Student-Led Literature Circles in an Interdisciplinary High School Classroom

Erin Jensen, Rock University High School, erinjensen @


We all know that it can be difficult to inspire students to read. More than ever, they need a particular set of questions answered before they face the task: Why should I? How does this help me? How does this apply to me? Is it worth it? These questions are difficult to answer:

Student: “Why should I read this?”

Teacher: “It’s a wonderful book, and it checks the boxes of state and national English standards!”
Student: “How does this help me?”

Teacher: “You’re reading! The mind is a muscle that needs to be exercised, so your mind will function better if you read. PLEASE READ!”
Student “How does this apply to me?”

Teacher: “Well, the character’s a kid, you were once a kid, and he’s going through this life-changing moment. But I want you to find a connection to the story, find what it means to you.”


Student: “Is it worth it?”

Teacher: “Of course it is, but I want you to determine that worth.”


Students do read. However, their daily reading often consists of skimming social media, picking and choosing what posts and articles to dive into. [Fun fact: If you were born starting around 1982, then social media platforms were most likely a significant part of your adolescence, starting with electronic bulletin board systems migrating to the Internet by way of Compuserve and AOL in the mid-1990s (Fuchs, 2014)]. Despite all this reading, high school students who regularly spend time on social media also earn lower reading scores than those who do not (Posso, 2016). According to Wisconsin Literacy, Inc. (2018), 1.5 million adults in the state qualify for literacy services. For students enrolled in public schools, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (2017) focuses on ACT Reading Scores when assessing literacy levels, currently averaging at 19.2, which is below the 20.1 national level. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2018), a true study focusing on literacy in Wisconsin was last conducted more than a decade ago, in 2003. The “below average” numbers and minimal research into literacy mean that educators cannot simply be passive about the number of students who shun assigned readings.

So, how do we inspire them to read more than just social media posts? There has yet to be a map showing us the right path to take, but I have found that allowing students more choice when it comes to assigned reading is a step in the right direction.

Student choice is not new. Allowing them to determine how to present evidence of their learning has been encouraged over the last few years (Patall, Cooper, & Wynn, 2010). However, the push for this individualized approach has not been felt in the area of reading, for assessing ability and comprehension allows for little creativity. Reading, although a complex cognitive process, has become an involuntary activity of recognizing symbols and determining their meaning and, in school, repeating that rote exercise via a series of questions (Gallagher, 2009). As students learn to read, there is an excitement of acquiring a new skill, but as they continue to read, it becomes a task or chore. To get that excitement back, we need to give them more say in what they read and how they show us that they did.

Rock University High School (RUHS) caters to students who want a smaller environment to harness their postsecondary futures through interdisciplinary, subject-integrated classrooms in school and practical applicability outside of school. Also, as a charter school housed in a technical college, reading literature, though happens to be a point of contention: “I’m going to be a nuclear technician, so why do I have to read Catch-22.” Therefore, within my interdisciplinary Social Studies and English courses, I’m honest and say that literature doesn’t seem to fit neatly on their career paths, but the themes within the book and skills used to understand the book do fit. My first semester teaching this course taught me quite a bit about student engagement and success in the units tied to novels: both engagement and success decrease. Before the second semester, I decided that I would do some research to find more books that fit the literature and English standards, since we read three to four novels plus supplemental materials through the year. After locating these titles, I would have students vote on which most interested them. In some cases, I used their responses to schedule books for the semester or to pick literature circle groups (Daniels, 2002). Surprise! Although this “majority rule” method still made some students feel less than elated with the final selection, the second semester went much more smoothly than the first.

The most successful reading unit involved literature circles focusing on both fiction and non-fiction texts contextualizing World War II. Although it is important to find an array of books that meet district, state, and national standards, this is where I still have some control. I selected five books: Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Zusak’s The Book Thief, Spiegelman’s Maus, Heller’s Catch-22, and Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Of course, funding for that many sets can get expensive; however, because literature circles should not include more than six students, I needed fewer copies (Daniels, 2002).

First, I asked the students to rank the books on a scale of 1 (most likely to read) to five (least likely to read) based solely on description because many may otherwise opt for only one specific book or because a particular book may be too simple or difficult for some without their realizing it. Knowing second and third choices allows me to please everyone as best as I can.

After the students rated the books, I grouped them into literature circles (essentially, the survey groups them, I simply share the results). If we have an overwhelming number in one particular group, I ask students if they would mind reading their second or third choice.

Next, I made a timeline establishing deadlines for readings and journal assignments based on their role: connector, artist, discussion director, literary luminary, and researcher. Each student in the group is to play each role once in order to branch out and try new ways of connecting to the novel.

I usually keep reading journals prompts open ended. I want them to write their reactions, their questions, their predictions, and their connections, and I try to remind them to record page numbers in each entry in order to help with literary analysis later. At the bottom of the journal entry, there are interpretive big questions for them to think about as they read, focusing on major events, characters, and authorial choice. They can refer to these questions in their journals, but they’re not required to answer them independently. Instead, the questions are to be completed when they meet with their groups (see Appendix B for the timeline and prompts specific to The Book Thief).

When the literature circles come together, they are to discuss their role, share their journal entries, and try to answer some of the big questions. Since my class is an interdisciplinary, dual credit course, the readings go along with a historical theme. This unit focuses on Total War, which covers the many conflicts involving the United States, specifically those historically know as wars: Revolutionary, Civil, World Wars, Vietnam, and the current War on Terror. This course does not have a text book, so students use a multitude of different online resources. Primary sources were mostly retrieved from the Presidential Libraries and the Library of Congress databases. Secondary and tertiary sources come from BadgerLink Explora, Britannica online, and media resources such as the BBC, CNN, and the New York Times. From defining what conflict and war are, to reading perspectives from both the anti- and pro-war movements, students get a better understanding of why conflicts and wars happen and their significance in United States history. Sequencing should allow one to two class periods or fifty minutes a week on literature circles, while the rest of the week should focus on target objectives.

Toward the end of the novels, I introduce the final project, which includes both a literary analysis based on the big questions and a creative element to be completed independently (see Appendix B). This individual work places all accountability on each student and reinforces the objective that each student must make connections and interpretations autonomously.

This unit had one of my highest success rates with over 90% of the class completing their literature circle work, journals, and both portions of the project, so I applied this strategy to other lessons as well. Allowing students to choose the books also invalidated the excuse “I didn’t want to read that book anyway.” Yes, students could potentially change this excuse into “I realized that I did not really like the book”; nevertheless, there was a bit more accountability on the students’ part. Choice empowered many to read and do the work.

Again, literature circles are not new, but at RUHS, where we are trying to help students forge a career path, we need to find ways to show them how reading fits in. Literature circles focus on active reading and on the skills and the collaboration needed to understand what is being read. They strengthen their written communication skills and they get to express themselves creatively. I believe literature circles are effective ways to empower students to read.

Students can read, and students want to read, but it is crucial that we find ways to inspire them. Choice answers their prerequisite questions. Choice engages. Choice holds students accountable, and choice gets them reading.

ACT data and results. (2017). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: A critical introduction. London: Sage.

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Literacy statistics. (2018). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from

Posso, A. (2016). Internet usage and educational outcomes among 15-year-old Australian students. International Journal of Communication, 10, 3851-3876. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database. (Accession No. 127361840)

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896-915.

What is NAAL? (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from National Assessment of Adult Literacy website:


Appendix A. The Book Thief Timeline and Journal Prompts
As you read, you will be responsible for thoughtfully keeping a journal and answering discussion questions.

May 11 Introduction
DUE DATE Part/Chapter Pages Journals
May 12 Prologue, Part One & Part Two 1-122 2 Entries
May 17 Part Three & Four 123-170 2 Entries
May 18 Part Five 239-303 1 Entry
May 19 Part Six 305-350 1 Entry
May 24 Part Seven & Eight 351-455 2 Entries
May 25 Part Nine, Ten, & Epilogue 457-550 3 Entries
May26 (no school)
May 31st Final Group Project Completion

Big Questions (by the end of the book you will be able to answer these questions thoughtfully):

  1. What was the author’s purpose for choosing Death as a narrator? Is this a trustworthy narrator? How does Death see what a human narrator might not?
  2. Knowing that Liesel is called a “thief,” how does the book complicate our ideas of justice and judgment? Which characters do you view as just or unjust or as brave or cowardly, and why? Which events or details most color your perceptions of these characters?
  3. What choices do characters make about groups they will belong to? What groups do they belong to without choice? What are the consequences?
  4. Discuss Liesel’s friendship with Rudy. Does she love him in the way he loves her, or is it a child’s love? Do you think he reminds her of her brother?
  5. Zusak’s books often portray characters with a tendency to fight—including Max and Liesel. Is a child who fights more forgivable that an adult who fights? Why?
  6. From Hans to Liesel to the mayor’s wife, discuss how some of the characters in The Book Thief deal with their past. Discuss themes of memory and punishment.
  7. Is Hans Hubermann courageous? How does he show courage, or lack of courage?
  8. Name some acts of resistance in the book, from large to small. What does the author intend by including these acts?
  9. Who has power in this book? How does Liesel gain power, and how does Max? Toward the end of the novel, Liesel remarks that words give power. How so?
  10. Discuss the meaning of Max painting over Mein Kampf. What is he able to express through this action that he cannot convey in person?


