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

Karen Ambrosh, Audubon High School, Milwaukee


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.

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

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.

Editor’s Introduction

John Pruitt, University of Wisconsin-Rock County, john.pruitt @


April means not only National Poetry Month and the occasional, strangely placed sleet and snowstorm that sounded like a billion pins dropping onto Rock County most of yesterday. It also means that my chapter of Sigma Kappa Delta English Honor Society holds its annual game show to raise funds or supplies for a local nonprofit. This year, contestants paid an entry fee of pet food or litter for the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin.

In the tradition of this low-stakes competition–winners receive $20 gift cards–the questions are based on bad customer reviews of bestsellers and popular classroom texts, that is, the time honored and relatively canonical. Aligned with our food drive for the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin–ANIMAL BOOKS

Let’s play a couple rounds…….Which book is this disgruntled pet owner cursing?

My dog has a collapsing trachea and I figured this book would explain how to do the surgery so I did not have to pay the veterinarian big $$$. I read the book cover-to-cover and I still have no idea how to fix my dog. Thanks for nothing, jerk.

a. James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small
b. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
c. Hugh Lofting, The Story of Doctor Doolittle
d. Fred Gipson, Old Yeller

How about this one, from a jaded animal lover making a life decision:

This book was not my cup of tea. It definatly [sic] shows that we as human can help nature. This book left me wondering if it was really worth my time.

a. Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings
b. Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist
c. Tania James, The Tusk That Did the Damage
d. T C Boyle, When the Killing’s Done

Finally, let’s remember that not all animals are as docile as our pets:

A mediocre attempt of horror is really not strong enough to hold any weight at all, causing the narration to die half-way through the book. Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t come back as an evil zombie at all, despite odd attempts of performing resuscitation to the corpse.

a. Stephen King, Pet Sematary
b. James Herbert, The Rats
c. Peter Benchley, Jaws
d. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

We also gathered much more than I’d expected:

Dry dog food- 246 lbs
Dry cat food – 55 lbs
Wet dog food – 15 cans
Wet cat food – 30 cans
Dog Treats – 12 bags
Litter – 30 pounds
Pet toys – about 20 various toys
Cash – $68

Please adopt and adapt this idea for your own fundraiser. The grumpier the reviews, the funnier the results!

Carroll University’s Pre-College Programs Aim to Build Emotional, Social, and Academic Aptitude of High School Students

Elizabeth Jorgensen, Arrowhead Union High School, jorgensene @
Maria Ramirez, Carroll University, mramirez @


Carroll University’s Pre-College Programs began in 2004 with just seven students and the idea that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic heritage, should have equal access to higher education. As time passed, this one program grew into several programs supporting hundreds of students.

Today, 17 years later, Carroll University Pre-College Programs administer three pre-college enrichment opportunities which attract students from Waukesha, Milwaukee and New York City:

  • Horizontes en Carroll is a week-long residential summer program. Sixty students from Waukesha, Milwaukee and New York City live on campus for one week and attend three mock college courses. They learn about career paths by visiting area businesses. Outside of the academic and career focus, they learn college skills through leadership-building activities and daily reflection within mentor groups. Given funding from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, they must qualify for free or reduced lunch to attend this program.
  • Project Pioneer is a Saturday enrichment program which focuses on teaching 21st- century skills through Carroll University’s annual liberal arts theme and project-based learning. Through partnerships with select high schools in Waukesha and Milwaukee, 9th-12th grade students interested in attending a four-year institution of higher learning are invited to campus to engage in the unique curriculum. In each of the three Project Pioneer academies, students work in teams to tackle real world issues. From organizing a fundraising walk, to addressing education inequality in post-war Bosnia, to writing local representatives about a challenge in our community, students practice and build their abilities in the four Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
  • Pioneer Bridge is an orientation program for first generation college students entering their freshman year at Carroll University. Funded by a grant from the PNC Foundation, this program invites fifteen students to move into their residence halls one week before freshmen orientation. During this time, they engage in workshops and activities designed to expose them to campus resources, build self-advocacy and leadership skills, and create a supportive community.

Though the reach and scope of the three programs are different from those 17 years ago, the goal is the same: to ensure that students from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds have access to higher education. This is especially important as the higher education achievement gap in the United States continues to grow. In fact, according to the 2016 State Report Cards published by the DC-based Young Invincibles organization, between 2007 and 2015, the nationwide gap in higher education attainment widened 2.2 percentage points between white Americans and Hispanic Americans and 0.4 points between white Americans and African Americans. Furthermore, the report specified that the state of Wisconsin sees the second highest university attainment gap in the nation between whites (45%) and African Americans (22%), making pre-college programs like Carroll University’s all the more important.


. After spending four years as a Spanish teacher in high-need areas, I recognized successful students in our K-12 public education system were often underprepared for success at a university. These bright young people lacked social, organizational and cross-cultural skills needed to succeed in their new environment. Therefore, when I heard about an opening for Director of Pre-College Programs at Carroll University, I was eager to apply and take action to fill these gaps.

When I was selected to fill the role in September 2014, I was pleased to find that dozens of high school students from across Milwaukee and Waukesha were just as eager to join me in this endeavor. My first undertaking as Director of Pre-College Programs was the Saturday enrichment program, Project Pioneer. And despite the 9am Saturday start time, 25 to 35 high school students attended the program week after week.

Given this captive audience, I wanted to build an engaging experience that would expose students to the opportunity of higher education and complement their high school education. Furthermore, given my background working in underserved neighborhoods, I was especially keen on providing our participants, most from low-income families, with access to the same enrichment that was commonplace for their higher income peers. Finally, I knew that many first generation college aspirants struggled to understand the transformational power of a college education simply because they did not know anyone who had benefited from one. I hoped to change this through opportunities to build near-peer relationships between the high school participants and our college mentors.

The criteria for student participation was simple: my team and I recruited students interested in pursuing higher education and who would commit to attending and actively participating in the 12 Saturdays throughout the year. Though we looked at grades and test scores, we wanted to give the message that in Carroll University’s Project Pioneer, the growth and development in one’s future were valued much more than the circumstances of one’s past. Therefore, we accepted any student who made a commitment to stepping outside of their comfort zone, learning and progressing.

Together, the program instructors and I built a curriculum that focused on developing 21st-century skills through experiential learning. Some of the instructors who were hired under the previous director stayed on, while I recruited others through connections in Waukesha and Milwaukee. Regardless of when a teacher joined the team, the common thread among all teachers was high expectations for students. Our mostly Hispanic and African American students were already exposed to lowered expectations for people of color. Therefore it was important that our Project Pioneer teachers respected our students’ talents and helped them see their potential.

We divided each academic year into academies. The first and second academies consisted of six Saturdays, and the final academy consisted of four. On the last Saturday of the year, we hosted a “Celebration of Learning” where students practiced etiquette and had an opportunity to share their achievements with friends, family and members of the Carroll community at a catered lunch.

Throughout Project Pioneer, we took advantage of our location and incorporated Carroll University students, professors and alumni into our workshops, lessons and field trips. We encouraged the high school students to explore their interests and talents and engage in discussion around how a college education could help convert these interests into a fulfilling and successful career in the field of their choice. The program instructors and I wanted our students to know they belonged, and could have success, on a university campus.


Jorgensen. In 2013, one of my colleagues at Arrowhead Union High School asked, “What do you do on Saturday mornings?” She proceeded to discuss Dr. Donnie Hale and his work in the Pre-College Programs at Carroll University. I was intrigued and interested in helping students who didn’t grow up hearing that college was an expectation. Receiving my masters’ degree from Carroll, I was eager to give back to the institution and help a student population vastly different from the one I served teaching English at a suburban high school.

After an interview, I accepted a position to work with Project Pioneer. On Saturdays throughout the next academic year, between 25 and 35 high school students from Waukesha and Milwaukee engaged in academies. According to the Project Pioneer website, students participating in Project Pioneer were completing activities to “lead them through exploring their community and identifying a challenge within it, researching that challenge and finding solutions, and taking action.” In each lesson, literacy remains paramount as college and career require developed and mature English skills. As published by Thoughtful Learning, “By understanding how … to create effective, well-grounded communication, students can harness the power of new technology and be inspired to learn.” In each activity, lesson and project, we challenged our students to contribute to their communities in a positive way.

Although Hale left Carroll a few years later (to become Florida International University Faculty Director of the Education Effect at Booker T. Washington Senior High School), I stayed on to work in the Pre-College Programs, now under the direction of Maria Ramirez.

The program ebbed and flowed, morphing as the directors changed. Several instructors faded to two. College mentors were added. But weekly visits to the participants’ high schools and the mission of the program remained the same.

My work at Project Pioneer, that first year in 2013, led me to Horizontes en Carroll, “a program which welcomes upwards of 50 high school students from Waukesha, Milwaukee, Racine, and Harlem (NY) to campus each summer to experience university life and gain academic, social and life skills.” At the summer camp, students developed career and college readiness skills and a better understanding of the college experience. In 2015, I taught a variety of mock college classes. In 2016, I facilitated a poetry reading and a Horizontes en Carroll literary magazine.

Similar to the activities at Horizontes, throughout the academic year, Project Pioneer instructors focus lessons on not only student growth and skill acquisition, but also on how students can impact their communities. During each activity, mentors and instructors rely on a specific discipline literacy skill–reading, writing, listening, speaking or thinking–and students regularly are asked to refer to the four Cs. As an instructor, I aim to balance high expectations, skill development and achievement with enjoyment. As a Saturday program, student attendance relies on engagement and perceived value.

To encourage attendance, each day is balanced with ice breakers, small discussions, lectures and work time. We want to excite students about Project Pioneer and to attend subsequent Saturdays. By involving them in self-directed, relevant activities and including authentic experiences with audiences and deadlines, I’ve watched students become active participants with increased motivation.

In surveys administered after each of the three Project Pioneer academies, students say similar things:

I love coming to Project Pioneer. I never minded waking up early on Saturdays because I know that I am going to come to something that will help me in my future. On other Saturday mornings, I am just sleeping in at home when I can be here improving my future.

I can do more than I believe I can. I can make a change even if I’m someone small.

Something I learned about myself while attending the academy is that everyone really has a voice and we have to learn how to use it wisely. I learned that my voice is important because my ideas matters and this really helped me because now I’m not as shy and scared of sharing my thoughts and participating a lot more!


Ramirez. In order to engage students in the Saturday academies and demonstrate how learning can connect to the world, we draw from Carroll University’s yearly liberal arts theme to guide our curriculum. Ranging in topic from human rights to time and citizenship, we use Carroll University’s theme as a base to build learning experiences for students. In 2016-2017, for example, we leveraged Carroll’s citizenship theme to build three distinct academies which explored digital, local and global citizenship.

The local citizenship academy was especially timely, as it came just after the 2016 US presidential election when many of our students, most of whom are students of color, were scared and frustrated by the negative commentary around Latinos, immigrants and other minority groups. In a climate where many felt they must back down and stay quiet, I wanted them to know they had a safe place where they could speak freely and be accepted. Additionally, I wanted to ensure that they had an opportunity to share their voices and experiences with their peers and community in a positive and constructive way.

In this academy, we began by discussing what local citizenship meant and how we, as local citizens, can get involved in our community. Community service and involvement is an important part of the college experience for Carroll University students, and we wanted to model this for our pre-college students as well.

