. When students learn about current events like Charlottesville, they must learn that neutrality on this issue is not an option. If we do not show students that these monsters are real, we cannot expect them to stand and fight when those same monsters rear their heads.


“Somewhere in Charlottesville”
Somewhere amidst the cosmos,
Through blackness and through eons,
There sits a younger me,
Who is not afraid of demons.

Somewhere beneath the steel gaze,
Of men who fought for tyranny,
Lies a dying woman,
Mowed down before she’d flee.

Somewhere in an echo chamber,
A man hears “Heil” and cheers,
Desperate to spread his message,
And aroused by the world’s fears.

Right here in this moment,
My blood has curdled like milk,
Are these men simply lost and uneducated,
Or monsters frolicking in their filth?

Somewhere in my skull,
My synapses and neurons wage war,
The boogie man has shown his face,
Stepping into daylight from lore.

Now I look toward heaven,
Angst no smile can conceal,
One day that younger me will find,
The monsters he fears are real.

After watching Vice News’ episode “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,”  Max explained that the “poetry assignment pushed me beyond memorization and regurgitation of statistics and into a critical analysis of my beliefs and opinions.” This analysis is felt in the emotional details that shaped his poem.  He furthers, “this process incited me to advocate for the awareness of racism in this country, and the suffering that comes from writing such evils off as dead and gone.”

Who is an American?
In “Lady Liberty’s Change of Heart,” a second-year TC, Kyle, sets the context of his poem:

An executive order at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, refugees for 120 days, and barred Syrian refugees indefinitely. For a nation often known for providing aid to other countries in times of need, this was a step backward for US diplomacy. Many of the countries included in this ban face war, famine, or even genocide, and an order like this might prevent the escape of many innocent people and families. Many people come to the US with the aspiration of living comfortably and safely – so what sort of message does it send to Muslim citizens when our president says, ‘we don’t want them here’?


“Lady Liberty’s Change of Heart”
Who put a stop sign in Lady Liberty’s hand?
Once, a beacon of hope for those looking for a better life
Escaping famine, war, and genocide
One last chance at survival and prosperity.

What was once a graceful face to welcome the World
Turned sour at the words of a bitter man
Who told her she need not help these people
For they cause more harm than good.

And now she stands in New York Harbor,
Shooing away those desperate souls,
“For they’re too dangerous,” she says,
“We don’t want them here.”

In response to immigration bans, Kyle explains that “Poetry grants us the ability to not only share what we think about current issues but also showcase our passion for a given topic. Anyone can spew out an essay full of facts and statistics, but you’ll never find the same voice or passion that you would find in a poem.”

…And Other Types of Injustices
After writing the poem, “Oh, Mr. President,” a third-year TC, Lizzie, offered that

Political tensions have peaked following the 2016 presidential election, leaving no race or age demographic unmarred by the current societal climate. The White House has attempted damage control, trying to remind the nation through outreach efforts that we are all Americans, and if we stick together, we can achieve anything. However, when Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, these messages did not seem to apply. Youth have empowered many social movements and will continue to do so. Therefore, discussing currents events such as this one are not only relevant but necessary, to keep students informed of who is in need in our country and how we can help.


“Oh, Mr. President”
Oh, Mr. President,
Did you think it was enough?
To bring us lights and cameras
And toss rolls of paper towel into a sea of desperate faces
Devastated by the path of a ruthless Maria
Then hit again by the wake of your disregard.

Oh, Mr. President,
Have you forgotten your purpose?
To protect, love and serve
The people of this “great” nation
Who lost electricity and heartbeats
Lost our faith in the government
Who turned a blind eye.

Oh, Mr. President,
What did you mean?
When you said we
“Threw your budget out of whack”
When you said
“This is nothing compared to Katrina.”

Oh, Mr. President,
Do you find me greedy?
We may need resources but
Your wake requires more damage control
Than that of most other natural disasters.

Oh, Mr. President,
Aren’t you my president, too?
My complexion and compassion
May differ from yours,
But can you really pick and choose?


Lizzie explains how using poetic inquiry changed her perspective: “Had I written about this current event in a paper for a social studies class, I would have read and reread my writing to locate and eliminate any potential tone of bias or distrust.” However, by utilizing poetic inquiry to investigate, Lizzie was able to “reflect… without muting my opinions – my voice –” which led her to “better understand what happened” and, in turn, further investigate “what can be done to prevent such an event in the future.”