Daily Chapter Assignments. For every chapter assignment you will pose three discussion questions and write journal entries.

Questions: All questions need to be open ended (unless you have a follow-up question or would like an explanation). These questions are to be discussed in your lit circle, and you are to write down your and your peers’ answers.

Journal Entries: The following are examples of journal entries (try to mix it up every entry!) Journals do not need to shared with lit circles:

  1. Write thoughts that are going through your head as you read the novel.
  2. Note times when your reading changes:a. You see something you didn’t see before.
    b. You recognize a pattern–the images start to overlap, gestures or phrases recur, some details seem associated with each other.
    c. The story seems to be about something different from what you thought.
    d. You discover that you were misreading.
    e. You realize that the writer has introduced a new context or new perspective.
    f. You see new vocabulary, especially new words repeated throughout (the Merriam-Webster app is very useful, and its voice search feature handy).
  3. Note times when you are surprised or puzzled:a. Something just doesn’t fit.
    b. Things don’t make sense—pose explicitly the question or problem that occurs to you.
  4. Note details that seem important and that make you look again.
  5. Note times when you relate to a character. What is relatable, what do you two share, how are you different?
  6. Note ways in which the story makes you speculate about real life or a connection to another text or even another academic discipline.
  7. Note your first impression of the ending–what “ended”? (How many times have you read a short story or a novel only to find yourself really confused about the ending?)
  8. Note rhetorical/stylistic devices (diction, syntax, figurative language, tone, imagery) that you recognize–how do they contribute to your reading of the text?
  9. Check for hyperbole, such as when is a character (or the author) is exaggerating or over-reacting. What makes it hyperbolic? How would you have written that passage?
  10. What is the relationship of a sentence, passage, or chapter to the entire reading?
  11. What is the function of the passages that don’t carry plot function?
  12. Make a claim about a chapter. Support it with details.
  13. As part of re-reading, what is the function of a chapter to the whole novel?
  14. Find several details in a passage and explain their functions.
  15. Explain where you feel the author has used symbolism.
  16. How would you draw (or re-draw) a scene that you thought was interesting or would be better illustrated?
  17. Find some complexities in a passage and explain their functions.
  18. Activity for Integrated Citation: “Says/Does Analysis”

Short Quote → What does it mean? → What is its function or purpose?


Appendix B. Final Creative Project
You will create a project that demonstrates your engagement with and understanding of the text. Productive projects combine imagination and intellect and are multi‐faceted and multi‐layered. They are serious and academic as well as creative and inventive and should be viewed as a chance to demonstrate the final product of all your classroom and individual efforts.

Your presentation should demonstrate critical reflection on and interpretation of your chosen novel. You might consider exploring a theme, image, or character, or you might think about the effect of some literary aspect of the novel. Whatever you choose, you should be able to articulate a meaningful connection between your project and the book. Be creative and express your own unique point of view!
Some Ideas
Art. Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, Mixed Media

Music or Drama Composition. CD compilation, musical/song performance, mini opera or musical play or sketch performance, create costumes and dress as you think the characters in your novel did

Web. Podcast, website, blog, interactive map (flash)

Creative Writing. Poetry collection, travel diary, or reading journal children’s book graphic novel/comic

Academic Writing. Speech, essay, print journalism, interview magazine article newspaper, travel guide, yearbook

Broadcast Journalism. Investigative interview or profile, news broadcast, movies, tv, radio or tv talk show, scene from a film or radio program

Other. Recreate a battle or scene, diaspora project, illustrated family tree puzzle, diagram research project

Project Proposal Due May 19

  1. Book Title
  2. Group (name group members) or Individual Project?
  3. Type of Project
  4. Project Title
  5. Project abstract (50‐100 word description of the project and how it relates to your lit circle book)
  6. If you have a group/partnership, who will do what? Describe the role each group member will play.


Corner Rock–The Phoenix of Park Falls: A Social Justice Action Venture for Project-Based Learners

Paula A. Zwicke, Class ACT Charter School, pzwicke @


Chitter-chattering as they swing open the glass door, skateboards under arms, and backpacks strapped tight, Jason and Paul quickly greet Sam and Emily with high-fives.

“Hey, whatssup!” Jason and Paul say, nearly simultaneously as they slide into the booth with Sam and Emily, backpacks ditched to the floor in a heap next to the seats.

“We’re just having a Pepsi while we wait for our Littles to get here,” says Emily. “Littles” are Hannah and Josiah, two 8th graders that Sam and Emily tutor in math and reading for 30 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday. Once they finish their session, Sam and Emily treat their Littles to a quick game of checkers and a vanilla ice cream cone from the soft-serve dispenser.

“Cool,” says Jason. “We’re poppin’ in on our way home from school for some foosball and a Mountain Dew. Zek and Brian should be here any minute.” These four boys, regulars at The Phoenix, spend hours each week playing foosball and organizing tournaments for high schoolers and community members as club fundraisers. Part of the group responsible for re-inventing the old Corner Rock Boys’ and Girls’ Club, they furiously protect this much-needed hangout for all their fellow high schoolers, right down to scrubbing the toilets.

They aren’t alone. Next to the booth, Mandy and Jasmine sit on the couch with a hodgepodge of cardboard signs, wide-ruled paper filled with notes, and open computers. “What do ya think about hiring Jason Fish to DJ the Dance-athon?” asks Mandy as she grabs a red marker from the plastic coffee can serving as a bucket.

“Absolutely,” exclaims Jasmine. “If he’s booked already, we could try John Benetti, the guy who did my brother’s wedding. He just lives across the river. Had really cool music, too.”

“Yeah. Good idea. I’ll call Fish first then Mr. Benetti if I have to. Let’s hurry up with these posters, so we can join the kids in the back building Pompeii. Well, not literally. I guess Mrs. Channing just got back from Italy, and she got to walk on the ancient streets of Pompeii. Can you imagine? She’s helpin’ a group with their model and answering questions about it.”

“Hey look,” says Jasmine. “The BART bus just pulled up to drop off some kids. I wonder if they’re here for the Pompeii model or maybe they’re joinin’ the kids headed out to Wintergreen Park for a hike.” To be continued…


Rise of the Phoenix: Introduction
The Chequamegon School District in northern Wisconsin, consolidated in 2009 (the former Park Falls and Glidden districts), joins two communities located 20 miles apart, in two different counties, and with the Butternut School District right in the middle. Our buses travel through the Butternut district when they go between the Park Falls and Glidden campuses. The Glidden campus has K-3 and middle school (6-8), and the Park Falls campus has 4YK-5, the high school, and Class ACT Charter School. Park Falls and Glidden are small rural communities, with Glidden being the more northerly of the two. Immersed in 858,000 acres of public forest land, hundreds of lakes and waterways, and other recreational opportunities, Park Falls and Glidden are sparsely populated areas of the beautiful Northwoods, with State Highway 13 joining southern Wisconsin to northern Wisconsin and dividing these two communities in half. Park Falls boasts that it has just two stop lights, which arrived only a decade ago. Both communities rely mainly on tourism, although there are local manufacturing and medical facilities, the school district, and many service-focused employers. According to the U. S. Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year Estimates and Community Facts, Park Falls has an estimated population of 4,056, while Glidden has 494. There are also many smaller communities in outlying areas whose children attend Chequamegon, making bus rides and family transportation sometimes as much as 45 minutes one way.

According to this same survey, the median age in Park Falls is 52.9 with 89% of its residents having received a high school diploma, while Glidden’s median age is 45.5, 84% of whom are high school graduates. The median income for Park Falls is reported to be $41,504 with 14.9% of the population below the poverty level, while Glidden’s median income is $31,000 with 10.7% of the population below the poverty level. Specific to families with children under 18, the U. S. Census reports that 23.5% of Park Falls families live below the poverty line, and for those households headed by females alone, 34.5% live in poverty while raising children. For Glidden families with children under 18, the U. S. Census Bureau reports that 21.1% of all families live below the poverty line, and for those households headed by females alone, 35.3% live in poverty. This means that, while being predominantly middle-aged communities, about one-fourth of both communities’ families served by our District (Park Falls 23.4% and Glidden 21.1%) live below the federal poverty line. Also, about one-third of these Park Falls below-poverty families are headed by women alone, also raising children. The same is true of Glidden. This is a significant number of families with limited resources who live in communities with limited resources because of both geography and low income. In the end, these families rely heavily on the school district (and by extension the community) to provide social-emotional and academic support for their children, such as safe gathering places.

