“I Only Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Other Junior High Tales of Terror: Helping Boys Choose Books While Staying True to the Self-Selected Novel

Mary Beth Nicklaus, Reading Specialist and Interventionist, East Junior High School, Wisconsin Rapids, marybeth.nicklaus @ wrps.net

Abstract. Nicklaus looks at the conundrum of at-risk boys who may need help with the selection process in the face of the self-select novel.

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Teaching Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives: Engaging Student Scholars in the Production of Digital Story Maps

Amy Lewis, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Liberal Arts, St. Norbert College, amy.lewis @ snc.edu

Abstract. Digital story maps are one key component in a project-based course focused on nineteenth-century slave narratives written in the United States. In this course, the traditional literary analysis paper has been replaced by a digital story-mapping project. This mapping project builds digital skills and literacies by focusing on how to convey stories about enslavement to a contemporary audience via digital maps and how choosing a digital medium affects the stories that we tell.

The author’s training in digital mapping was generously supported by a Digital Learning Initiative Grant provided by St. Norbert College.

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Ancient Grudge to New Love: A Remix of Romeo and Juliet

Tim Jansky, PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, tjansky @ wisc.edu

Abstract. Jansky discuss how he remixed his Romeo and Juliet unit to best capture the multimodal composing that was already happening in his classroom, a shift resulting in a student-centered approach leading to free-styling, collaboration, and the creation of music videos telling the story of Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

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Guest Editor’s Introduction

Jeff Kunkle, Capital High School, Madison, jrkunkle @ madison.k12.wi.us

I was drawn to English education largely because of my love of books. I suspect that many of you were, too. The path from avid early reader to English teacher is not uncommon. Many of my conversations with colleagues inevitably drift toward what books we’ve been reading or teaching or hoping to read so we can teach them. Summer break, for most of the English teachers I know, is a time to work through the pile of books on the bedside table. Most of the teachers reading this will be able to point to a formative reading experience that revealed to them the magic and mystery to be found between the covers of a book.

My reading journey began with Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, and the collected works of Charles Schultz. I soon moved onto trailblazing YA authors like Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton. Before long I was spending long hours devouring gargantuan Stephen King novels. In high school a friend turned me onto Vonnegut and Kerouac; I, chock-full of pretension, toted around Cat’s Cradle and On the Road as badges of nonconformity and coolness.

After I was asked to guest edit this section of Wisconsin English Journal, with its focus on the teaching of literature, I reflected back upon the literature instruction I received in high school. I graduated in the early 90s, and looking back at my K-12 academic reading experiences, I was startled at how conservative–how hugely traditional–they were. As far as I can recall, I was assigned no books written by women in my four years of English classes. I was assigned only one book by a person of color. (That book, though, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, was about the coolest stuff Crystal Lake South ever pulled on me. Kudos to Marcus Sullivan for having the guts to teach that classic, brimming with sex, violence, and allegory, to a bunch of wide-eyed suburban Chicago teenagers.) The authors we read and discussed in class–Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Golding, Homer–were pillars of the canon.

The classroom activities surrounding the reading of the books were likewise mired in traditionalism. I remember a lot of worksheets, a lot of multiple choice quizzes and tests. Not much writing. (A notable exception was the classroom of the esteemed Bill Weller, who dared to allow us to be creative. We wrote stories of metamorphosis while reading Kafka, made playlists of songs while reading Crime and Punishment. Mr. Weller’s showing us a live performance of Talkings Heads’ lead singer David Byrne performing “Psycho Killer” is the second-coolest thing CLHS dropped on me.) Although the battles over the canon and rote learning assignments were raging elsewhere, the frontlines had clearly not yet reached the northwest suburbs of Chicago in 1991 (nor, I suspect, much of the nation’s high schools).

Reading over the articles in this section, I am heartened to see that creativity, diversity, and progressivism are burning brightly in today’s classrooms. I was invariably excited by the ideas put forth by the authors (ideas that more than once or twice had me thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to steal that”). Clearly, at least some of the students of America’s middle schools, high schools, and universities are being challenged by reading experiences that are innovative and inclusive, thought-provoking and progressive.