Facing Resistance
I admit it: educators might face resistance from students when introducing poetic expression to dive into complicated topics. For many, the mere idea of getting their students to buy into poetry is a daunting task. However, TCs who tell me they are not poetic, “for whom poetry feels inaccessible” (Lahman et al., 2011, p. 894), are the ones who end up surprising themselves most. We start with writing poetry about ourselves; we write a privilege poem that evaluates our own lives before we imagine writing about others. Because “Poetry’s potential to offer a stimulating way of reflecting on our lives and the lives of others is great” (Foster, 2012, p. 753), I stress that poetry is personal and I cannot judge them based on what they submit.  I can only expect sincerity, stressing that process is more important than product. When I build trust with my students, encouraging them to take risks, they produce brilliant works of art. Are all their couplets perfectly rhymed? No. Is every line of poetry perfectly sculpted and shaped? No. Do they find their own voice? Yes.

I embolden them to write what they want, with few limitations and an abundance of encouragement to take risks. This risk-taking accomplishes two goals: 1) it provides students room to fail; and 2) it allows students to say whatever they want about a topic. The power of voice in poetry provides a platform for self-discovery and growth, while opportunities to say what they want fosters independence. These two factors together equalize the classroom, where each student partakes in difficult discussions on complex concerns.

The use of poetry to examine contemporary topics is not unique to my university classroom; these methods can also thrive in middle or high school. First, incorporating current events into a course, alongside mandated curriculum, aligns with expectations of listening and speaking in English language arts standards. Second, asking students to write poetry, rather than a full essay on a current event, allows for student voice to rise on an issue and not take too much time from mandated curriculum. Third, poetic expression encourages students to problematize ideas and concepts beyond the confines of their lived experiences, ultimately pushing them to define their own perspective of the world while still in school.

Practicality in the Classroom
When tackling curriculum, teachers often start with an idea, develop a plan, and negotiate their way through strengths and weaknesses of an activity or unit, and poetry is no different.  Over the last few semesters, I have tried numerous ways to incorporate poetry in my classroom – some have worked exceedingly well, others have not. From those experiences, I offer a few practical suggestions for teachers wanting to use current events-based poetic exploration: 1) start small; 2) use your curriculum to explode a moment; and 3) be careful not to have students speak for – rather learn from – others.  

First, there is no need for curricular redesign to add current events-based poetry into your classroom.  For example, if your class reads Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, a warm-up would be to ask students to read current periodicals on the country’s complicated discussion(s) regarding border security, refugees, and immigration.  Instructing students to then write a haiku, limerick, or cinquain about what they have read makes a simple assignment. Whether you allow them to read poems aloud in class or not, this task of writing current events-based poems 1) reinforces the link between literature and today’s political climate; 2) prompts students to recall poetic structures; and 3) offers an opportunity for students to express their opinions without spending extensive class time on an assessment.

Second, specificity is key.  I find when students focus on exploding a particular moment, line, phrase, or paragraph in a current event article, instead of trying to encapsulate the entire article into poetic form, they dig deeper into understanding implications of the news.  For example, ask students to correlate Crooks in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and issues of race with an article about Black Lives Matter, or gender inequities associated with Curly’s Wife and the #MeToo movement.  Inspire students to focus on details rather than attempt to solve world problems within the confines of a poem. Specificity, I find in my classroom, promotes both appreciation for others and authentic opportunities for voice.

Moreover, it is important to ensure that students are not speaking for others, rather learning from them.  This “speaking for” mentality could lead to increased frustrations, stereotyping, or even silencing marginalized voices. Rather, use poetry as a means to investigate what others may encounter in their lives.  I have learned from my own poetic explorations that it is not beneficial to have White students speaking as if they are people of color, nor is it helpful for men to speak for women; instead, use poetic forms to explore how current events impact who we are, what we think, and how we perceive the world around us.  Rooting poetry in published current events sources and/or pairing with corresponding curriculum prohibits these missteps from happening.