We encouraged the high school students to become active members in their local community by identifying an issue they were passionate about and writing a letter to a local leader or politician. Students wrote letters on topics ranging from preserving city parks and green spaces to summer employment opportunities for teens to immigration reform. For many, this was a new experience. They began without understanding that several community leaders represented them at various levels of government or that they could use their voices to influence decisions. But by the end of the academy, when they were asked what they learned, one student commented that

local citizenship has to do with where you stand in your community. You impact the community as well as your community impacts you. Your voice may seem like something small but getting together with others who go through the same struggles as you can get together to create a change that starts socially and escalates to a more political change.

Another mentioned that “I should not be afraid of letting people hear my voice.” College mentors and Project Pioneer instructors wrote alongside the high school students, speaking to Carroll University’s reminder that citizenship is a lifelong endeavor.

Beyond finding their voices and learning how to write letters to community leaders, the students learned from their peers. Given that about half of our participants live in a city considered one of the most segregated in the United States (Downs, 2015), we make sure to provide the opportunity to get to know peers from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Though just a few miles separates Milwaukee’s African American Northside and Hispanic Southside, students frequently comment they do not have friends outside of their racial or ethnic group. Project Pioneer is an opportunity to bring together our young people from across Waukesha and Milwaukee and change this reality.


Jorgensen. Students attend each academy knowing the year’s annual theme. To supplement the annual theme, individual projects (like writing advocacy letters) allow them to grow and acquire literacy and college-readiness skills. Communal projects allow them to collaborate, learn from each other and develop leadership skills.

Each student is required to be an active participant both on Saturdays and throughout the week. To hold them accountable, they and their parents sign a participation contract by agreeing to “1. Be present, 2. Be actively engaged, 3. Be respectful to people, their space, and their belongings and 4. Be prepared.” Additionally, students and parents are told the following:

Your duty is participate fully as a Project Pioneer participant. Don’t worry, no one expects you to have all the answers. Instead, we challenge you to come up with answers as a team. Remember, young people have valid ideas, are vocal and want to be heard. We strive to hear ideas and support dreams. This journey will be filled with some amazing moments—some tough, frustrating, awesome and surprising. In fact, every week, we ask you to think of one connection, one question, and one aha moment through your reading and investigation to discuss during our time together on Saturday.

During the week, college mentors visit each student’s high school to field questions, connect students with resources, and remind them of deadlines and expectations. By serving as mentors, college students also fulfill a Cross-Cultural Experience credit.

Carroll University’s mission (2018) “provides a superior education, rooted in its Presbyterian and liberal arts heritage, and draws upon its Christian tradition to prepare all students for vocational success, lifelong learning and service in a diverse and global society.” Inspired by this, in 2015, students planned a communal project. A current Carroll University student, Emina Halilovic, proposed a charity walk to benefit education in her home country of Bosnia, and Project Pioneer participants helped bring her vision to reality.

Halilovic’s “Walking in Their Shoes: Going the Extra Mile for Children’s Education” was a 5K walk, aimed to both spread awareness of education inequity and financially support transportation to school for Bosnian children. Our high school students created promotional materials and distributed them to local businesses. They also Skyped with the children they were helping (Halilovic serving as a translator) and coordinated day-of activities for participants, including face painting, card-making and an interactive photo booth. In each interaction, they practiced not only the four Cs but also professionalism, speaking and listening skills, proper eye contact and decorum. By participating in this event, they saw firsthand how language arts skills are integral to success.

In 2015, the event raised $2,300 and Halilovic used the money to provide meals and transportation for eight school children in Kamenica, Bosnia. This walk also fell on Global Youth Service Day, which allowed Project Pioneer participants to join a global movement of youth giving back. Reflecting on this experience, students said the following:

Participating in the walk made me feel really good because I am helping make some else’s future better.

I’ve never been in a walk-for-a-cause event before so that was [a] neat experience. It made it even better that it was on Global Youth Service Day.

I gave me some idea about what those kids were going through and appreciate what I have.

It was something new to help kids from the other side of the world and it felt good. I learned to appreciate things more.

According to Owens (2017):

Emina is a great example of how a young person can take the initiative to make their dreams a reality. She has used her imagination to create programs and events that positively affect Waukesha and the world all while working to the highest standards in school. And, most importantly she is committed to giving back to the community that has given her so much.

Project Pioneer participants, through both Halilovic’s example and the resources on Carroll’s campus, began to learn that their voices matter and that each person, no matter how old, can make a significant contribution to the world. One student said, “It impacted me by being able to do things for others for a good cause … I thought it was very fun and exciting” while another said, “It helped me realize that you can help other people around the world with the help of others, and think it is totally worthwhile.”

The following year, Project Pioneer participants again aided Halilovic in planning and coordinating the event.

. Despite the education reforms taking place in schools across our state, many experiences remain inaccessible to low-income students. From the four Cs to intercultural relationship-building, to applying skills and knowledge to real-world scenarios, Project Pioneer offers young people a variety of learning experiences that ensure they prepare themselves not only academically, but also socially and emotionally, for both success in college and in their future careers. Indicating success, Project Pioneer students have gone on to study at universities from UW-Platteville to Howard University and Carroll University.

While success in the traditional classroom is defined by rigid state standards and assessments that measure a limited scope of knowledge, success in Project Pioneer is defined by personal growth, self-awareness, and connectedness to one’s community. As one student commented after the local citizenship academy, “This academy has taught me a lot about perseverance and courage. You should be able to get up and take action yourself,” while another reflected that “I have learned to speak with confidence and I have learned that it’s important to take risks in life because the outcome can be great.” After all, while test scores and grades will open the door to a college education, soft skills like perseverance, self-advocacy, and confidence in one’s abilities despite failure are also necessary for college readiness and success. In one meta-analysis, researchers found that students who engaged in social and emotional learning similar to those offered by Project Pioneer experienced an 11% increase in college graduation rates (Taylor, Oberle, Durlak & Weissberg, 2017).


Jorgensen. In the program, instructors introduce students to both campus life and college academics. During Project Pioneer 2015-2016, in addition to individual and group projects, they read and analyzed The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Teen by Sean Covey, watched movies and videos, and spent time with community organizers.

In the summer of 2016, instructors wanted Horizontes participants to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary and systems used in a college classroom. Students participated in several mock courses, where they were exposed to a syllabus and challenged to both acquire and apply new skills. In my English course, students produced a literary magazine of student work. For many, this was the first time they had been invited to add “published author” to their resume.

Relying on an authentic audience and purpose (both in the literary magazine and the poetry reading), they developed and applied English skills in a meaningful way. Cultivating a safe and creative space where expectations required them to actively participate allowed them to use these activities as catharsis.

At the end of each academy, as well as Horizontes, students completed a survey requiring them to reflect on what was accomplished and what they wanted to improve. At the end of Horizontes, I was humbled and excited by the survey responses. One student commented that at first “I cared of what the people will think of me and then I realized this is a safe environment … I got good at sharing my ideas and what I thought.” While another student said the course helped him “step out of my comfort zone and develop skills that I can use at school and in a career. I am so glad I continue to participate in this program.”

Whereas the traditional classrooms our students come from focus on meeting state standards and achieving “proficient” scores on standardized tests, our programs focus on student interest and engagement. And through this, the Pre-College Programs at Carroll University are able to connect experiential learning to students’ lives, grow their abilities (especially when it comes to literacy and the four Cs) and excite them about the possibility of higher education.

Students have shared that much of their high school days are spent on computers, working through online programs. During the Pre-College Programs, we limit the time they spend on devices and focus instead on hands-on, experiential learning. This helps them, at least anecdotally, engage and find their voices. It also increases their interest and buy-in.

In each program, they explore community issues, challenges at home and hopes for the future. In a survey after the local citizenship academy, they were asked if they felt their skills improved. In terms of communication, 91% agreed. For critical thinking, 83% agreed. For collaboration, 87% agreed. And for creativity, 79% agreed. These results are typical for each academy.

But it is just this strength that could also be considered one of the program’s greatest challenges. In a data-driven culture where outcomes are judged by numbers, it is difficult to share our successes with the world.

Though 88% of program participants in 2016-2017 reported that skills learned in Project Pioneer are helpful to them in their personal or academic lives, how can we better understand how these skills truly impact their lives? Does our consistent weekly attendance and engaged student body prove that the programs are relevant and helpful? How can we measure the impact of their improved literacy skills?

We know our programs are beneficial because we see growth, because the students report the positive impact on their lives and because our partner schools echo these observations. But given the small program staff (just one full time staff member along with the part-time instructors and student work-study mentors) and nebulous nature of the soft skills and socioemotional development we promote, we have not yet been able to effectively quantify the benefit of our program.

In subsequent years, we hope to continue to provide experiences that will allow those from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach parity with their higher income peers, preparing these young people for success in higher education and careers.

Covey, S. (2014). The 7 habits of highly effective teens: The ultimate teenage success guide. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Downs, K. (2015, March 5). Why is Milwaukee so bad for black people? National Public Radio. Retrieved from

Horizontes en Carroll. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Carroll University website:

Owens, J. (2017, April 3). Senior Emina Halilovic named “young woman of tomorrow”. Retrieved from Carroll University website:

Project Pioneer. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Carroll University website:

Purpose and mission. (2018). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Carroll University website:

2016 state report cards. (2016, January). Retrieved from Young Invincibles Student Impact Project website:

What are literacy skills? (2018). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Thoughtful Learning website:


Student Exemplars
Student work, both in community endeavors and daily activities, can demonstrate student growth, achievement and success. The following pieces were published in the 2016 Horizontes en Carroll Literary Magazine.


“Where I’m From” by Te’asia Stocks
I am from hours of yanking and pulling,

From hair grease, braids, and barrettes.

I am from unconditional love but short tempers

From Te’Asia, Punkin head, or Cita

I am from money doesn’t grow on trees

From a small white house surrounded by neighbors of different skin pallets

I am from white, tans, and, blacks different but alike

I am from memories of Lucinda

From destruction from a King and struggles from Timothy

I am from bullet wounds that heal into an irreplaceable mother

And love and passion creating a stronger bond than DNA

I am from snowball fights in the house

And birthday parties in the yard each year

I am from thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume

From genes that produce an abundance of melanin

I am from years of bondage

From chains, tears and blood

I am from stories of the motherland

From beats and lyrics of Alicia Keys and India Arie


I am from eight counts

From sisters I never had and practices I wish I never had

I am from blue ribbons and jazz shoes

From the footsteps of my ancestors




“I’m From Chaos” by Deja Smith
I am from different seasons.

From the heat the warmth and the cold.

I am from many places, some tiny, some big, some good, some bad.

From one mom and five other moms.

I am from the trash that sits out in front.

From a place where no one ever sleeps.

I’m from the plain white walls and velvet curtains.

From the soul food and fights.

I’m from a house, not a home.

From the nosey lady that lives down the street

And the “next week” and “I don’t have its”

I’m from the violent side of town

From the gun shots fired

From the mothers crying

From the babies dying

From the terrible house fire down the street


I am from all of these things that happen around me.

Because even if they are not directed towards me,

They still affect my life in some way.




“I’m From Kilwaukee” by Keyjuan Scott
I’m from Kilwaukee

I’m from a city where bullets fly and your friends will die.

I’m from a city where you have to say be safe, because your friends can die.