Purpose and Importance
While my research did not include current support our communities offer these families, I will, however, focus this action project on the adolescents of these marginalized families and participation in their community (Witt, 2017). In addition, through Freirian-style dialoguing, this project will educate citizens and students in marginalization factors such as stereotypes and lack of awareness of unwelcoming actions toward teenagers and the teenagers’ unawareness of the ramifications of their unwelcome public behavior (Freire, Ramos, & Macedo, 2016).

Engaging Class ACT students in this project will take them “outside of the classroom and into activist spaces … to engage their immediate needs for social change through political action that is not regulated by school-based interests” (Bishop, 2017, p. 377). It will explore, for community members and officials as well as student-learners, a destructive contradiction prevalent in our communities: “All our young people leave after graduation and never return. How can we get them to come back or to stay?” The adolescents say, “There are no places to hang out. This town is boring, and they don’t like us. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

According to Freire’s emancipatory pedagogy, teaching and learning are relevant, critical, and transformative so that learners are empowered to overcome irrationality, domination, and oppression. To do this, teachers implement an inquiry-based (problem-focused) approach to learning that engages learners in their world and incorporates their lived experiences in such a way that they have the courage to “change the social order” (McLaren, 2017, p. 72). In addition, teachers not only treat difference as human variation, as Anderson (2017) suggests, but they also call upon the learners to draw from their lived experiences in order to address diverse perspectives in solving problems or attacking oppression and domination (p. 479). In the end, learners are creative, innovative people who collectively challenge dominant culture rather than mindlessly follow the status quo of “churn[ed] out workers” (McLaren, 2017, p. 69).

Applied to this particular project, students will create a problem-posing question similar to this one, which will drive their work: How can we [the adolescents and Class ACT] create a collaborative plan with the City of Park Falls and its community to open a boys and girls club similar to The Corner Rock, which will improve the relationships between adults and teenagers while also giving kids a safe place to hang out?


Research and Methodology
The narrative opening this paper illustrates the activities and conversations guests might observe after just a few minutes in The Phoenix. To make these images a reality, a team of Class ACT learners will begin dialoging about their personal experiences:

–how they use their free time;

–where they go to socialize;
–whether they “hung out” at The Corner Rock or another boys and girls club and what they liked or disliked about it;
–conflicts with law enforcement, business owners, or residents;
–criminal activity such as loitering, curfew violations, skateboarding on sidewalks, or destruction of property;
–how they define civic responsibility, social justice, equality and inequality;
–critical awareness as it relates to the responsibility citizens have to work together for the benefit of all groups of people; and
–any other concerns, questions, or responses they may brainstorm.

This introductory approach is advocated by Freire and noted in the “Introduction to part five” of The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2017), which says that, when people use dialogue to understand and incorporate each other’s experiences, they have the “capacity to read the world critically” and can effectively navigate the uneven “relations of power, which structurally reproduce inequalities and social exclusions within schools and society” (p. 367). The power structure of the City of Park Falls Government and Law Enforcement has socially excluded an already-marginalized group of people (predominantly below-poverty, single-parented teenagers) by failing to partner with the school or other civic organizations to host a community center so that all of the community realizes the benefit of a productive social gathering place for young people. Perhaps an even more egregious error is to assign blame to the teenagers for local criminality, which further alienates them.

Because this learning group (“The Phoenix Team” or “the Team”) “does school” using project-based learning (a form of problem-posing education supported by Freire), they will end this project having educated themselves in areas such as civic responsibility; governmental structure; capitalism and socialism; healthy community attributes; and communication principles, addressing social studies and English standards. Before any dialogue specific to a new club can be addressed with the public or city officials, The Phoenix Team will do extensive research, which includes brainstorming lists of questions or topics, or what they think they know and what they know they don’t know, surrounding the introductory dialogue and generative theme. Just as Horton and Freire (1990) indicated, the learning environment should be one that “share[s] … it by doing it and not by talking about it,” which in this case means that the Team is in charge, making decisions about how to proceed with conducting research in the areas they’ve identified as new knowledge (p. 153, p. 164). Always present will be their lived experiences from which they filter their research (See Appendix A for Task List for Youth Center which students created collaboratively).

Part of their research will be about how citizens participate in democracy, including marginalized groups such as teenagers. In discussing the basic principles of capitalism, The Phoenix Team can explore the contradiction that “‘individuals’ were to … reap the rewards of their hard work,” yet if “everyone … could succeed,” then why was “failure to succeed … taken to be a sign of poor character?” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98). The research and dialogue about this key contradiction of capitalism will lead them to Dewey, who said that the individual “is not a preformed creation but, rather, a socially formed product … thus the quality of individual lives depends on the quality of relationships in associated living” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98). As I intervene in their discussions to ask questions and build connections between them and these concepts, in particular as an individual and the product of the community and/or society in which one lives, they will realize that their “seats at the table” are imperative because the community is also responsible for molding them into what Dewey called “socially formed product[s]” or people (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 98).

As further support, The Phoenix Team will study key concepts of socialism. In particular, they will discover a connection between Dewey and a principle of socialism, that is, “members of a democratic community [who] participate in that community” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 104). Noddings & Brooks (2017) describe this as a community that cares for each other: “We do not ‘let the failures fail’ and only the successful thrive” (p. 104). The Team can use this principle to show community leaders that they should want to invest in seeing teenagers grow and that their growth not only makes the teenagers healthy but demonstrates a healthy, thriving community. Dewey supported this point when he specifically noted that a healthy community interacts with various groups and that “a community is formed by the shared aims and activities of its participating groups. If a group pulls away and considers only its own needs and interests, the community to which it might belong is disrupted” (Noddings & Brooks, 2017, p. 105). This forms the basis of the Team’s reasons for seeking common dialogue and language with city officials and community leaders to include teenagers in community growth discussions. In addition, The Phoenix Team will reflect on its own interactions with community groups and change them if necessary.

Once the structural components of civics research is completed, The Phoenix Team will work in a more local civics nature pertaining to city ordinances, parks and recreation funding, partnerships with other organizations such as churches, and actual property locations and ownership. This research phase will include the team educating itself on how and where The Phoenix will open its doors in Park Falls, including any governmental rules that may regulate it. In addition, the Team will plan and conduct three site visits to boys and girls clubs in our region to learn how they are structured and why they are successful (See Appendix B for student-generated Youth Center Site Visit Comparison & Reflection).


October 31, 2017. Class ACT: The Phoenix Team visits Boys and Girls Club of Wausau

Lastly, they will plan three local property site visits to assess the feasibility of these locations for The Phoenix: One is the old Corner Rock building on Highway 13, and the other two are downtown, vacant (blighted) buildings. The two buildings downtown are the last to be renovated in a revitalization project that incorporated new infrastructure. It is possible the City may seek a partner to renovate one of these buildings, and The Phoenix Team could collaborate with other school teams and disciplines to design and renovate the space. As noted in the “Introduction to part eight” of The Critical Pedagogy Reader, one of the legacies of Freire’s work is that this type of collaboration among community groups creates “solidarity and kinship within communities” (p. 562). It is further stated that “an array of untold possibilities can emerge as children, youth, and adults create opportunities together to grapple with meaningful issues and identify solutions that make sense in their world” (p. 562).


November 15, 2017: Youth Center Team meets with Mayor Leitl


Chequamegon School District and Class ACT continuously search for positive ways to communicate and collaborate with our communities, and a project such as The Phoenix will improve relationships and dismantle barriers more quickly than any newsletter or public meeting. An example of one such school-community venture that proves this can be successful is Emily Pilloton’s 2009-2010 work in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in that state. Pilloton’s TED Talk (2010) shows how she and her team taught design within a public school; however, they took design thinking outside the brick and mortar school and applied it to community development projects. Design became education as the students built projects in the community such as renovating old buildings. By redesigning for education, she created the conditions to make changes in education that brought low-performing students from apathy to pride for their community and their work as a whole. Her TED Talk will serve as a visual image of what can be done when a community rethinks Education and Community. It could be used near the beginning of The Phoenix project, so students can visualize results, or it could be used as evidence that “this has been done before.” Additionally, students could contact Pilloton’s non-profit organization for more expert advice to proceed with their own project.