If our goal is a socially just classroom where every student feels free to express themselves, educators should create frameworks that allow risk and growth. As “creativity begets more creativity” (Felleman-Fattal, 2017, p. 72), students must explore strategies to interact with curriculum in a way that makes sense to them. Poetry addressing current events allows for students to make mistakes – tackling historical lessons of core curriculum – while simultaneously making connections to the realities of today. Equity in the classroom is promoted when sincerity is valued over quality; process, not product, is key; and learners are able to express ideas based on their own experiences, feeling free to explore without judgment.

Coates, T.-N. (2016).
Between the world and me. Toronto: CNIB.

Felleman-Fattal, L. R. (2017). Action research in preservice teachers’ arts-integration pedagogies for social justice teaching and learning. Childhood Education, 93(1), 66-72.

Foster, V. (2012). What if? The use of poetry to promote social justice. Social Work Education, 31(6), 742-755.

Kelly, D. (2012). Teaching for social justice. Our Schools / Our Selves, 21(2), 135-154. Retrieved from the Education Research Complete database. (Accession No. 86208456)

Lahman, M. K., Rodriguez, K. L., Richard, V. M., Geist, M. R., Schendel, R. K., & Graglia, P. E. (2011). (Re)forming research poetry. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(9), 887-896.

McCafferty-Wright, J., & Knowles, R. (2016). Unlocking the civic potential of current events with an open classroom climate. Social Studies Research & Practice, 11(3), 112-121. Retrieved from the Education Research Complete database. (Accession No. 121117280)

Simmons, D. (Ed.). (2003). Russell Simmons def poetry jam on Broadway–and more: The choice collection. New York: Atria.

Thomas, P. L. (2015). In defense of poetry: “Oh my heart”. English Journal, 104(4), 90-92.

Review: Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage by Darren Crovitz and Michelle D Devereaux (Routledge, 2017. 232 pp.)

Adam Sprague, Assistant Professor and Student Success Coordinator,
Bellin College, adam.sprague @

Kennesaw State University colleagues Darren Crovitz, author of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, and Michelle D. Devereaux, author of Teaching about Dialect Variations and Language in Secondary English Classrooms: Power, Prestige, and Prejudice, have collaborated to offer readers a new lens to view grammar instruction. Their new book, Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage, aims primarily to convince secondary English teachers to move away from traditional grammar instruction and embrace a pedagogy grounded in how we, as humans, use language in real-world situations on a daily basis.


At first glance, this text may appear to be white noise lost in the shuffle alongside dozens of other books advocating for teachers to drop their worksheets and red pens in the trash bin and adopt a more modernized approach to grammar instruction. While Crovitz and Devereaux do spend a good deal of time and effort making it clear that they stand firmly with those who have argued for teachers to move away from decontextualized grammar instruction, this text differs from many of its predecessors in that the authors offer a specific alternative approach: teaching grammar within the applied contexts of everyday language use.

This approach is not without a well-argued rationale. The first half of the book defines key terms related to grammar and grammar instruction before exploring the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Although these definitions and discussions will fail to contribute a wealth of new knowledge to the seasoned linguist or grammarian, the authors do provide a sufficient summary and explanation of the varying viewpoints for those new to the topic or just planning their first grammar-intensive course.

The authors also supply a sociocultural analysis of grammar, that is, front row seats to a debate focused on discussing just whose language standard English is and how our valuing and devaluing of certain dialects impacts those around us. In good humor, the authors label prescriptivists as “back-to-basics language scolds and ‘grammar nazis’” (p. 8). However, they do avoid showing bias as they state that such an approach to grammar instruction does provide “practical and professional benefit to students” (p. 8). Still, the critiques of prescriptive approaches come often. For example, the authors strongly critique teachers who ask their students to do traditional, repetitive grammar drills. One method the authors find particularly problematic is when teachers “ask students to memorize [a grammar rule], identify [a grammar rule] in ten unrelated sentences, and then rewrite another set of sentences using [the studied grammar rule] correctly” (p. 10). The problem is that while “teachers need a firm grasp of grammar and usage to help their students become better writers and language users” (p. 10), they question how this knowledge will help students see how grammar matters in their lives.