I’m from a city where people like to send shots and catch the opps.

I’m from a city where you’re here one second then the next you have to call the reverend.

I’m from a city where they say there’s no hope.

I’m from a house never truly felt like home.

I’m from a house where the only things that felt at home were the roaches and the mice.

Man, those nights were long.

I’m from a home where we fought and hurt each other for so long.

But don’t get it twisted. we love each other.

I have my family’s back just like they have mine.

I’m from a family that loves one another but hurts one another.

I think about the times when family would come over for holidays and

Mama would cook and we sit and laugh until somebody started acting an ass.

I remember the fights and guns pulled on one another.

How I remember the laughs and then the cries to just get along.

But the cries were just hopeless requests on the wind, like the hope for the youth.




“Where I’m From” by Alberto Flores
I am from a neighborhood where I can play soccer or rest peacefully,

but not a hundred percent peacefully.

I am from a soccer, kindness, and looking for peace,

I am from a peace that people can enjoy.

I can be negative, but positive at the same time.

I’m from a confused soul looking for answers,

but what answers could be found?

What is wrong? Or what is right?

I’m from people that seek not just peace, but justice.

I’m from people who are afraid to speak up…but why are they afraid?

I’m from my family, a son that doesn’t know how he can change the world.

But is that even possible? It is, but it will require effort and followers that will help change it.

I’m from ideas, from thoughts that it can’t be fully decide…but why?

I’m from loving everything, but hating what we do.

People judge for what they can’t understand, but talk like they know everything.

I’m a normal person like everyone else,

from pain to hate,

from hate to anger,

from anger to sadness,

and from sadness to happiness.

It doesn’t matter what we do because is the way of how we do it.

We don’t know if we are going to change or who will make that big step to change it.

This is the way of life

and let see what our destiny take us.




“Where are my people?” by Keyjuan Scott
These people aren’t with my own.

These people are violent and care only for their own.

Are these my people?

These people only care for their own as do I.

They don’t want to get along, and everything that is right is wrong.

Staying home and studying—

no, they will call you a lame.

Be nice to people and you’re a fake.

Be friendly to people and you’re a ho.

Go and rob someone and you’re the guy.

Go and smoke and you’re the guy.

Go and kill someone and you’re wanted by all the desirables.

They want to pack a pistol and put it to someone’s dome.

These people seem to only want to do harm.

These people morals are all out of whack.

But I’m no better than them

So are these my people?

These people aren’t with my own.

These people are violent and care only for their own.




“Hands” by Ty Davidson
My family has different hands. My mother’s hands are dark like chocolate and dry like paper because of all of the hand sanitizer. Her nails long and colorful like a rainbow. My little brother’s hands wide and flat. They are clammy, like his hands jumped into water before I touched them, before I touched them.

My hands are soft and caramel with short nails. The polish is chipped off like I wanted to take it off but I decided not to. It is like the nails are taking forever to get undressed.

But my father’s hands, my father’s hands, are big and brown with cuts and scars like his hands have been through a war. Calluses, like rocks and knuckles, are permanently swollen from all of the fights they’ve been through when he was younger and from all of the labor he has done.

His hands yet, big, rough, and damaged are soft when he plays with babies, when he is comforting others or when he touches my face and tells me he loves me. When he touches my face and tells me he loves me. My father’s hands.



“My Skin” by Evelyn Rojas
Everybody in my family has rich caramel skin color. My mother, my sister, my grandma, my grandpa, and everyone else in my family is on the tanner side. My mother has a glow to her skin that makes her look healthy with little freckles living on the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. My sister has dark rich cream-colored skin with little white marks dancing around her body. My grandparents, oh my grandparents, they’re the darkest. They’ve been kissed by the sun too many times. They’ve been only touched by light. They make me seem like a small marshmallow. My skin is different. I’m on the paler side. I don’t look like I’m from Oaxaca. I don’t have a healthy glow. I don’t have freckles or white little marks. I have pink little rose petals on the apples of my cheeks. I have what my mom says “Patas de Pollo” which means “Chicken Legs” because they are pale. I have my veins on display because my skin allows you to see them. Even if I do gain a bit of color, I will still be the odd one out. Although I’m not super pale or super dark, I will be the one to stand out in a family photo.




“Eyes” by Ashley Urich
Everyone in my family has brown eyes. They have brown eyes that sparkle when in the sunshine. Brown eyes that can, at times, be very dark. They have eyes that remind me of warmth, home, and love. My mom’s eyes are brown but if you pay close attention you could see where they differ from the rest of my family.

My mom’s eyes are very light brown. They shine like a maple tree that’s in the sunlight. Her eyes are happy, loving, and hardworking. They show my reflection of the smile she brings me when I see her happy eyes.

My brother’s eyes are dark brown, black almost. His eyes remind me of protection and potential. Sometimes I wonder what those eyes hold, maybe all the emotions he likes to hide to stay strong. I have another brother whose eyes are a mix of both. His eyes represent youth and curiosity. When I look into his eyes, I see a future. I see a life that hasn’t been started yet.

I have one more younger brother: a new addition. Like me, his eyes are unique for a family of brown eyes. He has blue eyes. His eyes sparkle like a bright blue ocean, and when they change, his eyes gleam like the moon reflecting off a sea. I see innocence and bravery when I look into his eyes. I think of the planet, Neptune for their color.

Although me and my youngest brother differ from the family we also differ from each other. My eyes are also unique. They aren’t blue or brown, they’re green. No wait, they are blue. Oh, I meant gray. Yellow? Brown maybe?

I guess I forgot to mention they’re not just one color. My eyes are a mix of all those. My eyes can be as blue as sky when I’m very happy. They can be as green as a grassy field when I’m calm. Yellow as a sun rise when I’m tired. Gray as a piece of graphite when I’m upset. Lastly, brown. Brown. My family’s color. The color that represents happiness, youth, and protection all at once. The brown eyes that I love seeing, they stand out to me because they are different. Most people complain about brown eyes but I consider them a blessing.

The Evolution of the English Classroom: From Brick and Mortar to Virtual

Jennifer Seymour, Wausau Area Virtual Education, jseymour @


If the names William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, H. G. Wells, and Sojourner Truth sound familiar, you may be an English teacher (or you paid attention in your high school literature courses). And, now that you are nostalgically thinking back to that English classroom that served as the hub for your scholarly pursuits, you may be fondly remembering Mrs. Smith as she clip-clopped between desks reciting “To be or not to be,” delighting all with her wit and enthusiasm. In contrast, the memory more prominent than the rest may be the sound of Bobby Porter’s voice reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird–he was the only one in class who volunteered. Regardless of your positive or negative memories, one thing is certain: the majority of adults reading this article attended their required English classes on a daily basis, sat in Lilliputian desks, and carried gargantuan anthologies wrapped in brown shopping bags to and from home (this should have counted towards PE credit).

Luckily, students and teachers of the 21st-century have alternatives to the traditional setting. As a teacher for the past twenty plus years, I have poured my heart into making sure the precious, allotted minutes of desk time were spent in the most engaging English environment possible while addressing the diverse needs of the students that entered my classroom. And, in reflection, I am proud to think that most of those students had benefited from what they had learned by the close of the semester. Still, I know there were students filling the spots on my rosters that would have had a more meaningful English experience in a setting less driven by time and space, an experience that allowed more flexibility in content delivery as well as minutes spent on a given task. For these students, the traditional setting did not allow the freedom needed to fully engage and learn deeply, nor did it encourage the independence to become self-driven learners.

The virtual classroom is a viable option for students whose lives and paths need more flexibility than the brick and mortar model of our past. Currently, I am teaching English courses in our district’s virtual charter school, Wausau Area Virtual Education (WAVE), which has the motto of anytime, anywhere education for the 21st-century learner. The Wausau School District is committed to providing many pathways for students to achieve success in education, and, in addition to other charter schools in the district, WAVE provides one of those paths. Our student body is composed of individuals who have chosen the virtual model for various reasons, some because their passions and dreams require a commitment to an intense sports training during the “regular” school day. I am excited to think that down the road our WAVE graduates may be Olympic gymnasts, NHL hockey players, and PGA golfers. Other families have chosen WAVE for the the freedom it provides them to travel; I currently have a family traveling the world while not missing a beat of their Wausau School District education. For others, the teenage drama of high school is too much, and the option to learn in a setting void of that drama is the preferred option. Still others, for a plethora of other reasons, have found virtual high school to be the best fit for them: employment and internships, the need to be a caregiver to a family member, social or anxiety hindrances, the desire to graduate early. The beauty is that virtual school changes the game and provides a choice for students who previously did not have one regarding the delivery of their public school courses.

How does an English class look in the virtual setting? For WAVE, we contract with Wisconsin Virtual School through CESA 9 and national curriculum providers to obtain rigorous, tested, highly engaging course curricula. The core English classes are all taught using Florida Virtual School curriculum, while the electives (Creative Writing, Mythology and Folklore, Lord of the Rings, and Gothic Literature) come from various other national providers. When I was trained to be a virtual school teacher, I was apprehensive. How could I possibly teach Macbeth via the computer? How do I get to know my students? How… How… How… the questions and doubts flooded my mind, but all that changed when I had the chance to dig into the curriculum, the Learning Management System (LMS) and its tools, and the Student Information System (SIS) and its reports. Furthermore, hearing the excitement from other virtual teachers regarding what they were able to accomplish in their classrooms was the catalyst I needed to keep investigating this new frontier, and I am so happy I did.

To start, the curriculum is outstanding. The modules are aligned to national standards and organized into deliberate scope and sequence lessons. I am impressed with the continuity and skill building that exists between each of the core classes. Furthermore, the rigor is truly impressive. Students are being taught to the highest of expectations and standards. Additionally, students who are accelerated can move at a pace that does not hold them back. When they have mastered a task, they can move to the next one. I can offer honors modules and additional enrichment to them as well. Furthermore, because online teaching is so personalized and dependent on teacher feedback, I can easily differentiate my instruction as needed.

Differentiation is much easier to manage in the virtual world where students are free to work at a pace appropriate to them versus the standard delivery which, for the most part, requires them to stay lock step with one another. For example, learners who struggle with a concept can move slower through the pacing. I can meet them in Google Hangouts, we can have running discussions in the margins of the feedback on a Google doc, we can email, we can talk on the phone, and if it works logistically, we can meet in a face-to-face environment. WAVE has a unique space for these types of meetings: we have a storefront in our local mall that serves as its face. This space provides blended learning opportunities for those who need a hands-on component.


WAVE Storefront / Meeting Center


Another bonus I have seen in the virtual world of English is that students are required to communicate often and communicate well. There is no possibility of students crouching in the corner desk hoping the teacher does not see them. Every student must initiate, respond to, and maintain regular communication throughout the course. If a student cannot do this, virtual school is not the right option. Specific student-driven teaching in the virtual setting occurs through this shared communication. I may ask students to re-submit an assignment multiple times and provide specific feedback to them through screencasts, links to video tutorials, or audio feedback regarding what needs to be improved in order for mastery to occur. There are many formative opportunities built into the curriculum as well as the reteaching that happens on a student-by-student case. Students, by nature of the delivery, will inherently become more sophisticated and confident communicators throughout their virtual experiences.