After learners evaluate the three proposed buildings and decide which will best serve guests and the community as a whole, they will design the physical site and the guidelines, expectations, or “business model” of The Phoenix based on research, including discussions with many interested parties and the site visits to successful boys and girls clubs. These tentative plans and drawings should solidify their goals and objectives for a healthy teen center. As research during the STEM design process of The Phoenix, the team will investigate the three often-named reasons for unequal representation of women in STEM professions as noted by Noddings & Brooks (2017): “a lack of early encouragement and role models, perceived lack of aptitude and consequent lack of preparation, and stereotype threat” (p. 70). In particular, the Team will study our District’s ACT standardized mathematics scores against the national or state scores in mathematics to analyze the relationship between gender and scores. They will also review enrollment data for our STEAM courses for the same relationship. As this data analysis is constructed, I anticipate that The Phoenix Team will participate in lively discussions about inequality, equality, gender stereotypes, and solutions to concerns that may arise from this data. It should be noted that, while all of this data is available to the public and to staff, I am unaware of anyone analyzing it in this way. The Team’s analysis of gender and mathematics may not only impact The Phoenix Team’s design thinking and construction, but the analysis may impact our new STEAM and engineering programs in very positive ways. Finally, The Phoenix Team should reflect on their gender equality/inequality participation and take action to make improvements if they determine they unintentionally have unequal representation in their own team.

With their research mostly completed, including anticipated community positions, goals, and objectives, learners are well prepared for explicit and intentional dialogue with city officials and residents. Dialoguing with these additional groups will undoubtedly lead to additional questions and revisions to plans. All of this is essential to design thinking and critical consciousness. Freire (1970/2016) explains that, while people are empowered through emancipatory pedagogy, emancipatory pedagogy must also include critical consciousness, and literacy involves consciousness. To create consciousness, teachers (and students) begin with the problem-posed method (p. 109). This problem should be something that, as a group, they feel needs resolution. For example, Park Falls lost its boys and girls club called Corner Rock. Now, teenagers are struggling to find an appropriate place to socialize. Freire says that, to be successful, the group must consist of “people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know” (p. 90). The Phoenix Team’s “transformative vision of education and society” will lead to reflection and action, not just by them but by community leaders, too (Darder, Torres, & Baltodano, 2017, p. 368).

Through emancipatory pedagogy and critical consciousness, learners experience a transformation that empowers them to collaborate more frequently and positively with their community, ultimately participating in democracy rather than remaining marginalized citizens.


This is an ambitious, complex, multi-year action project that is entirely emancipatory; however, Class ACT’s learning community is experienced and ambitious. With regard to The Phoenix Project, the Team makes decisions collectively; approaches challenges as opportunities for reflection and action; collaborates effectively at many levels within numerous power structures; and is accountable to each other, themselves, and many adults with whom they will work. They achieve common goals and visions together, and in so doing, they reflect on how they are oppressed and engage in seeking freedom from it (Freire et al., 1970/2016, p. 48). Their freedom means the community is also liberated as the oppressor, and Park Falls can be that healthy community that Dewey illustrated (Freire et al., 1970/2016, p. 44). These teenagers regain their humanity, and they do it through interdisciplinary knowledge that immerses them in academic and social-emotional learning through community development building.

What greater outcome could there be than teenagers who no longer feel marginalized by their communities and instead feel welcomed. They will recognize how oppression can swallow them with their own inaction, and they will know how empowerment feels when they take action. They will have planned and acted on their own education, all while earning high school credit and valuable employability skills. For me, I see Jason, Paul, Sam, Emily, Hannah, Josiah, Zek, Brian, Mandy, and Jasmine. I see the powerful, educated citizens they’ve become and “the road they made by walking,” leads straight to The Phoenix.

Anderson, R. C. (2017). Teaching (with) disability: Pedagogies of lived experience. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 476-484). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 28, 367-379, 2006)

Bishop, E. (2017). Critical literacy: Bringing theory to praxis. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 370-381). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(1), 51-63, 2014)

Community facts. (2017). Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

Darder, A., Torres, R. D., & Baltodano, M. P. (Eds.). (2017). The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1974). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (2017). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Bloomsbury Academic. (Original work published 1970)

Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change (B. Bell, J. Gaventa, & J. M. Peters, Eds.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

McLaren, P. (2017). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & M. P. Baltodano (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (3rd ed., pp. 56-78). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education, 1989, New York: Longman)

Noddings, N., & Brooks, L. (2017). Teaching controversial issues: The case for critical thinking and moral commitment in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pilloton, E. (2010, July). Teaching design for change [Video file]. Retrieved from

Poverty status in the past 12 months of families. (2016). Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

Witt, L. (2017, August 18). District Poverty Rate [E-mail to the author].


Appendix A. Task List for Youth Center
These tasks align with the Action Project Paper and are generated by The Phoenix Team.  Paragraph numbers coincide with the “Research and Methodology” section of the paper.  Students were responsible for critical reading of these paragraphs and detailing the suggested tasks of each.  They were encouraged to add tasks that should be considered where relevant.

Standards: (9th – 11th grades)
1. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Integration of Knowledge and Ideas RI.11-12.7
2. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Key Ideas and Details RI.11-12.1
3. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Production and Distribution of Writing W.11-12.5
4. English Language Arts: 9-12 | Research to Build and Present Knowledge W.11-12.7
5. Social Studies | Advocates/Lobbyists : SS.C.12.9, SS.C.12.11
6. Social Studies | Local political topic : SS.C.12.10
7. Social Studies | Local government structure: SS.C.12.1

a. Critical reading of informational text (journal article)
b. Writing: Note taking, reflection, business plan, business communications, research writing (multiple sources)
c. Oral: Collaboration & discussion with peers, formal and informal presentations
d. Artifact collection as evidence of learning


Paragraph # Tasks Dates Completed By Whom?
PHASE ONE of project
Paragraph 1 Discussions: personal experience with the Corner Rock; what did we like and dislike; if not the Corner Rock where else did we go to “hang out;” conflicts with the law, businesses, etc.; structure of city government. 1/03/18


1/05/18 READ; Taken notes

Paragraph 2 Doing project-based learning in which we learn civic and social skills, and do plenty of research. Learning capitalism and socialism. Communication principles. Healthy community attributes. Brainstorming lists of questions and topics. What we know and don’t know and make decisions about how to proceed with research Ongoing

1/05/18 Article

1/09/18 Read & notes






Paragraph 3 We need to show the community leaders that we do need some teen groups the lead so they know how the teens are affected in this community for they may not know themselves in this day and age.  We need the groups not only for their health and entertainment but for them to stay out of trouble with the police and community members. Study key concepts of socialism. Ongoing
Paragraph 4 We need to look at potential buildings and find out information and fundraising.      

We need to look for a partner to help fundraising and renovating or looking for a building downtown.

We need to consider visiting a third youth center different from the boys and girls club and the YMCA because those two were too much alike (the Chippewa YMCA which is different than most Y’s).





Paragraph 5 Analyze the STEAM gender inequality research

Analyze math scores and compare/gather data to analyze relationship between gender and scores

Evaluate the buildings and decide which will best serve our needs

Paragraph 6 Design physical site

Business plan (expectations, guidelines, etc.).

Analyze ACT scores & gender equity; stereotypes; relationship to our team

Paragraph 7 Dialogue with city officials, partners, etc. regarding business plan

Ask additional questions

Revise plans, designs

Design PHASE 2 of project (2018-19)



Appendix B. Student-Generated Youth Center Site Visit Comparison & Reflection

Name Boys and Girls Club YMCA
Student 1 No soda/energy drinks; vending starts at 2:00

Track students, make sure they have numbers and sign in and out of activities

Age limit with designated hours (HS 7-9 & MS 4-7)

Buses drop kids off

Student 2 Designated activity rooms

Game room in entrance/great room

Small gym for team games

Meeting room for student leadership, guest speakers

Meals/snacks 2xs/wk

Very small area

TV/Video game

18’ climbing wall

Pool access

Parents must be members of Y

Open 3-8 weekdays

Student 3 Hands-on activities like art & music

Board games, team games

Homework room with tutors; earned 1 point/per 15 min of work; top 10 at end of month pizza party

Staff talks to teachers for homework help

Rock wall

Computer/homework room

Very small area

Hang out for kids while parents at the Y

Student 4 Absolutely loved the structure but yet not too strict

Games (pool, ping pong, carpet ball in the lobby

Gym in the back

Small kitchen (lots of regulations if do food)

Cubbies for backpacks

Not much hands-on or active area

Good place to study

Small place for socializing after school

Student 5 Vending machines

Lounge area

Art room

Air hockey table

Ping pong


Skate park in the basement

Carpet ball/miscellaneous games

This one was the one we should try to strive to be like.

Rock climbing wall (should we? CAN we?)