Also, the authors detail how viewing standard English as the only correct means of speech provides power to some while silencing and demeaning those who fall into a demographic that does not regularly use standard English. Here we see one of the authors’ main claims come to light: by valuing only standard English, we are negatively impacting our students (and many in society) emotionally and academically by “othering” them as incorrect. This section of the text is powerfully written and may be particularly useful for readers without strong backgrounds in linguistics and rhetoric and composition or for those unfamiliar with the connections between language and power presented by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Readers will enjoy how the authors continually pepper the section with ideas for teachers to bring discussions related to language-as-power into their own classrooms, a welcome change from other texts that, at times, rely too heavily upon theory rather than practice.

While the initial three chapters address the many rule-based grammars in use around us, the sociocultural aspects of these grammars, and the importance of understanding concepts related to language expectations among different contexts in order to teach grammar well, the strength of the text comes in Chapter 4. Here, the authors take on four specific grammatical concepts (sentence types, clauses, phrases, lexical categories, and punctuation) and provide 25 modules outlining how the concept works in our language, how speakers use the concept in the real world, and how to teach the concept via student-focused activities. Even though readers may be tempted to skip ahead to the sample units and modules, as they are excellently described and outlined in easy-to-understand language, the authors explicitly state that they do not mean for this section of the book to be used in isolation as a “straight-off-the-shelf workbook” (p. 11).

Still, Chapter 4 has to be considered the text’s largest achievement for its reliance on the practical. Readers leery of the theory-heavy onset of the book can rest assured that the primary emphasis of the text is classroom application. The sample integrated units and modules will undoubtedly help English teachers of all levels gain confidence in positioning their own grammar instruction in real-world experiences. In other words, Crovitz and Devereaux have created a text with various entry points for teachers and scholars of all levels. Some may find the brief history of grammar useful for their own teaching or research, while others may find the sample units most useful in helping them integrate this new style of teaching grammar into the units they already teach.

In short, this is a wonderful book on grammar instruction. It not only discusses the rationale behind their pedagogy, but it also provides examples of how to teach grammar in context. Readers will be happy to see that it is neither theory heavy nor an explicit “here is a curriculum” type book. Rather, the text will leave readers with skeletal base lessons, units, and a pedagogical rationale to use and modify.

Fear and Loathing in the English Classroom would likely make for a dreadfully boring movie, filmed in a classroom filled with fearful students, sentence diagramming worksheets, and subject-verb agreement drills. In some cases, the teachers may also loathe the unit–unsure of how to make the content both interesting and relevant to their students’ lives. Even the authors admit that “grammar is often viewed as a dry and boring subject by teachers and students alike” (p. xv-xvi). There are no easy solutions to this problem, but moving away from teaching grammar in isolation may be one way to overcome this fear and loathing. In this text, Crovitz and Deveraux have articulately made the case that teachers should consider requiring students to analyze their own communication in class but do warn readers that “there are no magic wands with grammar instruction, no quick and easy solutions” (p. 11).

Still, it is interesting that in most English courses, teachers regularly encourage their students to discuss the politics of power and language and analyze their own voices as student writers. This text left me wondering why it is, then, that we largely avoid these topics when teaching grammar. Perhaps we need to stop avoiding these conversations in the grammar classroom, but one concern the authors do seem to overlook is the issue of how overwhelming and time consuming the process of approaching each student’s unique voice can be (not to mention the unique communicative events they regularly encounter, potential intended audiences they are exposed to, etc.) in large, writing-intensive courses. These concerns become even more paramount when working with multilingual, remedial, or basic writers. For as positive as this review has been, readers may struggle with transferring these strategies into their already time-crunched curriculums, as the authors point out that you will need to spend much time “[working] through these concepts yourself until you feel confident connecting language choices to specific situations and intentions” (p. 11). For the overworked and underpaid adjunct professor, for example, such a task may simply not fit into one’s calendar. In some ways, the book may leave readers feeling as though the ideas presented are a bit too idealistic despite their practical presentation. What readers will not deny, however, is the fact that the arguments presented in this text do lead us to question our own methods of grammar instruction.

Review: The Little Book of Hidden People: Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore by Alda Sigmundsdóttir (Little Books Publishing, 2015, 116 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

Reading Sigmundsdóttir’s little book brought back so many wonderful memories of all the stories I would hear around the fire Friday nights after dinner with teachers and professors (mostly of language) with whom I had worked all week, subbed for, and commiserated with. Elves play an important role in the history of the Scandinavian cultures, and they represent lessons, metaphors, touchstones, and reminders. With a rich past, the Icelanders have embraced the elf stories and other tales—of the sea, of dragons, of Viking times, of pirates, of sports games, and of Olympic sports from the past and from the remote past.