Any educators with a few years of teaching under their belts know that the key to reaching students is developing and nurturing relationships. Moving from the face-to-face world to the virtual one, I wondered how I would manage to create those same connections. It quickly became clear that it would take a more concerted effort on my part as the instructor. In the traditional setting, I stand outside the door and greet kids as they walk in. I know their personal styles through observation, and I create camaraderie in the classroom through shared educational risk-taking. How in the world was I going to accomplish that in the virtual classroom? The answer is by rethinking the ways I can connect to students. One avenue I have found to be invaluable is the constant communication which I’ve already discussed as being essential. I require meet-and-greet discussion boards at the beginning of the course to establish classroom culture. Students are asked to share things about themselves (including a picture) and carry on conversations within the discussion thread. These discussion threads also occur within course units to encourage collaboration among peers. Furthermore, when I have the opportunity to speak with students on the phone, in Google Hangout, or in person, I make sure that a portion of that conversation is spent getting to know more about them. I extend these conversations into emails, asking how a sporting event turned out or how the new puppy is doing. I also make feedback personalized by always using the student’s name, identifying successes, and encouraging continued growth. Then there are the quirky bitmojis and GIFS that I send to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and successes. I feel like I know my virtual students as well, if not better, than students in traditional classes.

Virtual school prepares kids for life beyond high school. In a world that requires them to be technologically savvy, good communicators, and flexible enough to handle what life after high school throws their way, these kids are ready. I embrace the opportunities for growth that teaching English in the virtual setting has provided, and I look forward to the evolving changes sure to present themselves before I retire. Heaven forbid I ever lose sight of the fact that there are many different kinds of learners and many different ways of teaching. Let us celebrate them all.

Fostering Persistence Through Relevant Writing Assignments

Jeff Bergin, Macmillan Learning, jeff_bergin @


According to the most recent data provided by the American Association of Community Colleges, which draws from the U. S. Department of Education (USDE) and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), the country is seeing a continued decline in enrollment in two-year institutions, particularly among older students. Furthermore, the NSC completion rate for full-time students is only 55% (Juszkiewicz, 2016, p. 3). While first-year writing instructors are among the professionals with whom departing students come into contact routinely, there has been scant scholarship on what these instructors can do to help students persist; yet, composition instructors are increasingly being held accountable for the “drop rates” in their courses–in particular their online courses.

Composition programs are in an opportune position to contribute to student retention efforts. There is little research, however, on how composition pedagogy and content might affect persistence in actual practice, but it is clear that certain pedagogies may actually do more harm than good in terms of student persistence. In “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year’ Composition as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies,’” Downs and Wardle (2007) examine the deleterious effects that disconnected writing assignments can have on first-term students. They describe a returning student who had failed to persist due largely to his experience in a first-semester writing class, despite having “spent every day writing papers for my last job [I] never really took the time to think about what I was writing” (p. 565).

What provokes anxiety in composition students? The answer to that question is speculative, but Downs and Wardle cite numerous pedagogical problems including a lack of instructor training in writing studies, lack of textbooks that reflect current scholarship, and ongoing practices of using composition courses to weed out seemingly underprepared students (p. 574). Is first-year composition, a course well suited to help students persist, doing the opposite? When Hobson-Horton and Owens (2004) examined persistence data on two focus groups of underrepresented students, they concluded that making student assignments personally relevant and personally meaningful increases persistence (p. 101).

Can writing instructors craft course content in ways that help promote persistence? What would such content look like, and how would it be received by a discipline in which there is already little agreement around what should be taught, how it should be taught, and what comprises composition content in general? What should students in writing courses be writing about? Certainly, many students fall back on hackneyed topics (e. g., abortion, capital punishment, the legal drinking age) while others work on projects perhaps seemingly less opinion-oriented and more inquiry-based but still pulled from a list of topics provided by the instructor or the textbook. These topics form the tacit content of composition courses and are arguably of more interest to learners than the assigned readings, textbook chapters, and discussions of rhetorical conventions because these are the topics about which students conduct their research, reading, writing, and revision. Could these very topics enhance student persistence? Here, I situate the debate around content in relation to persistence, examine alternative approaches to traditional writing assignments, and suggest three types of writing assignment content that may help learners persist.


The Debate over Content
Donahue (2005) asserts that,

Given the paucity of articles and books about “content” in composition studies these days, it would seem that it is something that we either do not want to talk about or believe should not be talked about, or feel has been talked about to death. (p. 30)

However, the debate over the role of content in writing studies continues and is relevant to persistence. In 1957, Bowen penned “The Purpose and Content of Freshman English Composition,” which spurred a series of similar articles focusing on what exactly should be taught in first-year composition. Bowen hints at many of the problems that still plague composition programs today: uninterested learners, untrained instructors, and haphazard content selections ranging from personal narratives and grammatical exercises to popular culture projects and literary criticism. The debate continued the following year, when Bailey (1958) expressed disdain for the relegation of composition studies to a “service course” and proposed that “we must assert that we are teachers of a subject matter and we must … take care to limit that subject matter rigidly” (p. 233).

This question was taken up again in 1965 at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) when participants asked, “Is Freshmen English a liberal arts course or a service course?” (Workshop Reports, p. 196). This desire for disciplinarity is well contrasted against the more diffused, interdisciplinary content-focus espoused in the 1980s by scholars such as Scheffler (1980), who described courses organized around thematic concepts, such as “creativity,” with content instruction provided by experts from other fields and writing instruction taking a secondary place as a mere skill (p. 52).

The debate over content continues into the 21st century. In 2000 the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) adopted an outcomes statement that formally delineates learning outcomes without specifically directing the subject matter of writing assignments, and in 2011 the CWPA collaborated with National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Writing Project (NWP) to develop the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing that describes habits of mind and experiences with reading, writing, and critical thinking that are foundational to success. Thus, if these outcomes and habits of mind are of primary emphasis in instruction, essay topics, which may be at the epicenter of learning, are secondary and may be determined by the institution, program, instructor, or student. This provides an opportunity to shape writing assignments in ways conducive to student persistence.

While certain aspects of content are fixed (WPA outcomes, an emphasis on writing studies, rhetorical conventions, form, and content); others are flexible, including the topics students write about. This presents a golden opportunity: to help students select topics that will help them persist. Downs and Wardle argue for re-envisioning first-year composition in a way that “shifts the central goal from teaching academic writing to teaching realistic and useful conceptions of writing–perhaps the most significant of which would be that writing is neither basic nor universal but content- and context-contingent” (p. 558). Arguably the most context-dependent content for first-year composition is the transition into academic writing, research, and inquiry. Downs and Wardle recommend that course readings be focused on issues with which students have direct experience. They recommend texts focusing on purpose, process, and procedure and that may be supplemented with other texts that focus on students’ overall first-year academic experiences and the topics of change, transition, and persistence itself.

In general, then, there are two types of content in writing courses. First, there is rhetorical content, described here as the writing studies approach. Second, there is writing assignment content, which is often student selected, thematic, or connected to other courses. The remainder of this article focuses on writing assignment content: the content about which students are researching, discussing, writing, and reviewing in their writing projects. Furthermore, as elaborated in the sections ahead, I assert that this content should help students not only with their writing, but also with their persistence through their postsecondary studies.


Alternative Writing Assignment Content
In his work on adult learning theory, Knowles (1984) emphasizes the importance of focusing adult learning experiences on learners’ needs, interests, and lives (pp. 23-25). This is directly in line with what Downs and Wardle suggest when they write, “students learn to recognize the need for expert opinion and cite it where necessary, but they also learn to claim their own situational expertise and write from it as expert writers do” (p. 560). It is also consistent with designing first-year writing courses that address students’ lived experiences. As Davis and Shadle (2000) note, alternative writing replaces student apathy toward mode-based writing topics with “excitement in research and theory directed toward projects that linked their academic and personal lives” (pp. 432-433).

Davis and Shadle explore what they call alternative research writing, which draws on students’ lived experiences; connects the personal, public, and academic; and crosses and combines genres. Davis and Shadle describe alternative research writing as “reaching beyond the disciplinary thinking, logos-dominated arguing, and nonexpressive writing we have come to call academic” by mixing “the personal and the public” (p. 422). Alternative research writing asks writers to use research to “explore and mediate personal conflicts, contradictions, and questions” related to “an issue or theme of collective concern” (p. 440). In this way, students are extending familiar topics, related to their personal experiences, into topics that may be of concern to their peers, community, or society at large, and conducting research to make these connections and answer critical questions. The final product that Davis and Shadle describe often requires students to “compose with a large range of strategies, genres, and media” such as “lab reports, case studies, news stories, position papers, take-home exams, and research proposals” (p. 418, p. 420). The relevant nature of alternative research, connected to students’ lived experiences, may contribute to their persistence.

Asking students to select topics, as is common practice in first-year writing courses, poses a conundrum: complete student choice may foster individualized and isolated writing, limiting the social epistemic possibilities of invention, research, peer review, and revision. However, thematic courses may alienate those students uninterested in the topic, lacking in prior knowledge, or intimidated by writing about it. A balance can be struck. Writing instruction provides an opportune environment for students to produce individual projects while reflecting upon their common experiences as first-term students, such as transitioning into postsecondary studies; balancing work, family obligations, and studies; and finding or following a new path. As the writing course progresses, these dialogs about shared but unique experiences can morph into dialogs about topics progressively less focused on persistence and more focused on the nature of writing, such as locating and sharing resources, navigating new technologies, and collaborating on specific writing projects.

Participating in a dialog about their lived experiences, in particular their experiences as first-year students, allows them to reflect on how their experiences are similar or dissimilar to those of their peers, while co-constructing course content in authentic ways. Not only do students benefit from participating in an ongoing dialog and from collaborating on shared topics, they may also share research resources (Boynton, 2002, p. 302). For example, Reinheimer (2005) argues that students should move through their assignments together, and write about common topics, to fully leverage collaborative research, workshops, peer reviews, and revisions (p. 463).


Three Types of Alternate Assignment Content
What exactly should students write about? In this section, I offer three types of writing assignment content both accessible and relevant to first-year students, including writing about familiar topics, writing about digital literacy, and writing about transition and persistence.

Writing about the familiar. Writing about the familiar means more than writing a personal narrative; it means writing about family, community, and work–topics that, as Knowles suggests, are timely and relevant to students and help them approach scholarly inquiry based on their lived experience, not just their social or political views. Dubson (2006) notes that, by not encouraging familiar topics, we risk disenfranchising students: “Merely doing what they are told to do without any innate or internal interest in the work is going to prohibit or seriously compromise the kind of learning and growth that we want to encourage” (p. 101).

One of the most familiar topics, and potentially most beneficial to persistence, is family. Indeed, mattering, belonging, and support are critical to student success (Baker & Pomerantz, 2001; Corwin & Cintron, 2011; Maestas, Vaquera, & Muñoz-Zehr, 2007; Nora, 2004). Ideally, students should feel that they matter to their institutions, instructors, and peers, but learners may experience sufficient mattering if they sense emotional support from their family members and friends. Writing about these important relationships and the support that can be drawn from them can be a critical first step in helping students identify social support networks they may later leverage during difficult times.