Computer lab

Staff not kid-friendly


Student 6        Game room in front of the building

Staff add new ideas all the time

Liked the gym because it lets kids get off energy and get active

Skate park great but may be liability issues

Not much hands-on

Staff not kid-friendly

Student 7 Optimistic look; like living in a recreational vehicle

Always updating and thriving on being better

Had adult supervision; every room staffed

Cost $20/calendar yr; $45/Family; scholarships available

Racquetball and pool as part of Y

Depressing and underwhelming

Student 8 Pool table

Ping pong


Carpet ball

Skate park

I like how kids can leave an activity they don’t like and go to something else


Rock wall


Lounge area

Computer lab

Not as intriguing as Boys and Girls Club




What the Wisconsin DPI Can Do for You

Marci Glaus, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Marci.Glaus @


As English/language arts educators, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) may represent some far-off place that awards teaching licenses and communicates rules and statutes. While these things are true, it may also be of interest for English/language arts educators to know that there are many other supports the department can provide specific to the English language arts, including helpful and interesting resources, continued professional learning, and timely updates.

All English language arts-related content can be found on the DPI English Language Arts page. Based on your purpose for visiting, you will find information related Wisconsin’s vision for English language arts, the latest resources and professional learning, and information related to licensing, standards, instruction, and assessment.

One of the most recent additions is the student edition of the Wisconsin Writes series, a collection of writing process and interview videos from kids. Wisconsin Writes has been highlighting writing processes of professional writers from around the state for the last two years, unearthing what it looks and sounds like to be in their minds, doing their thing in real time. For the 2018-19 school year, Wisconsin Writes highlights students from all over the state at various grade levels doing the same. Just like the professionals, students work on whatever part of the process they are in, from planning, to drafting, to editing and revising, and talk out loud about what they are doing as writers. You can also find interview videos where they talk about revision, technology, and their favorite things related to the writing process.

Another recent addition to the English language arts website is the Read It or Leave It page, the space for English/language arts educators to get a broad overview of different books and articles on current topics, instructional resources, and concepts in the field. It is a searchable page that provides annotated bibliographies for quick consideration. All articles listed can be found for free online or through Badgerlink. Books listed can be secured through interlibrary loan.

The process for understanding the standards has also been updated. The current “Unpack/Repack” process emphasizes a focus on examining a cluster of standards for planning, implementing, or reflecting on instruction and assessment with a focus on equity. The process includes professional learning and reflection on eliminating barriers through culturally sustaining practices and equitable instruction and assessment.

Of course, a pathway to finding information related to licensing is also present on the English language arts page, but the most direct route for this information will be to visit the Teacher Education, Professional Development, and Licensing page. The most timely updates regarding emergency rules and changes to licensure are published there.

Finally, the sharing of information does not have to be a one-way street. All are welcome to follow us on Twitter (@WisDPILit), the ELA Google+ Community, or the EnglishK16 listserv. Whatever your preferred method is for social media, we enjoy hearing from you, and so does the rest of the field.

“We Are Not All the Same”: Strengthening Teacher-Student Relationships through Online Classroom Dialogue

Robyn Seglem, Illinois State University, rseglem @

Antero Garcia, Stanford Graduate School of Education, antero.garcia @


In the January 2016 issue of English Journal, Golden and Womack reminded us that the importance of relationships is often overlooked in these times of massive reform, particularly when working with minoritized youth. Through our work with preservice teachers, we strive to instill the importance of relationships within future teachers on a daily basis, emphasizing, as Golden and Womack urge, the importance of abandoning a deficit model of instruction. For Antero, this mission is personal because of the years he spent working with high school youth who dealt with inequitable schooling conditions on a daily basis. And for Robyn, who works with teacher candidates with little experience working with youth of color, it can be a challenge to demonstrate how to foster relationships with students they see as having little in common with them. As former teachers, we know that teachers and students must lead organic change from within schools. Thus, we asked ourselves how we could we shift our teacher candidates from being enactors of the status quo to advocates for youth from all backgrounds and experiences. Realistically, we knew that, by ourselves, we could not accomplish this through one or two college courses. Yet, we also knew that if we could assist in the development of authentic relationships between white preservice teachers and youth of color, we could begin to plant the seeds of future advocacy.

This article looks at how teachers and students can guide change from within classrooms by recontextualizing the cultural experiences and relationships at the core of learning and growth in today’s public schools. Whereas “classroom management” tends to be the focus for how new teachers must “control” kids, we focus our efforts to transform English teachers’ classrooms through utilizing online tools for humanizing purposes. Building on a study of our work with high school students and preservice teachers, we consider how reflection on the dynamics between these two groups and an evolution in how we build relationships in classrooms can better drive a revolution in the academic needs of students and the cultural awareness of teachers.

Connecting Teachers and Hearing Students
As literacy educators, we began our work by examining the potential of media to connect two groups who lived thousands of miles apart. With a class of sophomores who attended school in the South Central Los Angeles high school, where Antero had previously taught, and a cohort of preservice teachers studying how to teach in suburban Central Illinois, we wanted to explore whether we could tap into the potential of the digital world to unite the two disparate groups, helping them to reflect upon their individual realities and construct an educational experience leading to a impactful shared reality. Acknowledging the Discourse in which classroom exchanges typically commence (Gee, 1990), we wanted both teachers and students to reflect critically on the cultural role that language plays in defining the identities enacted in classrooms. Not simply making transparent the language practices necessary for participation in schools (Delpit, 1988), we wanted teachers to hear and validate the diverse Englishes” that students fluidly speak (Garcia & Seglem, 2018; Kirkland, 2010).

Just as importantly, we recognized that language–both typed and spoken–evolves over time. The cultural practices imbued within how youth communicate online including uses of emojis, abbreviations, and creative deviations from “standard” English reflect the youth popular culture that is often too absent from our classrooms (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 1995).

Alongside bringing in youth popular culture mindfully as to not simply appropriate youth-focused tools, our project was also focused on considering how the uses of technology can do more to “sustain” cultural identity within classrooms (Paris & Alim, 2014). While there are extensive studies on digital literacies within classrooms (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003), our emphasis was on exploring how high school students and teachers could use these tools to communicate and build relationships. Even as recent research by Turkle (2012, 2015) highlights how technology may be further isolating individuals and negatively affecting relationships, we wondered if these same tools could guide strengthened relationships and vibrant language practices within classrooms. In short, we believe that if high school students want to be understood and respected by teachers who may come from very different cultural backgrounds, learning how to communicate within the continually evolving textual spaces of online dialogue is an important first step.

Building Virtual Meeting Spaces
Pairing one to two high school students in South Central Los Angeles with one preservice teacher in Central Illinois, we had the two very distant (geographically and culturally) groups meet online weekly in chat rooms. Importantly, though the Los Angeles City Council officially renamed the area “South Los Angeles” more than a decade ago (Gold & Braxton, 2003), the students and local school community continued to refer to the area as “South Central” because the historic identity of the space remained important. While students were able to receive one-on-one feedback on their writing and work within an English class, our larger goal was to open up space for the kinds of reflection, textual exploration, and relationship building that comes with groups meeting each other through tools different from those frequently used. Traditional teacher-student power relationships were no longer possible when high school students were driving conversation, doing so in the language practices they were comfortable with, and– later –even conducting mock job interviews with the preservice teachers. Our revolution for learning and relationships in schools is built on recognizing the skills, expertise, and identities of the students in our classrooms.

Though we had more than a dozen different chat rooms running throughout the semester (approximately one for each preservice teacher), we are focusing on two of them to explore more deeply the textual exchanges that occurred. Looking at these two transcripts of conversations that transpired over the course of the Fall semester, we share several transcript exchanges to look at how language and identity intermix and shape relational understanding. In particular, we are interested in how the language practices within these chat rooms mediated identity and power relationships between the preservice teachers and high school students (Garcia & Seglem, 2018). Participants’ uses of intertextuality and digital language practices like emoticons facilitated nuanced persona building that affected the kinds of exchanges that occurred between youth and adults. Below we look at exchanges within our chat room transcripts as means for reflecting on academic learning, evolving what relationships can look like in classrooms, and fomenting a humanizing revolution.

Using Literature to Reflect Upon the Larger World
The first transcript we share demonstrates how the chat rooms built inroads for utilizing literature to reflect upon the world and the realities youth face on a daily basis. As was typically the case in each discussion, the high school students and the preservice teachers paid close attention to language practices–in this case on the choices made by Alexie (1998) in his essay “Superman and Me.” Yet, while high schoolers Luis and Michael began the conversation focusing on Alexie’s essay, their discussion eventually evolved into a conversation that focused on the boys’ experiences in school. Through their reflection, they were able to share with Jill, their preservice teacher partner, their personal experiences of often not being heard in a school dominated by white teachers; the online environment created space for marginalized voices–those of youth and particularly youth of color–to be centered and understood:

Jill, Michael, & Luis, December 5

1. Luis: Hello. Good Morning. Today we are going to talk about the Biographical essay of Sherman Alexie.”Superman and Me.”