Just like the German fairy tales (which are mentioned in the book), the Icelandic elf stories often contain very sad and sometimes disgusting details not exactly suitable for children. The merging of the magical elves—and sometimes their magical livestock—with criminals and outcasts is explained, as are some of the possible origins of the elf stories. As with all my reviews, I try to not give away too much information so that you will get something out of the reading for yourselves, dear readers.

I remember many of the stories, and in different versions. It is important to remember that these stories are part of an oral tradition—details vary as the stories change shape and some of the religious and political ideals of the day bend those shapes. The various Scandinavians, such as the Swedish, had other versions of these or similar stories. The Poles in our teacher groups could shock us as well as anyone else when the after-dinner brandy flowed and the more adult fairy tales full of gore and intrigue poured forth. The Poles would win the prize on storytelling. There were many silly hours spent with bad translations and questions about clarification constantly interrupting the stories (there were many, many speakers of Polish at our parties!)

Two years (interrupted) of teaching methods courses for English as a second language and subbing and sharing and learning were a wonderful experience for me as I traversed even some remote areas of Iceland—some mentioned in the book! Thank goodness the natives could put up with my old Danish as I did not learn Icelandic as fast as I should have! Both English and Danish are required, generally, in the schools.

The book is delightful and is as much history as it is literature. I recommend you read it and take some examples for use with especially older students to look at the didactic use of storytelling. Great stuff here!

Review: Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models (3rd ed.) by Diane H. Tracey and Lesley Mandel Morrow (Guilford Press, 2017, 302 pp.)

Heather Pauly, Assistant Professor, Cardinal Stritch Univ, hmpauly @

True to its title, the third edition of Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models provides multiple viewpoints from which to consider the act and process of reading, reading comprehension, and learning. Tracey and Morrow write for those looking to develop an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of literacy processes. This book is very helpful for graduate students or researchers in literacy, language, special education, or fields related to education, as a part of exploring and developing a theoretical basis for research or practice.


Lenses on Reading is an excellent resource that summarizes important theories and models underlying researcher and practitioner conceptualization of reading development. In addition, it helps readers apply their understanding of research and practice through case studies and classroom vignettes that reflect the specific theoretical models.

Upon review, each chapter clearly categorizes and intentionally reviews a history of the theories within each category, which allows insight into the evolution of research and thinking in the field. Important to the context of the field of literacy and its scientific development, chapter 2 is dedicated to providing a history of theories from Aristotle and Plato to Rousseau and Wundt. Chapters 3-9 categorize specific theories together as follows: behavioral, constructivist, developmental, physiological, affective, social learning (including multiliteracies, critical literacy, and critical race theory), and cognitive processes. The final chapter synthesizes and reviews the aforementioned categories. Importantly, this third edition includes updated research applications in all chapters, giving the reader current examples of specific theoretical models.

The authors intentionally discuss the overlapping nature of the theories (p. xi), the importance of viewing reading development from multiple viewpoints (p. 267), and the abstraction of the categories put forth (p. 14). For readers new to the field, it is important to note that the theories included in this book are those carefully determined to be the most significant by these authors, but do not include all theories. It is also important to take to heart the authors’ message that the categories are author-created and flexible. It would be impossible to write a book that surveys and explores such a multitude of theories without organizing them into categories; however, these categories suggest a simplification that may lead novice researchers to believe that they understand a particular theory when, in fact, more reading is required. It is up to the readers to comprehend the ideas of each theory and to create the multiple viewpoints that they find true through their own practice and research.

Overall, this edition of Lenses on Reading is a strong summary text and resource on theories and models of reading development. It is accessible to those at an introductory level of understanding and also a fast, reliable reference necessary in a literacy researcher’s library. For readers akin to hiking, the text acts as a trailhead, pointing in multiple directions toward significant original theories, each of which may need further investigation. Though clearly organized by category, the authors themselves state that its organization is conceptual; therefore, students, practitioners, and researchers should think proactively and individually to synthesize what they are reading in relation to their own research and practice. In many cases, further reading will be necessary in order to fully grasp and apply a single theory. In sum, the text does what it sets out to do, leaving readers with a beginning understanding of theory, practice, and research.