Rankins-Robertson, Cahill, Roen, and Glau (2010) explore the implications of writing about familiar topics, in particular family history, especially in basic writing classes, in which students may feel disconnected from both the institution and expectations around academic writing. Here, instructors

can address students’ “disconnect” by providing writing assignments that enable students to simultaneously affirm what they already know (e. g., by allowing students to write about topics of personal, civic, professional, or academic importance to them); engage them with a real, rather than an artificial audience; and encourage them to learn new processes (e. g., rhetorical analysis or using primary versus secondary research), genres, and media. (p. 60)

Rankins-Robertson (2010), who taught family history writing courses, notes that writing about the familiar helps learners feel more comfortable by connecting them with an essay genre that they likely have encountered previously (p. 86); is easily integrated into a larger sequence of research-based writing assignments (pp. 86-87); can be aligned to the WPA Outcomes Statement (p. 88); and demonstrates the connection of an individual to a family, community, and socio-historical context (p. 104). Furthermore, Rankins-Robertson describes family history writing as “multiwriting,” stating, “Not only does family history writing engage students in multiple formats of research, but it is also multi-disciplinary, incorporates the use of multimodal composition, and spans multiple cultures” (p. 97).

Similarly, Davis and Shadle propose that students write about things that matter to their lives and incorporate research to understand the value of expert viewpoints, third-party research, and data, always within the context of their lived experience. Thus, students move from writing autobiographical pieces to “generative” ones that focus on “a new incarnation to grow into” (p. 434). This emphasis on things that matter can, in turn, allow students to feel that their experiences have value while simultaneously encouraging learning that, as Knowles notes, is rooted in past experience.

Downs and Wardle also stress that when students write about something that they and their instructor know about, the instructor is more effectively able to help them than if students “had been researching stem cell research or the death penalty” and can therefore encourage the student to dig deeper based on their collective knowledge (p. 566). Because students are revealing, researching, and writing about similar topics, they can identify with each other’s experiences and share research strategies and sources. Downs and Wardle write, “Developing a ‘community map’ of opinion helps students envision research and argument as community inquiry and identify gaps that their primary research can address” (p. 563). They recommend starting with questions (rather than topics), working through collaboration, and ending with presentations (the results of which may be very useful to other students also at risk of departure).

Writing about digital literacies. As every writing instructor knows, students enter their courses with varying levels of digital literacy. Therefore, it is beneficial for instructors to understand their students’ digital backgrounds and for students themselves to reflect on their own digital experiences. Selfe and Hawisher (2004) write extensively about digital literacy narratives. In Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States, they examine how literary practices are shaped by race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, and access to technology. They define technological literacies as “the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices–cultural, social, political, and educational” (p. 2). By writing digital literacy narratives, students evaluate their own personal histories and make connections from their earliest uses of technologies to their current feelings toward technologies, including their own affective response to their perceived self-efficacy.

Digital literacy narratives need not conclude in the past tense; rather, students may write about their future aspirations; mastery of courses; and advancement toward academic, workplace, and personal goals. Case studies conducted by Selfe and Hawisher indicate that students overvalue the technical skills that they have cultivated over time and undervalue those digital literacies taught on postsecondary campuses. They may, for instance, consider themselves proficient at editing videos, posting updates, and even producing websites, and feel that these skills are more pragmatic than the traditional essays required in courses. Here, instructors may find that they can leverage these skills to motivate digitally savvy learners to produce high quality digital artifacts and to motivate wary students to see the value in information and digital literacy. However, this starts by having students express their digital narratives and having instructors assess these to prescribe more useful instructional strategies. This approach is consistent with scholarship focused on digital literacy, multimodal writing, and digital historiography–all areas of innovation within rhetoric and composition (see Enoch & Gold, 2013; Ridolfo & Hart-Davidson, 2015).

Writing about transition and persistence. Nothing is more pertinent to first-term students than their transition to a new academic environment. As Corwin and Cintron (2011) write, “The freshman year is often deemed one of the greatest transition periods of a student’s life with minimal parental involvement” (p. 25). By providing writing assignments that allow first-year learners to understand that they are in a state of transition, reflect on how their experiences are matching their expectations, and relate to their peers’ similar circumstances, instructors can help students advance through their first year.

In his CCCC presentation First-Year Composition and Retention: The Neglected Goal, Griffith (1996) described a pedagogy in which he focused the content of assigned essays themselves on issues related to persistence. Griffith advanced a first-year composition curriculum in which writing assignments involved researching issues related to the transition from high school to college, the social history of college, and controversial college issues. His assignments are “designed with the idea that through them students would gradually feel that college experience was part of their identity, and that they had a stake as citizens in this new community” (p. 9). One intriguing part of Griffith’s work is his focus on the transition from high school to college, as recent high school graduates are among those students who researchers have identified as at risk of attrition.

Similarly, Downs and Wardle suggest that students should be researching graduation trends; unemployment trends; the role of race, class, and gender; student debt; university programs; and career outlooks. They may also conduct research on their institution and its requirements, transfer institutions, degree completion requirements, employment opportunities, professional qualifications, enrollment practices, student borrowing and source of student aid, and support services available to them, their peers, or their family members. Finally, they may write about student success measures, such as study skills, time management, and tutoring. These topics involve legitimate research, address student-oriented concerns, lend themselves to peer collaboration, and promote affiliation among students, faculty, and staff at institutions.

Horner (2010) advises having students coauthor writing about “growth and change” with dialogic responses to other students (p. 21). For example, students might work on transition action plans, persistence plans, academic plans, and career plans. While many students are still determining their majors in the first year, others are enrolling after years in the workplace and may have very specific goals in mind. Encouraging students to focus on these goals in concrete, actionable, research-based ways allows them to explore things directly relevant to their careers and academic investments, such as career prospects, degree requirements, internship opportunities, funding sources, transfer credits, and even advanced degree programs. Not only are these relevant, but they also help students begin to construct the scaffolding for academic persistence.


In Summary
These three types of alternate writing assignments are consistent with the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (CWPA, NCTE & NWP, 2010), which states that writing assignments should be aimed at “genuine” audiences, including “teachers and other students to community groups, local or national officials, commercial interests, students’ friends and relatives, and other potential readers” (p. 7). Writing about the familiar, writing about digital literacies, and writing about transition and persistence are all assignment topics that can be aimed at genuine audiences, whether those audiences include the instructor, fellow students, or the broader student body. The Framework continues, “Teachers can help writers develop rhetorical knowledge by providing opportunities and guidance for students to … write for real audiences and purposes, and analyze a writer’s choices in light of those audiences and purposes” (p. 10). Alternative writing assignments make this kind of writing and analysis much easier, both for students and for instructors, by fostering collaborative research and a shared dialog on topics relevant to learners.

Persistence is rarely discussed with those who are most at risk of departing: students. While institutions struggle to attract, place, and retain students, they do little to address the issue of persistence in a transparent manner. Learners may not realize that they are in a state of transition, that they can accomplish academic work, and that academic adjustment and integration takes sustained effort over time. If they realize that transition is a normal part of beginning postsecondary studies, they are more likely to understand their feelings, verbalize their concerns, and make persistence a personal goal. By understanding the debate around content, incorporating alternative approaches to research-driven content into writing courses, and encouraging students to write about topics that promote persistence, writing instructors can leverage disciplinary content with situated contexts and help students build successful persistence strategies.


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Poetry Unveiled

Dan Hansen and Becky Hansen, The Poetry Professors,


Ask students why so many of them hate poetry, and you will get some typical answers of “It’s stupid” or “It’s boring.” But dig a little deeper and you will find that students are really feeling frustration. They have come to understand poetry as a guessing game: even when they’re right about the message of a poem, they don’t really know why. We’ve found this to be equally true of English instructors who have decided that poetry isn’t relevant. Some have given up the practice entirely because they were never given the proper tools. This is why we launched The Poetry Professors in September of 2017 to help teachers provide students with the ability to authentically connect and read poetry, or as we like to say, “Less Guessing, More Accessing.”

Why Poetry?
While poetry may seem absent from the Common Core due to its focus on nonfiction, poetry is still essential. For instance, standard RL10 says that students need to be able to read literature of complexity, including poetry, appropriate for their grade level. Now, imagine a scenario in which students are asked to read a novel such as 1984 their senior year, when all they’ve read previously is a few primers in elementary school and a mid-level Chris Crutcher novel without studying characterization, symbolism, and theme development. What chance do those students have of uncovering the nuances of dystopian literature present in Orwell’s masterpiece? This is the state of poetry for many high school students, and the Common Core tells us it must be otherwise.

The Common Core also emphasizes a multitude of approaches to and high repetitions of each skill. The length of the typical poem allows significantly more repetition of several language and word choice standards. Additionally, no other type of literature heightens skill development like poetry. Words are at a premium, and a poem often turns on the interpretation of a single word.


Now that we’ve talked about the what and the why, let’s get into the details of the how. Without a doubt, make sure you aren’t forcing your students into one “right” answer. If they can back up their thoughts with evidence, let them hold onto it for that layer. Students already approach poetry with trepidation, and the more you tell them they are wrong “because the book says so,” the more quickly they will go back to hating it. We’re giving you the tools to woo them out of that attitude, but it will take time.

We wouldn’t be real English teachers if our methodology didn’t contain an acronym which walks students through five steps–“UnVEIL”: Understanding, Voice, Events, Interpret Techniques, and Look/Listen/Lesson.

Un: Understand
. The first step is understanding the words used and then understanding how the words are used in the poem. Poetry is not the time to do vocabulary. Most students are going to approach this process tentatively, so don’t make them memorize new words. Instead, give them access to resources that will make them confident in the denotation of each word. Only then will they feel free to explore the connotations. For instance, let’s look at this verse from “Judith” By D. H. Skogen:

not with expectant eyes

not need for validation

but by this divine clarity

the stricken always show

The underlined words could all cause students to trip up. In this case, they might conclude on that the clarity itself is holy. But it is supposed to be understanding at the same level as God in His omnipotence. The words each student readily understands will vary widely, especially those in ELL programs. Make the process of looking up new words a standard so students aren’t intimidated to ask.

V: Voice
. The second layer is to learn about the voice of the poem. In this step of the process, students use character inquiry tools to explore the speaker of the poem to determine perspective, tone, location, and other literary devices and techniques. The human inclination is to read something in our own voice because ours is the only head we live in. In a novel, short story, or epic poem, you have lots of time to get to know the narrator. Most of the time in poetry you don’t. You get ten or twenty lines, and students will naturally believe the voice to be either themselves or the author, which is why we frequently start poetry units with something very engaging and non-threatening, like Shel Silverstein’s “If I Had a Brontosaurus”:

If I had a brontosaurus

I would name him Morris or Horace;

But if suddenly one day he had a lot of little brontosauri

I would change his name to Laurie.

After reading this poem, we ask what the voice of the poem is and generally get … crickets, so, we start asking a set of guiding questions. The first conversation goes something like this:

Instructor: Is the voice young or old?

Student: I don’t know.

Instructor: Are they 47?

Student: No.

Instructor: Why?

Student: Because they think they could own a dinosaur.

Instructor: At what age are humans obsessed with owning dinosaurs?

Student: Like 4 or 5 or 6. Oh, like my cousin Tanner who has an entire collection and can tell you all their features.

Instructor: What else are kids in the 4-6 range just starting to understand that we see in this poem?

Student: *Crickets*

Instructor: Why would they change the dino’s name?

Student: *Lightbulb*

Instructor: Right. They are just starting to understand the difference between mommy dinosaurs and daddy dinosaurs. How does this little voice feel about that?

Student: They think it’s funny.