2. Jill: Very good, do you have thoughts to start our conversation about the essay?

3. Michael: cool..

4. Michael: “at the same time i was seeing the world in paragraphs”

5. Luis: What do You think or feel about that quote, Jill?

6. Jill: Could I ask which paragraph this quote came from?

7. Michael: the start of the 4th paragraph

8. Jill: I can see both sides… sometimes things come to us in a single thought, or paragraph and other times I feel like I see the world as a bunch of random words… what do you think on my thought?

9. Luis: I think that’s what Sherman Alexie thinks too.

The dynamics of this conversation are interesting. It is evident that the boys were mimicking the language of school. In Turn 1, we see Luis address his “class” by stating the objective of the day, with Michael following up in Turn 4 by providing a specific reference to the text, highlighting the importance of using Alexie’s words to dig into the meaning of the essay. The two high school students shifted into language that mimics a teaching identity: “Today we are going to talk about” finds the students in the formal register that was beyond their typical banter with Jill. It is clear these youth have experienced this type of approach to instruction in the past, and Luis underscores their intent by explicitly asking Jill her opinion. His use of her first name is notable because they often address her more formally like they would a teacher, making the teacher persona even more evident in this dialogue. He furthers this persona by affirming Jill’s thoughts in Turn 9, responding to Jill’s request about their evaluation of her performance by stating “I think that’s what Sherman Alexie thinks too.” This layered approach to language highlights the unspoken, tacit knowledge these two high school students fluidly possess: they shift into traditionally authoritative language repertoires while also knowing how to usurp such practices when delivered by Jill. Conscious of the traditional scripts of schooling and varied language practices, Luis and Michael command the academic space in ways that traditional schooling often stifles.

Continuing the transcript from above, Jill, Michael, and Luis interrogate Alexie’s ideas about the paragraphs of the world, with Jill ultimately asking them to reflect on “What kind of actions or decisions in our lives make for a solid, flowing paragraph?” Luis responds: “Decisions that affect our life’s outcomes. School is one of them. College. Work. Stuff like that.” His answer prompts Jill to ask what they plan to do after high school, and Michael states he would likely go to work because he doubts he’d “last in college.” The excerpt that follows demonstrates why Michael feels this way:

Jill, Michael, & Luis Example 2, December 5 Continued

27. Jill: I think that you would do great in college!! You are always very insightful and contribute great thoughts in this class!

28. Michael: hehe thank you i can do good in every class but math ._. i haven’t been learning much math since 7th grade i always have a teacher that can’

29. Michael: cant’ control their class due to immaturity amongst kids

30. Jill: Your right, we are not all the same… how do the teachers at your school encourage you in your decisions?

31. Jill: Is that teacher not able to control their class because they have low expectations of you? Why are the kids immature in their class?

32. Michael: well the kids don’t take the class seriously. students are always being sent out it just gets worst over time..

33. Jill: What do you think would solve the problem?

34. Jill: There was a time that a teacher told me that I was dumb and the only reason I was doing well in her class was because I work hard.

35. Michael: if people were to take the class seriously . I mean kids just mess around the teacher just allows it and doesn’t do a thing to stop it

36. Jill: What do you do to help the situation and do your part to learn in class?

37. Michael: I don’t do anything to disturb class because i actually want to learn due to not learning much math these last few years

38. Michael: Stay in my seat and I’m quiet

39. Jill: Your decision to learn will take you far… both of you make decisions which will help you in the future.

Within the partnership between Jill, Luis and Michael, Jill consistently projects the most stable persona–that of teacher. Whether through rephrasing a question (“Can you be more specific with your personal anecdote”), redirecting the conversation (“tell me again, what is your position… and your 3 claims?”), or asking for clarification (What do you mean by “run tardy?”), Jill returns to more formal teacher practices throughout the partnership. At the same time, as Turn 27 indicates, Jill is obviously trying to build a relationship with Luis and Michael, and she appears to genuinely care about what they have to say. Noting an opportunity for a personal connection, Jill takes a break from the discussion over Alexie’s essay in order to affirm Michael as a student. Her willingness to do this suggests growth in their relationship because rather than staying on the task at hand, she seems to recognize the importance of connecting with her students and affirming their self-worth. In particular, as we look at this example in relation to the weeks of dialogue in which Jill tends to focus solely on the academic task at hand, the flexibility she exudes here is a significant shift from how she typically spoke with Michael and Luis. Jill ultimately invites the youth to reflect upon how the essay relates to their own lives, providing inroads to developing cultural understanding.

Evolving ELA Classrooms through New Language Practices
Reviewing the language choices in the online space above, we must consider how the kinds of words, phrases, and symbols that the youth utilize reflect how they perform characteristics of their identity. For example, Michael and Luis, making the unhappy-looking emoticon >.< speak informally. Their language is transgressive within the traditional space of schools. Likewise, lol engendered Jill into the youth-endorsed language practices, whether she wanted to participate in this language or not. It is important to recognize that such emoticons and abbreviations were initially a source of confusion for Jill. Throughout the semester, Jill did not type or send any emoticon or lol-like abbreviations, despite the fact that Michael and Luis used both in every single transcript. Neither the students or the future teacher seemed willing to concede the ground of their language practices for the dialogue.

Yet even within this exchange and the advice that followed–”Even when the situation is not how we would like it to be, we can learn from it”–Jill continues to adopt the formal language practices she associates with the Discourse (Gee, 1990) of teachers. Further she seems to accept Michael’s assertion that the disruptive class was the fault of his peers, rather than the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom. In affirming Michael’s view, Jill misses out on an opportunity to engage in culturally responsive practices that explore how a mismatch between teachers’ and students’ experiences can result in situations such as the one described by Michael. In contrast, the following excerpt reveals the diversity of language practices with which Antoine and Vincent communicate while also identifying differences in beliefs and worldviews that arose during the holiday season. Precisely because of shared language practices, these exchanges highlight how different worldviews can be understood and negotiated between youth and adults.

Prior to the conversation below, Antoine explained that he is vegan, and they both noted how very different their Thanksgiving experiences were. From there, we can see how a willingness to move forward and laugh through their differences allows Antoine to sustain an environment for powerful exchange:

Antoine & Vincent, November 28

1. Antoine: what did you do on black friday?

2. Vincent: I WENT SHOPING

3. Antoine: does all caps mean you are yelling? why are you yelling at me? hahaha! where did you shop? what did you buy?

4. Vincent: ahaha no im not yelling at u tf?? aha its more like saying something in exciment i baught cloths

5. Antoine: what’s “tf” mean? i did not go out on black friday. i was scared.

6. Vincent: aha it means the fuck lmfao (x scared of what?? O.o

7. Antoine: hahahaha!!! that’s hilarious. i know what “lmfao” means. hahaha!

8. Antoine: i was scared of shopping.

9. Vincent: tf y r u scared of shoping?????? O.o thats not normal in my neighbor hood

10. Antoine: i just don’t like consumerism. it scares me.

11. Vincent: what dose consumerism mean??

Unlike most classroom dialogue, both Antoine and Vincent slip comfortably between using acronyms, emoticons, and a lackadaisical approach to capitalization. In Turn 2, we can see the playful nature of Vincent capitalizing a sentence and how they both draw and explore the different intentions of capitalizing the statement. The meaning of textual “talk”–what could be naturally inferred in a face-to-face context–is instead discussed, clarified, and utilized for strengthening the relationship between the two chat room participants.

Antoine was humored by Marco’s language choices. Rather than ignoring or questioning Marco’s language, he declares that it was hilarious and often laughed digitally: hahaha! Building trust, Antoine encourages Vincent to comfortably explain the expletive-laden meaning behind the tf abbreviation. Accepting Vincent’s cursing, lack of capitalization, use of abbreviations, emoticons, and exclamation and question marks, Antoine’s engagement in the chat room highlights a willingness to understand difference that guides the new teacher’s future practice. Even though Vincent and Antoine have markedly different experiences, their shared language practices offer a familiarity to learn and meaningfully dialogue.

In addition to making the space informal so that Antoine can inquire about tf, we also see Vincent asking about consumerism–a conversation that continues into a discussion of wealth, Marxism, and the interests of individuals that Vincent knows in the South Central community. A rich narrative emerges as a result of how textual changes in online space create familiarity even when these two participants are pretty different otherwise: in addition to age, location, and ethnicity, the transcript highlights different ideological stances. With a foundation for exploring cultural meaning and identity in online spaces, relationships helped evolve the possibilities of learning and engagement within the classroom.