Instructor: Yes. This has the tone of two little kids giggling in the bathroom about how boys and girls are different.

Now, instead of this poem being “dumb” as viewed from a teen perspective, students can see these thoughts as the precious, adorable insights of a young child. And just that easily we’ve gotten into some questions that will continue to guide us through the voice layer, which is always the starting point:

Who are you?

Where are you?

When are you?

What do you look like?

How do you feel about what’s happening?

Instructors and students will rarely be able to answer all of these questions, and sometimes you’ll want to dive into one of them more deeply. The value is not in being able to answer every single question; the value is in exploring all of them and digging out that which you and your students can dig out.

Let’s explore these questions in the Emily Dickinson classic “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died”:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm –


The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset – when the King

Be witnessed – in the Room –


I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable – and then it was

There interposed a Fly –


With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –

Between the light – and me –

And then the Windows failed – and then

I could not see to see –

So, let’s ask this voice our questions:

  1. Who are you? An older woman, someone who has taken time to get all of her affairs in order: “Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable.”
  2. Where are you? On her deathbed with her family gathered around. They’ve already done all their mourning because “The Eyes around – had wrung them dry.” She’s been dying for a while.
  3. When are you? Some of the words here indicate this is taking place in an older America. It’s also daytime because there is light outside the window.
  4. What do you look like? An older lady; we don’t have anything more.
  5. How do you feel about what’s happening? She has clearly prepared for death and has gathered everyone around to witness her last big moment. This is now being interrupted by a fly. She is annoyed by its lack of manners.

We use some fun techniques, including a game we call “Lines and Voices,” where you can print a variety of poetic lines and a variety of voices so students can experiment with how using a different voice changes the meaning of the poem. Sometimes we have students fill out a dating profile or a police report for a voice.

Working through the Voice layer, you can get students first to a place where they understand the who and the where of what is happening in this poem. Having those tools in place immediately makes it easier to start exploring the layer that they want to jump to: What is happening in this poem?


E: Events. After digging into voice, we start exploring what is happening, and, again, face the dreaded crickets:

Instructor: What is happening in this poem?

Student: Nothing.

Instructor: Nothing?

Student: No, it’s just a guy sitting around thinking.

Instructor: Exactly.

If we tell our students we will “think about” allowing them to use their notes on their exam, they expect we will engage in deep, existential contemplation over this question, right? Close reading techniques allow them to find and piece together those events into a picture or a story. We classify events as a voice performing actions, having thoughts, or expressing emotions, or as physical events, intellectual events, and emotional events.

There is a lot of internal dialogue in poetry. Voices frequently ponder, think, consider, and reflect. We sometimes get caught up in the fact that we believe analyzing is the opposite of poetic. Not true. Voices are always evaluating their choices and analyzing their decisions. When did I see signs you weren’t mine? Why did I let you go?

We find it helpful to access events by finding the first event and then asking “newspaper style” questions:

  1. What is happening?
  2. To whom is it happening?
  3. Where is it happening? (Which can be different from “Where is the voice?”)
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?
  6. How is it happening?

Again, you will not be able to answer every question about every event in every poem. That’s not the point. The point is to explore them all and see what you find. Let’s take a look at this section from Maxwell Bodenheim’s poem “Thoughts While Walking”:

A steel hush freezes the trees.

It is my mind stretched to stiff lace,

And draped on high wide thoughts.

First event

  1. What is happening? Freezing
  2. To whom is it happening? Trees
  3. How is it happening? By a steel hush

Next event

  1. What is happening? Mind stretched
  2. To whom is it happening? The voice
  3. How is it happening? To lace – stretched so thin it now has holes in it

Next event

  1. What is happening? Mind draped
  2. To whom is it happening? The voice
  3. Where is it happening? On high, wide thoughts

Sometimes you will ask a question for which the poem has no answer. This is actually good; the more frequently you ask students those questions, the more they trust that this really is a process and will explore and play with language. In the event examples above, we intentionally left out “When is it happening” because there is no answer for that, and in the first two examples we can answer “how,” but not in the third. These inquiries also help detect figurative language when we get to our next step. In this poem, the event is the mind being stretched like lace and draped on deep thoughts, and it would be really gruesome if that were a literal, physical event. It is an intellectual event during which the voice is struggling to wrap his or her mind around some concepts that are lofty. What does all that mean? We don’t know yet. We haven’t gotten to that part. This is a great time to let your students start spinning some ideas, but they will want to jump right to the final layer: “The poem means_________.” It is not time to land on an interpretation yet. We’ve only just begun.

I: Interpret Techniques
. Note the title of this section is not “Interpret the poem.” Students will want to interpret the poem, but they don’t have all the information they need to make an informed declaration. Poetry isn’t just about what is happening to whom, but also how those events are shaped through literary devices and techniques, such as parallelism, rhyme, metaphor, and personification, that do more than sculpt pretty language. Merely finding them does little to enhance student understanding. Studying author’s craft in poetry allows students to move beyond being able to label a technique and into understanding the reasons techniques are used. Then, students can see how these elements contribute to the poem as a whole.

This is probably the least understood and most important layer. Techniques are like Easter eggs in movies, like how we had to go back and re-watch that entire season of Dr. Who to find the “Bad Wolf” in every episode. When you find the cool thing, you get excited. They are things that don’t always affect the plot at the moment, but they enhance the overall meaning. Continuing our television metaphor, the words of the poem are the plot and the script while the rhyme scheme, rhythm, and assonance are the lighting, costumes, and set dressing. Just as a camera angle directs audience attention to a certain actor, so techniques highlight where the poet wants the reader to pay attention. These are all the things in between the words that make the poetry.

When it comes to poetic technique, educators have talked about it with students since elementary school, so they will be familiar concepts. However, things get a little more challenging when we dive into helping students understand why a particular technique is used. The classroom conversation usually goes like this:

Instructor: Find the metaphor.

Student: There?

Instructor: Good job. Five points.

The question that rarely gets answered for the student is: Why did I find the metaphor? That question can be expanded to include: Why do I care about how long the stanzas are? Why do I care about alliteration? Why do I care about one piece of punctuation?

We’ve divided techniques into three different categories:

Figurative Language: What do we read?

Sound Devices: What do we hear?

Grammatical Devices: What do we see?

To make it easier for students to access, we post a chart with some of the big ones and then add to it as a class throughout the year as we study poetry. For example:


Figurative Language

Simile/Metaphor – compare things positively to intensify or help us relate to the unfamiliar

Personification – give human traits to something to help us empathize



Sound Devices

Rhyme scheme – words that rhyme help us anticipate and speed up the poem. Near or off rhymes do the opposite

Parallelism – long lists or similar structure can draw attention and intensify the importance of an image

Grammatical Devices

Capitalizations – noting where words are capitalized where they shouldn’t be or aren’t where they should be makes us question why

Word Order – when a poem starts sounding like Yoda because of an unusual word order. Unusual word order changes the rhythm of a line or emphasizes a word that isn’t usually highlighted.

Then, as we work through a poem, we ask students to answer three questions:

  1. What is the technique?
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis?
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically?

Let’s look at an example from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

  1. What is the technique? Simile – a simile compares the traits of two things positively using like or as. There are two similes in this stanza: “Bent double, like old beggars” and “coughing like hags.”
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis? A simile helps us relate to something more familiar or intensify something we might relate to so closely that it’s no longer powerful.
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically? “Bent double, like old beggars” When I think of bending over I generally go straight to looking for socks under the couch. Yes, I feel like I have a hard time straightening up sometimes, but this isn’t a hardship in my world. Students are even younger and can stand right up again after being bent double. But even those spry young people will get a feel for the weight of being bent like “old beggars,” and then it intensifies with “under sacks.” Sacks implies weighty things full of flour or wheat, and the heft of those sacks can be understood. Then we have “coughing like hags.” This isn’t a Delores Umbridge little throat-clear. This is the hacking of someone with a long-term lung disease, and most of your students will be able to think of someone in their lives who has a smoker’s cough and can come close to hearing this cough in their minds.

Let’s look at a grammatical device example from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” because these can be a little trickier:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

In this case we are going to talk about that pesky colon in the final stanza:

  1. What is the technique? That pesky colon in the final stanza.
  2. What does that technique do in language on a regular basis? “A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence” (“Colons”).
  3. What is that trait doing in this poem specifically? If its purpose is to “expand on the first sentence,” we can say that everything after the colon expands on the two lines preceding it. In other words, even though the rest of the poem indicates that the two paths he encountered that day were really the same, he’s going to tell this story in his old age and embellish it, as our grandparents are inclined to do, and say that he took the one less traveled by (even though neither really was less traveled) and it made all the difference in his life (even though it didn’t really).

That little colon will crush all the dreams of your American Lit students who were so excited to finally say the message of this poem is to “be yourself” when, in actuality, the message of this poem might be closer to: “old people embellish the truth.”


L: Look/Listen/Lesson. Ah, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. And the moment you will find your students wanting to jump to. They want to read a poem once and say, “This is the message.” It’s our job to help them use these layers to come to a supportable determination of what the final takeaway of any given poem is.

Contrary to popular student belief, not every poem means “be yourself,” “follow your dreams,” or “don’t let others tell you what to do.” In fact, sometimes a poem doesn’t teach a lesson at all. Sometimes the poet simply wants to freeze a moment in time and study it. “If I Had a Brontosaurus” communicated no great mysteries of life message. Silverstein is the master of freezing these moments of childhood and embracing their playfulness in a way that even adult readers can enjoy.

Sometimes a poet wants to embrace a singular sound and examine it more closely. Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky” does not have a deep meaning, but it does demonstrate how we can take language that we don’t understand and yet fully understand the events. Sometimes a poem like “Night Mail” by W.H. Auden works to embody the sounds of its subject:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,


Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

These first two stanzas feel like a train chugging along the track. When the train reaches the top of the hill and begins its descent, however:

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

Letters of joy from girl and boy,

Receipted bills and invitations

To inspect new stock or to visit relations,

The fact that these lines are closer together and start playing with internal rhyme (see how we used the information from a previous layer to justify our answer?) speeds up how we read this poem, which leads us to feel the train going faster and faster down the hill. The author wants us to hear the train while he discusses its cargo.

Once students are open to the fact that sometimes an author’s message isn’t a message, they can feel more confident using all the evidence they collected to come to a conclusion about the poem’s “Look” at a moment, its “Listen” of a sound technique, or its “Lesson.” The UnVEIL approach provides the scaffolding for this literary analysis through the V, E, and I layers so all of their evidence is there in the work they’ve already done.

Let’s walk through an abbreviated version of the whole process with this poem from Neil Hilborn’s “Fabric Swatches, Paint Samples”:

I will, in all my hereditary optimism,

try to be honest my dear, not just

about where I am and particularly

with whom, but also where I am in the vast,

melodramatic plane that is my feelings

and where I have placed you

and how exactly to cross

the Stupid Desert to find me.

There is quicksand in the Stupid

Desert that I call my exes—they don’t

hate you but, my darling, they also

do not know you, which is not to say

I don’t speak of you, because I do,

I do, to my therapist

who I fired, to the women

at bars and at work and

at Roller Derby bouts who confuse

me for an exit sign, darling,

I use you, yes, to feel secure or loved,

or like a tire wrapped in chains,

so let us say at least that I do not

use you abnormally. All of this

is to say that, should you move here

to live with me and the mental

disorders, I will not lie to you. The sea

is so wide and our boat is so small.

Voice – We have a younger, awkward adult with some mental disorders he’s trying to manage. At the same time, he is trying to love. Our evidence: We know this is a younger adult because he hasn’t settled down yet. He hangs out at bars and roller derby bouts where he goes largely unnoticed. We know he struggles with some mental disorders because he talks about his therapist. We also know he’s awkward because he uses images like “a tire wrapped in chains” and “The Stupid Desert” which are not your typical, warm and fuzzy images in love poetry. If we were to ask how this voice feels about what’s happening, we would easily get to: he is eager for success, but so afraid it won’t work out.

– using our newspaper question technique, we start at the top of the poem:

  1. What is happening? The voice will be honest
  2. To whom is it happening? My dear
  3. How is it happening? In optimism
  4. About what? Where I am, who I’m with, feelings, where I put you, how to cross the Stupid Desert

The fact that the last question is such a long list is something we note with students. You can hear the awkwardness as he rambles on. Awkward nerds who have mental disorders tend to be pretty afraid that the people who love them will eventually stop loving them. Deciding the right time to share which piece of oneself is terrifying and we get this from our poor voice. He’s warning “you” (a woman he loves) about how hard it will be for them to come together and be together, but he wants to try.

  1. What is happening? Voice – speaks of “you”
  2. To whom is it happening? fired therapist, women
  3. Where is it happening? at bars, at work, at Roller Derby
  4. When is it happening? Presumably all the time, because those locations pretty much sum up everywhere our voice is going to go

Perhaps when you looked at that poem, you arranged the events a little differently. That’s fine. Your students might do the same. The key isn’t to be perfect, the key is to build a scaffold where you can figure out what is happening here.

Interpret techniques
– “Stupid Desert” and wrapped like a “tire in chains” are both unusual images when it comes to love poetry. We’re already deep into wondering what these images mean when the voice says the way he loves is not “abnormally.” The fact that he has to say, “This is not abnormal” indicates it is entirely “abnormal” while at the same time asking “what is normal?” when it comes to love. These images are all designed to make the reader feel a little off-kilter, like the voice himself is.

– the message of this poem is encompassed in the last line: Love is a wide sea and their boat is so small. It is a difficult navigation, but he wants so desperately to try to make the journey with the woman he loves. Since the message is clarified in the last line, students may not have trouble guessing it. But push further by asking them, “How do you know?” and you’ll find they’re still guessing and struggling. The notes from the V, E, and I layers above give them the material they need to answer the deeper questions and feel confident in doing so.


Make the Teaching of Poetry Great Again
As we look back on why poetry fell out of our good graces so many years ago, it wasn’t because we lost our love for the art form, but because, as readers, we lost our ability to access it and just started guessing as to why we thought a poem meant what it did. We, as a culture of educators, stopped teaching it through a lens of author’s craft and how poets wove words into dense snippets of creative brilliance; it became a unit to “just get through.” That frustration has now trickled down from instructor to student for years.

All is not lost. Poetry is not irrelevant. We just need a new system to restore student confidence in the process. We encourage you to join us in lifting the VEIL on poetry so students can marvel at the beauty in words again.


Auden, W. H. Night mail. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from PoemHunter website:

Bodenheim, M. Thoughts while walking. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Bartleby website:

Colons. In Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

Dickinson, E. I heard a Fly buzz – when I died. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website:

Frost, R. The road not taken. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website:

Hilborn, N. (2015). Fabric swatches, paint samples. In Our numbered days (p. 12). Minneapolis: Button Poetry.

Owen, W. Dulce et decorum est. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from Poetry Foundation website:

Silverstein, S. If I had a brontosaurus. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from All Poetry website:

Skogen, D. H. (2004). Judith. In D. H. Skogen (Author), Langsyne (pp. 200-201). Madison: Layered.

Documentation as an English Language Arts Tool in a Project-Based Learning Environment

Megan Raether, Northern Lakes Regional Academy, raethermegan @


A sophomore student delicately hits the keys on the piano as she attempts to create music for the song she wrote in the poetry workshop. The sound of the drill and buzz saw vibrate through the open concept building as a group of freshmen and sophomore boys build a stage for the upcoming student showcase. A senior sits in front of my desk as she works on writing an analytical essay, and every so often she looks up to ask a question. I help a freshman proofread a short story he wrote for the school newsletter. In the room down the hall, a sophomore and senior take pictures of the biology project they started a month ago. A junior jumps from room to room proudly showing off a product she made on the 3D printer she fixed earlier that day.

To many, this might appear as mayhem or play, but underneath it all is a learning structure that helped me thrive when I was a charter school student at Wildlands School, and it’s doing the same for many of my students. Project-based learning (PBL) is becoming typical at Northern Lakes Regional Academy (NLRA), a public charter school in the Rice Lake School District, because it helps students truly understand the learning process. Through PBL and project documentation, young adults turn into lifelong learners because they have the skills to gain knowledge independently.

The school day is divided into a seminar, workshops, and project-based learning time:

  1. Seminars are similar to traditional teacher-led learning environments. Students don’t know how to approach some subjects, such as chemistry, so seminars provide them with skills they might not acquire on their own.
  2. Workshops can be led by teachers or students. Sometimes students will request a workshop on a certain subject simply out of interest. Those are my favorite workshops because I love that students are using their voices to tell us what they want. A few of the workshops are mandatory, but we try to keep most of them as electives. Students can opt-out of elective workshops to create more PBL time. While in a workshop, students learn a focused area of a subject. For example, I recently finished a workshop where I taught new students how to answer a timed writing prompt about a non-fiction article. We worked on different strategies such as organization, picking strong quotes, and citing the source. That workshop only met a few times. 
  3. During PBL time, students explore their interests and create their own projects while earning credit and meeting standards. The contrast between PBL and class projects is best described by Tweed and Seubert (2015), who explain that “The biggest difference between independent PBL and ‘just doing projects’ in a classroom environment is the goal setting and the personal ownership part of independent projects” (p. 88). Students must be in charge of the demonstrating their knowledge for PBL to work correctly. Projects range from learning how to plant in raised garden beds to writing murder mystery scripts. Freshmen and sophomore students often start with projects that create a foundation for larger and more elaborate projects. Most, if not all, PBL projects are interdisciplinary, so students must use Project Foundry to search for learning targets in many different subjects when creating a proposal: 

search.pngHow students search for and select learning targets on Project Foundry

Freshman and sophomore students will often ask me for help when deciding what targets fit their project, but as they mature, they learn how to pick targets accurately. These project show students that they are capable of learning on their own and inspire them to be lifelong learners. Instructors simply make sure that their students are reaching their goals and to help with blocks occurring during the process.

Project-Based Learning and Reaching ELA Targets
As an ELA instructor, I’m often asked how I make sure that each student is reaching English targets. Stakeholders want to know how our school incorporates ELA when one student is using Solidworks to create his own fishing lures, while another is learning how to laser engrave wood to make homemade test tube holders. My colleagues and I decided that the best way to keep students accountable and to help them reach English targets through all projects was to teach them how to document the learning process. The learning targets specific to ELA in almost all projects are “I will be able to write over an extended amount of time to share and reflect on ideas,” and “I will be able to write to reflect on projects, activities, or assessments.”


targets.pngTargets commonly reached through documentation

For example, one student is using Udemy to learn lofting and, in the process, makes entries about the experience in a Google Site. For example, in one entry she explains lofting to the reader and expresses some difficulty with the process. This documentation can be helpful to other students that might want to use it as a guide, or it can help her remember what to do if the same thing happens again. She deserves to earn the reflection target for creating these helpful reminders:



Before the current school year started, I made a handout for students to reference independently (Appendix A) that demonstrates the documentation process. Their documentation does not need to match the model, but the main elements should be included. In this way, students can take ownership of using their resources. As they complete more projects, their need for the handout should lessen.

Proposing and Documenting Projects
Before students start documenting, they must create a proposal on the Project Foundry website. An instructor reviews the information, including anticipated learning targets, to make sure that it fits the student’s learning plan. Once the project is approved, students can use Google Sites, WEVideo, or another approved format to document their project.

The documentation process is divided into three sections: opening, entries, and closing. In the opening section, students provide their name, project title, driving questions, and a description of what they hope to create as the final product. A freshman student working on an animation project wrote that “My project will include OpenToonz (free software), time, voice actors, and time and practice and time. It relates to my life because I have always wanted to make an animation, this is where I will start.” He continues, “I will create and complete about 3 minute animation.” By writing the proposal, students reflect on what the project will require. This student kept listing “time” because he had gathered enough background knowledge to know that this would consume many of his PBL periods. Sometimes students never reach the final product for various reasons such as time constraint, but that does not necessarily result in zero credit. As long as they prove that they learned throughout the journey, they can hit learning targets. NLRA uses a standards-based grading system so that each learning target can be assessed independently.

The next step is to create entries at least once a week. Nilson (2013) explains the benefit of weekly journaling by stating, “Writing weekly entries in a learning journal helps students develop the good habit of pausing and taking stock of their learning, any affective changes they have experienced, and their self-regulated learning skills” (p. 75). They have the option to voice their entries using a resource such as Audacity or simply by typing. The beginning of the entry starts with the date and an optional title. Successful entries include pictures, videos, or descriptions of what was accomplished since the last entry. Students then discuss what was successful and what needs improvement before moving to the next step of the project. For example, the student working on the animation project created this entry:


This shows that he took the time to look at the picture and think about what could be improved. If he doesn’t make a vanishing point this time, it can be something he keeps in mind for the future. Knowing that he should have remembered to create more vanishing points can prompt him to do it the second time around to create a more polished product.

Mistakes are never final because we at NLRA encourage prototyping. If students learn that grades are final, they have no incentive to improve. The learning process is more important than the final product because we want to create independent learners. Documenting allows students to critically think about what is happening and spot patterns so that the same errors are not continuous. Tweed and Seubert (2015) argue that “If the student can become his or her own best critic, know how to check for accuracy and quality, and have an ethic of getting things done right–even if they have to be done over–then we are on the right track” (p. 57). Instructors at NLRA want to help students learn how to push themselves to do better. Teaching students how to become their own critics will help them create better products.

The entries also include how much time is spent on each step. This is important for instructors and other students to see because the effort placed in a project is sometimes hard to understand. For example, the student animator created a storyboard that was only for a short section of the animation project. It would not seem complicated, but after viewing the documentation it can be seen that the student spent a lot of time on it.



Since the time is logged on Project Foundry, and he explained why it was best not to continue with this step, we see that he is making the right decision. It also lets instructors know that even though it isn’t something that will be useful, that step is still deserving of time counted towards the project. Just writing about the experience in the documentation will give him learning targets for reflection. He learned how to create characters, write storylines, and other ELA skills. The art skills that he already now grow through this project, so we will check off learning targets while the student is being creative and doing the types of things that he loves.



This project might not be complete by the end of the school year since many hours go into the steps, but having an incomplete project does not mean that it is a failed project. He will receive credit for what he finishes because he still demonstrated that he knew certain skills. For every 10 hours students spend productively, they will receive .01 credits in the subject area they were working on during those hours. If the student spends 10 hours working on creating characters and writing storylines, he will receive .01 credits in English 9-10. One credit he will receive for this project is, “I will be able to effectively complete a creative writing workshop or similar experience.” If the student also spends 30 hours drawing and animating the story, he will receive .03 credits in core electives. Some of the core elective credits include, “I will be able to create animations utilizing animation software,” and, “I will be able to organize files and materials in order to be able to easily complete projects.” To me, this is an impressive project even if the ending is not seen before summer.