Revolutionizing Relationships through Talk and Reflection
Even though Jill did not share the same rapport with her students as Antoine did with Vincent, she still created a safe chat space for the boys to feel comfortable enough to interact playfully and faux-antagonistically. The shifts in power in the classroom evolved gradually across the semester. Looking at both of these groups–and the rest of the high school students and preservice teachers that they worked alongside–it is important to consider how the collective literacy efforts developed (in collaboration between student and adult in online spaces) was highlighting one way to consider revolutionizing the possibilities of English classrooms today: revolution through relationships.

Further, we must consider that these changes happened within the traditionally out-of-school digital space of virtual environments. In fact, had we not developed this virtualized school-based learning context, these relationships would not have been possible. For instance, consider how ideologically different Antoine and Vincent were in their dialogue. Antoine’s ideology was quite different from Vincent’s own perspective of the world. However, by having a conversation grounded in student-developed social language and shifting power dynamics in these spaces, these two individuals were able to build common understanding and support Vincent’s academic growth. The chatroom also created a needed distance for some high school students to speak up within their partners; by not seeing their partners, high school students in this class gained the confidence to be heard.

Fairclough (1995) notes that power can be understood “both in terms of asymmetries between participants in discourse events, and in terms of unequal capacity to control how texts are produced, distributed, and consumed (and hence the shapes of texts) in particular sociocultural contexts” (pp. 1-2). Radically reinventing the possibilities of the English classroom requires significantly understanding how existing power structures can be reshaped and renegotiated. Considering the needs of high school students in today’s politically polarized society, we must question how technology in schools is fostering powerful learning and meaningful relationships. By realigning a more balanced approach to how students and teachers participate in and produce discourse and language within their classrooms, we see new English practices that more fully incorporate our students’ humanity, dignity, and growing voices.


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Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Peter Lang.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. New York: Longman.

Garcia, A., & Seglem, R. (2018). “DUDE UR GUNNA BE A GREAT TEACHER YO”: Cultivating diverse Englishes through chatroom discussions between preservice teachers and urban high school youth. Reading and Writing Quarterly.

Gee, J. P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: Routledge.

Golden, N. A., & Womack, E. (2016). Cultivating literacy and relationships with adolescent scholars of color. English Journal, 105(3), 36-42. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database. (Accession No. 112596050)

Kirkland, D. E. (2010). English(es) in urban contexts: Politics, pluralism, and possibilities. English Education, 42(3), 293-306. Retrieved from ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ880910)

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2004). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100. Retrieved from ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ1034292)

Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin.

Teaching English Online: Challenges and Successes

Elizabeth Jorgensen, Arrowhead Union High School, jorgensene @


Although some districts offer online classes year-round, the high school where I work, Arrowhead Union, offers traditional and blended classes during the school year, while exclusively online classes are only offered only during summer school. Throughout my past decade of teaching these courses, I’ve made invaluable professional, community, and student connections; learned more about myself and technology; and watched students acquire English skills as they matured academically and personally. But I also experienced challenges and setbacks.

Creative thinkers and educational pioneers are long accustomed to learning, growing and adapting. But because technology constantly changes, online teachers in particular need to remain responsive and reflective. By anticipating roadblocks and collaborating with colleagues and professionals, online teachers can meet student needs.


Teacher Resources and Support
One of the biggest obstacles I encountered teaching online was installing, incorporating, and instituting multiple learning management systems (LMS). In 2003, teachers at my high school used Moodle to electronically store and disseminate course content in online, blended, and face-to-face classes. A few years later, Arrowhead phased out Moodle. According to Donna Smith, Arrowhead’s Director of Library Media and Technology, Moodle “was a widely used learning management system. At the time, Moodle user communities and professional development were robust and commonplace …. A district need only maintain the system on a server and set up a domain name.” When Moodle no longer met Arrowhead’s needs, Smith contracted with Canvas. While some teachers moved content to Google Classroom, others utilized Canvas. As teachers moved content from one LMS to another, support was provided. Specifically, online teachers participated in several meetings each year, developing protocols and sharing best practices.

At Arrowhead, all online teachers provide students with a welcome letter highlighting course procedures, teacher office hours and LMS information. In this letter, students learn about a mandatory face-to-face meeting (prior to the course start date) where the teacher will field questions and introduce content. Similar protocols from all online instructors allow for transparency and for students to accurately gauge what will be required. Once enrolled in the course, students have the opportunity to watch a welcome video. Most instructors introduce themselves, state course goals and encourage students to raise questions and concerns.


welcome letter.PNG


To help teachers instruct online, in 2013, Smith and I created an online teacher expectation rubric. This rubric allows teachers to assess themselves on daily visible presence (responding to students within 24 to 48 hours regardless of weekends or holidays); constructive posts; comments that respectfully challenge students; contact with parents, as needed; and engaging activities including events, lectures, guest speakers, discussions and tutoring. Furthermore, where in-school collaborative time is not provided, teachers could reference online communities and discussion boards.

Specifically, in Canvas, the Commons allows educators to “find, import and share resources.” In Moodle community forums, instructors share ideas and connect. Other resources include the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT), International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (iNACOL).


Meeting Student Needs
During Arrowhead’s six-week summer school session, students might find themselves at sleep-away camps, working 40-hour weeks, or traveling. With the flexibility of online classes, students can build their own schedules. In end-of-class surveys, 25 percent of my online students report regularly accessing course content between 50 and 250 miles from school on phones, tablets and computers.

Offered to incoming juniors and seniors, online summer school English classes include composition, creative writing, journalism, and college strategies. Last year, 89 students enrolled in these online classes. The online summer school course offerings match what is offered to Arrowhead’s juniors and seniors during the school year. For freshmen and sophomores, summer school offerings remain remedial and face-to-face only.

Smith told me in an email:

We offer online courses at Arrowhead because there is a need for our students to experience self-paced and personalized learning. Online learning takes a lot of discipline and motivation. Students need to be willing to ask questions and troubleshoot technical problems if they arise … The benefits to our students are many. Online courses help create learners who are independent and persistent. Some learners find they prefer the discussion opportunities and personalized feedback in online courses. As online courses and training become more prevalent in post secondary education and in the workplace, we feel that we are preparing our students through blended and online opportunities at Arrowhead. The time management and communication skills our students practice in online courses will benefit them in all aspects of their future lives.

Annually, in end-of-course surveys, Arrowhead students, at a 90 percent rate, recommend that all students take an online high school course. They recognize that online classes require self-direction, motivation, organization and independence. They also recognize high school as a place to develop these skills in a safe and encouraging environment.

At Arrowhead, online English classes, capped at 15, remain a stark contrast to in-person classes capped at 35. Online classes of 15 allow instructors to monitor student progress and provide individualized attention and faster feedback. Smith says, “Online education creates an awareness of the importance of clear communication on behalf of both the instructors and students.”

In addition to presenting English content, netiquette rules, and information on web tools and the LMS, I monitor student progress. According to the Wisconsin DPI’s FAQ on online and blended learning:

Learning Management Systems (as well as the Student Information System) in online courses often provide a wealth of information about students’ times logged in, times on task, and assessment results. Especially in cases where the student’s pace, time or motivation seems to be a problem, teachers will want to work with the local contact person (sometimes called a local education guide, coach, case manager, mentor, or liaison) for further insight.

At Arrowhead, a secretary serves as a liaison between teacher and student only during the first week of summer school. This secretary contacts students who fail to log on or complete tasks; communicates student concerns to parents; and coordinates adds and drops. These efforts allow teachers to focus on students and instructing. Beyond this contracted time, these responsibilities fall to the teacher.

Special education teachers remain available for online summer school students, and the library is open during regular summer school hours. In the library, students receive technical support, wireless access, and devices, allowing teachers to focus on instruction and assessment rather than hardware or access issues. Although I do not require students use the library for learning, it remains a hub for academic and technological resources. My office hours are held in the library and, often, students will choose to work there, discussing assignments or collaborating with peers.

At Arrowhead, parents can access Canvas as an observer. This allows them to follow the course and see their son’s or daughter’s progress. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) list of online teacher responsibilities:

Online courses are particularly suited to keeping parents and guardians informed and involved as they can be given online access to their student’s progress and work. Continual communication and collaboration is a key to success. Communication with students, parents, counselors, etc. can be accomplished via phone calls, e-mails, progress reports, screencast videos, texting, announcements on home page, web conferences, and feedback within individual assessments.