How Can These Projects Fail?
Projects fail only when the students neither learned nor enhanced their skills. There are a few ways that we can spot a failing project. One way is to look at the driving questions. If the questions can be answered easily by an internet search, we know that they will not dive deeply into the learning process. This is proof that the plan is not complex enough. To help, I will ask if they can make the project bigger or if there is a way to put their own spin on the final product.

Another way a failing project can be spotted is to look at students’ past projects and their completed learning targets. If they have already proven expertise in the area, they will not learn anything. This can be difficult because students love to return to projects that they enjoyed. Instructors do not want to suppress their passion, but we cannot have them repeat the same lesson without hope for growth. At that point, instructors need to push them to look at the subject from a different angle. Maybe a different area they can explore still fits their passion. For example, a student who loves to write is now in charge of creating a book that highlights art and texts created by peers. This will help her stay in the writing world that she loves but pushes her to do more related to editing, layout, and marketing since she has already proven that she knows the creative writing process. As a junior, she did not need to be pushed to find a different angle; she did it on her own.

Projects also fail if students lose interest shortly after starting, which will be noticeable because they will not put in the effort to correct mistakes or document the project. If they have been reluctantly working on a project for three weeks, I will go into the documentation and look at what has been completed. If the documentation is blank or has only a title page, we will see it as a failure and help the students move toward projects they can love. Students should feel passion when they approach PBL because if they are excited they will learn to associate the learning process with those positive emotions. Those feelings are the first steps to creating lifelong learners.

Completing Projects and Entries
After logging time, students end the entry with an outline of what they would like to accomplish next. The outline reminds them of their goals and allows them to create new goals as the project progresses. They do not need to complete the entire goal-making process alone, for staff often check-in to help mentees create new goals and assess past goals. During mentor meetings, one or two of the goals might relate to independent learning, but they can also be about workshops and seminars. Every so often, I will do an informal goal check-in with my mentees at the end of project-based learning time. I will ask them what they accomplished that day and what should be done next.

When the project is complete and all the entries are finished, students can begin the closing section of the documentation. During the last step, they take a picture of the final product and write a list of used materials. After those simple tasks are finished, they reflect on the process. The handout lists questions such as

  1. What challenges did you encounter
  2. What skills did you need to finish this project
  3. How did your project answer the driving question(s)?

I ask students to find evidence for each question they answer. Asking for evidence ensures that they take their time while reading the entries. This is an attempt to break away from a “learn it and burn it” mindset. Nilson (2013) advised that instructors “Focus on whether your students actually devised and followed a problem-solving process, how they went about defining the problem, what information they did and did not consider relevant, how they determined the quality of the outside sources (in PBL) and how they evaluated and ranked possible solutions” (p. 50). When going through the documentation with a student, adding a question such as “how did you determine the quality of your sources” can help you understand the process students went through while working on the project. It is important to make sure that students understand the learning process and can explain it to others. When they understand the learning process, they can become independent learners. Knowing the material is only the first step. They need to be encouraged to recognize the learning process and know what steps make a successful learning experience.

Project Foundry is used to evaluate the learning targets that students worked toward. If they successfully showed their knowledge of a target, they receive a five out of five (similar to an A). If they did not reach at least a three (C), they do not receive the learning target. How we evaluate work is the same as other teachers. We are careful about giving learning targets because we want to make sure that students learn each skill. If they check off the target with a two, then they will leave school without truly understanding that skill. Some students will ask fellow students or a staff member to edit their work so that they can receive targets for grammar and other writing skills. If students receive an unsatisfactory score, they can make improvements to earn a higher score. When they are willing to improve and learn, we want to reward that mindset.

While working on PBL projects, I have noticed that my students enjoy taking the lead. If I start to do something for them, they will say something like, “Don’t hijack my project.” They recognize when they are no longer in charge of their own learning and they wish to reclaim ownership. It fills me with joy to see them move into independence. During teacher-led workshops, when I present students with an idea they will start to propose their own questions and ideas. They have learned how to ask questions, which has taught them to look for more meaning. When they reflect on their own learning, I notice that they are honest about the experience. On a reflection about a goal, a student might write something like, “I didn’t reach this goal.” To follow up, I will ask, “Why not?” and often the answer is, “because I was distracted.” This allows me to help make a plan for not getting distracted the next day. The plan might include not sitting next to friends or near a window. If that student had not reflected on that learning, I would not have stepped in. Together, we strengthen their independent learning skills.

Another great thing that has come out of having students reflect on their own learning is that presentations are stronger. They easily walk through the different steps because they can look back at each one before giving the presentation. They can articulate what went well and what needed to be improved because they have already spent the time thinking about those things. When classmates or community members ask questions, those who reflected on their learning create answers in moments. They know their projects well and are confident when explaining different elements. They were mainly independent throughout the process, and now they can proudly show off their hard work. The reflections turn students into specialists.

ELA plays a key role at NLRA, and I believe that those skills will be strengthened by the documentation of independent projects. ELA doesn’t end with these projects, though. We also have daily SSR time. Students read at least six books a year and complete an analytical project about each text. Twice a year students in every grade write a research paper. They regularly write paragraphs or complete handouts about articles they read about a wide range of topics. NLRA also has a newsletter and slam poetry team.

Although this is our first year trying this type of documentation, I can already see the benefits. Through the process of documenting, students acquire summarizing and reflecting skills. With the help of instructors or on their own, they explain connections amongst their entries. Many will present their finished work and documentation during the whole school morning meeting or at a public showcase, which polishes their public speaking skills. Instructors get a realistic sense of the time and dedication students place in their work. Documentation is an excellent tool for any nontraditional instructor looking to add accountability or English skills to their lessons. When students are accountable for their learning and know the learning process, they become independent.


Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Tweed, P., & Seubert, L. (2015). An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach & Students Learn. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.


Appendix A. Documentation Requirements
All projects (group or individual) must be documented throughout the duration of the project. Projects that are not properly documented will result in credit reduction or no credit. Documenting projects will help you, classmates, and instructors see your process; the process is often more important than the final product. Documentation should be done at least once a week.

Pick a format for documenting your work. Documentation can be done through WEVideo, a physical photo journal, Google Site, or other approved format. The reflections can be written or voiced.


The opening needs to include these basic descriptions:

______ Name (your name and the names of any group members)

______ Name of your project

______ Driving question(s)

______ Explain what you hope the final product will be for this project.


There should be an entry at least once a week during the duration of your project. Each entry is required to have the following items:

______ Date of entry. An optional title can go with the date.

______ Pictures that show what you worked on that day or a video showing the process, if that is not possible then write a few sentences that explain in detail what you completed.

______ Explain what went well and what needs to be improved at this point. Make sure that you explain how that result (good or bad) occurred and what you learned from it.

______ Document how much time you spent working on this phase of the project.

______ Provide a clear outline of what you would like to accomplish next.


At the end of your documentation entries, you will need to answer the following reflection questions. The answers can be voiced (Audacity), typed, or expressed in a different approved format.

______ A picture or video of the final product.

______ A list of materials used during the project.

______ Look back at the document, what did you learn along the way? What challenges did you encounter? What skills did you need to finish this project?

______ How did your project answer the driving question(s)?

______ List which of the 7 C’s (collaboration, creativity, citizenship, commitment, curiosity, critical thinking, communication) were most important to this project (at least two) and briefly explain how those C’s were demonstrated.

______ Explain what you would do differently next time and/or explain how this project will grow and be used in future projects.

This is just a simple example to show you the basic outline of documenting. Your documentation will be more detailed and include more entries. Projects being documented should be on a larger scale than this example project:

Project Title: Art Layering

Driving Questions: How can I learn how to include layering in my artwork? How will my artwork improve by the addition of layering?

Final Product: I’m hoping that my final project will be a hand created picture that includes recognizable layering.



August 22nd, 2017 – Pinterest and a pencil

On the first day, I decided to use Pinterest as a tool to look for examples on how to create layering in artwork. I found a post by Art Projects for Kids titled “Van Gogh’s Wheat Field” that looked helpful. I clicked on the link and used the example that was provided on the Art Projects for Kids website to draw the basic outline of the picture with a pencil. It was easy for me to find a layering project on Pinterest because there are many art resources on that site. I had some difficulty drawing the horizon because I’m not always the best at drawing a straight line. Next time I will use a ruler to make the line look professional. I spent about five minutes on those two phases of this project. Tomorrow I will work on adding color to the outline of my picture. If I have time, I would also like to add the wheat and crow details to the picture.


August 23rd, 2017 – Colored pencils or crayons?


Today I added color to my outline. It started by conducting a simple experiment to find out which type of material I should use to color the picture. First, I gathered colored pencils and crayons. I knew that I would have to color brown over yellow in the picture, so I tried it out with both materials. I liked the way that crayon looked best because it blended better. The colored pencils created a sharp look to the colors. Using crayons, I colored in the outlined items in the picture. This step took about 5 minutes to complete. Tomorrow, I will add the brown lines over the yellow to create the appearance of wheat in the distance. I will also draw crows.


August 24th, 2017 – Wa-lah!


This was my final day working on the picture. To end the project, I used brown crayons to add lines that would look like wheat in the distance. Over the blue crayon I drew wide v’s to appear like flying crows. Around the moon, I outlined it thickly with white in an attempt to make it look like the moon was glowing. This step of the process did not go as expected because the extra white around the moon was hardly visible. If I do this project again, I will consider using paint instead of crayons because that would make it easier to add color on top of other colors. This part took about 5 minutes. Tomorrow I will start the closing section of my documentation.


Final Product


Materials: Paper, colored pencils (for a test), crayons, pencil, and Pinterest

Along the way, I learned that I prefer crayons over colored pencils, but that I should have also tried to use paint. Using paint might have allowed me to layer colors with ease. A minor thing I learned is that when drawing lines I should use a ruler or else they will appear crooked. In order to complete this project, I needed to have patience because art looks sloppy if you don’t take your time.

My layer picture project helped me answer the driving questions: How can I learn how to include layering in my artwork and how will my artwork improve by the addition of layering? I learned that Pinterest is a great tool for learning how to complete layering projects. The website offers many step-by-step tutorials. My artwork improved because now I’m able to include layers within my artwork. The layers make the picture a little more realistic and gives the viewer more to look at. Before doing this project, I would have just had the yellow block of color instead of adding the brown lines for more detail.

The two C’s that I worked hardest on during this project were creativity and critical thinking. I demonstrated creativity by working on an art technique that I hadn’t used before. Creativity was also showcased because I’m not an artist but I pushed myself to try drawing freehand. Critical thinking was demonstrated when I used a simple experiment to decide what type of material I would use to color the picture. I could have randomly picked a coloring material, but instead I tested both out to see which would have the best look for the project.

This project was a great beginning to other art projects. I learned that I enjoy being creative, so I will continue by adding different art techniques to my layering technique. First, I would like to do another layering project with paints to practice this new skill.


Barbro, K. (2014, September 28). Van Gogh’s Wheat Field. Retrieved August 24, 2017, from