For students who fail to complete assigned work, a nudging email or LMS message is the first step. A face-to-face conference is a second step. Often, these contacts propel the resistant student. Initial contact can also be made via web or phone call. Losing points can serve as motivation, as students see how negligence impinges academic success. According to Hamilton and Jorgensen (2017):

If the students remain resistant, a phone call or email home can be the impetus needed. If a student continues to refuse, connecting with a previous teacher or guidance counselor can provide insight (what motivated a student to work in a previous class can often continue to be a motivating factor online). (p. 367)

Additionally, every composition, creative writing, and journalism assignment is completed for an authentic purpose and audience. Writers’ markets, with hard deadlines and strict requirements, motivate students with the allure of publication or prizes. However, if students still refuse to work, parents and I will collaborate and require them either to meet with me or work in the library.

At the end of each summer school session, data is reported to administration, correlating student failures to time spent online. At the end of last year’s session, three students failed online English classes. One spent a total of 57 minutes and 23 seconds on the course; another spent 37 minutes and 01 second; the other spent seven hours, 16 minutes and 28 seconds. This is in contrast to successful students who spent a minimum of 60 hours.

In an online class, I want students to get to know me. If students enjoy me and my instruction, they are more likely to increase effort and achievement. To accomplish this, I post videos (shorter than three minutes) highlighting course information, announcements or updates. I record myself informally using my iPhone and then upload the content either directly to the LMS or use a YouTube link. If I see common errors in student work, I create and record mini lessons or lectures. I also provide video resources from Khan Academy or TED Talk. By combining a variety of resources, I scaffold and differentiate.

The work in my online courses relies on student engagement and options, similar to my face-to-face courses during the school year. I present several options or strategies and allow students to choose the task or assignment which will best demonstrate mastery. During online summer school, I utilize writers’ markets. Last summer, students wrote haikus for the Milwaukee Haiku Club’s haiku competition, poems for the Milwaukee Public Museum 10th annual poetry competition, and essays for The Capitol Centennial Commission K-12 Art and Essay Writing Competition. For each, I required students to understand the authentic audience and compose multiple drafts. Throughout the writing process, I provided individualized feedback.

Online feedback is different from that in face-to-face classes. Whereas in a traditional classroom setting, I confer with students at their desks, the same is not possible online. I’ve found students can be more sensitive to feedback provided in text comments because they can carry an unintended tone. Utilizing voice comments on Google Docs is one way students can understand my perspective and hear my intention. In Canvas, instructors can leave feedback for students using text, audio, an attachment or video. The same can be done in SpeedGrader. In addition to addressing my feedback and watching videos and lectures, students read exemplars, complete research, peer edit, and post to discussion boards.

I encourage students to use web tools to demonstrate learning. They explore digital storytelling and create presentations that utilize music, narration, text, photographs, animation and video. In my online classes (in contrast to face-to-face classes), they are allowed to use multimodal text to demonstrate content mastery. Often, they will use PowerPoint, Google Slides, Moviemaker, podcast, montage, infographics, collages or public service announcements to demonstrate learning. They reflected on this in an end-of-course survey:

The example pieces really helped me wrap my brain around what we were doing. Also because the course was online, I could pull up things multiple times to just double check, which was nice.

This class had many different writing assignments which kept variety in the course.

I liked the different resources of different kinds for different ways of learning.

I really enjoyed the assignments where there were videos along with them. I found that they helped inspire my writing and answer questions I had.


Overcoming Challenges
My online summer school courses (similar to my traditional classes) focus on writing for an authentic purpose. But challenges arise when many student writers’ markets close during summer months. Specifically, the Sejong Cultural Society offers a sijo-writing competition that accepts submissions through late February. I asked contest coordinators if they would allow summer submissions. Although they would not, they offered a different contest solely for my online students. In this competition, each student wrote a sijo poem and submitted it to professor Mark Peterson of Brigham Young University (a renowned expert on Korean poetry). Peterson provided individual feedback to each student and Amazon gift cards to the top three entries. The lesson for me: finding creative solutions is the first step in elevating the opportunities and instruction my students receive.

Arrowhead administrators recognize the time and training it takes to deliver quality online instruction. The technology integrators offer Canvas professional development during weekly professional collaboration time, but no remuneration is offered for course set-up, curriculum development or training when administrators adopt a new LMS. Additionally, technology integrators are not available during summer months. In my tenure teaching online classes, I have transferred content to and from three systems in a laborious and time-consuming process. I anticipate my online teaching will continue to evolve as both technology and students change. I also recognize the importance of utilizing professional development and my colleagues.

When Arrowhead migrated to Canvas, I found it less intuitive than Moodle. Canvas didn’t play nicely with Google Docs, my preferred vehicle for providing feedback. To get around this, I created a submission process that fit within Canvas (where students created and shared a Google folder with me). Students expressed frustrations and after the first year, provided feedback:

I personally don’t like using Canvas as Google Classroom was easier to use.

My main issue with Canvas is that every assignment from a form had to be copies of the original, not automatic individual forms like Google Classroom. However, I did like the forum-esque communication and I found the grade feedback options helpful.

This was the first time that I really had to use a Canvas page for a class, and it took a bit to adjust from the normal Google Classroom.

I really enjoy Canvas now because of the online courses I took simply because it’s a lot more accessible than Google Classroom is. It’s easy to see how the course is laid out (modules) and it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve done.

Although no one system will please administrators, teachers, parents and students, the nature of technology requires  all stakeholders to modify previous practice to meet current needs. For example, when I started teaching online classes, web 2.0 tools remained a bedrock of quality online instruction. Teachers used web 2.0 tools to instruct, and students used them to demonstrate learning. But a web 2.0 tool used in 2009 may now be defunct. Take Kerpoof. In 2009, it was named the top web 2.0 tool by Technological Horizons in Education (THE) Journal (Riedel). But by 2014, it closed its doors. The same was true for number seven on the list: Yack Pack. As Bates (2014) said in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Who Use Technology,” teachers need to “embrace change” and be “extremely thorough and think two steps ahead.” This, in addition to course development, curriculum management, instruction, clear procedures, responsive feedback and meeting the needs of each student, remains paramount if students and teachers are to have success online.


Lingering Questions
When the 2013 Wisconsin Act 257 repealed the requirement for 30 hours of professional development for online teachers, it allowed any individual to “teach an online course in a subject and level in a public school, including a charter school, without a license or permit from the department if the individual holds a valid license or permit to teach the subject and level in the state from which the online course is provided.” But what does this mean for Wisconsin’s online English teachers and the students they serve?

According to Wisconsin DPI’s list of online teacher responsibilities, “[I]t is up to the certified teacher to assign the class activities” and that “[T]eachers will need to plan for and coordinate the provision of specially designed instruction and needed supports,” provide both summative and formative assessments, and report outcomes to administrators, students, parents and guardians. Although many of these duties are consistent with face-to-face instruction, there are differences in teaching and learning online. First, online classes remain open for learning, 24 hours a day. This requires specific district expectations for feedback and communication timelines. Additionally, content and presentations must be planned and offered in advance. In my online courses, all materials are available on day one, so each student is able to work at his or her own pace. The exigency of online students requires teachers to anticipate roadblocks and offer personalization at the forefront. Because online teaching and learning are done through asynchronous communication, protocols must signal completed work.

According to Wisconsin DPI’s State Budget Licensure Changes, since no Wisconsin mandates, state legislature, or regulation monitors teacher training, practices, or online instruction quality, educators and their administrators must develop, offer, and utilize quality online instruction. Teaching online comes with a responsibility to meet not only the state content standards, but also the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s (iNACOL) National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. According to the Wisconsin DPI’s FAQ on online and blended learning:

As teachers go through classes, they must reflect on what works and what can be improved. Student assessments and participation can be used as data. State and other standardized tests can inform the teacher about which standards and objectives students are learning and which may need additional attention.

In every online course I teach, I provide instruction in a variety of ways: written instructions, recorded lectures, YouTube videos, audio files, infographics. Diversifying instruction, as well as the ways in which students can demonstrate learning, helps meet a variety of student needs. Course organization, clear procedures and engaging materials also increase student and instructor enjoyment and success.

At Arrowhead High School, students rely on traditional and online classes to prepare them for the future. As instructors, a responsibility remains (regardless of state requirements) to provide quality, personalized and effective instruction both in person and online.

At the end of my online summer school course last year, one of my students said, “I wasn’t sure about this course at first, but as the course continued, I learned more about my writing and myself which was what I was hoping for.” And in the end, that is my ultimate goal, regardless if I’m teaching online or in person.


Bates, M. (2014, February 28). The 7 habits of highly effective teachers who use technology. Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Teacher Infographics website:

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Riedel, C. (2009, February 2). Top 10 web 2.0 tools for young learners. Technological Horizons in Education. Retrieved from

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Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing. State Budget Licensure Changes. Retrieved from