Tim Janksy, in his article “Ancient Grudge to New Love: A Remix of Romeo and Juliet,” takes a text that has seemingly been taught to every freshman since the Bard’s death in 1616 and reinvigorates it through an innovative unit design, one rich in multimodal composing and intertextuality. The final activity of this “remixed” take on Shakespeare is the creation of collaborative music videos. I suspect my former teacher Mr. Weller would approve.

Innovative engagement with classic texts is likewise the focus of Amy Lewis’s “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives: Engaging Student Scholars in the Production of Digital Story Maps.” In this article, Lewis describes her experiences furthering her students’ understanding of and immersion in classic slave narratives through a digital story mapping project. She describes how her students were able to better appreciate and contextualize the harrowing experiences depicted in these narratives through the application of modern digital tools. The results are fascinating and inspiring, and applicable to a multitude of texts.

Two of the articles in this issue deal with the importance of allowing for choice in the literature classroom. Mary Beth Nicklaus’s article “‘I Only Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ and Other Junior High Tales of Terror: Helping Boys Choose Books while Staying True to the Self-Selected Novel” discusses the author’s struggles–and, ultimately, her successes–in moving her classroom of reluctant readers towards more challenging texts while keeping their reading experiences relevant and engaging. Patrick McFadden’s “‘Book Reading, Baby!’: An Adventure in Teaching Literature” describes the author’s experiences in taking the framework of literature circles and evolving it to allow for student ownership, collaboration, and accountability. As in Lewis’s article on digital story mapping, McFadden shows how digital technologies can be incorporated into the literature classroom to reinvigorate instruction.

The theme of reinvigorating classroom activities is also present in Aaliyah Baker’s article “Establishing Safe Learning Environments for Open Discussion of Critical Issues.” Baker argues that meaningful engagement with literature can best be fostered by moving students out of their comfort zones and into new territories of thought. Doing so requires the creation of safe academic spaces; Baker demonstrates how creation of such spaces can produce powerful classroom moments and meaningful student engagement with the text.

Sometimes moving beyond comfort zones means challenging the notion of what constitutes literature. In “‘Are My Songs Literature?” Lessons Learned from Teaching a Non-Traditional Text,” Jim Carlson, Emily Mootz, and Krystle Thomas explore the benefits of expanding–or exploding–the canon in an English classroom. They document their fascinating experience teaching Kendrik Lamar’s seminal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly to a group of high school students. This experience allowed them to engage with larger questions of what “counts” as literature and how non-traditional texts such as rap albums can engage students in unique, powerful ways.

Such innovative, progressive English classrooms will become the norm if post-secondary programs adequately prepare pre-service teachers to think about the teaching of literature in new ways. Amanda Stearns-Pfeiffer, in “Practice-Based Instruction in English Teacher Education: Teaching Novice Teachers to Lead Class Discussions,” describes how focused, practice-based instruction on how to lead discussions can result in new teachers better able to create the conditions for meaningful, authentic classroom conversation. Stearns-Pfieffer shows how pre-service teachers must be allowed to move beyond theory to actual practice, and offers several strategies to better equip emerging teachers with the skills to lead rich classroom discussions.

Elsie Olan and Kia Richmond also explore how to better prepare future English teachers in “Storying Our Journey: Conversations about the Literary Canon and Course Development in Secondary English Education.” The authors pose the question of how to further engage pre-service teachers in a wide range of texts, both canonical and contemporary. They also demonstrate the power of collaboration and conversation in creating more engaging, effective classroom experiences: it becomes clear that meaningful dialogue about teachers’ own practices and experiences can lead to classrooms ready to develop lifelong learners and readers.

As the guest editor for this section of Wisconsin English Journal, I was privileged to be reminded just how innovative and progressive the field of English education has become, and just how many ways we can foster a love of reading in our students. Enjoy, and I hope that you, too, are able to steal some of the potent ideas put forth by these authors and work them into your own classrooms.

Rigor, Young Adult Literature, and Socioeconomics: An Analysis of High School Literacy Teachers’ Text Choices from National Survey Data

Ashley S Boyd, Washington State University, ashley.boyd @ wsu.edu
Janine J Darragh, University of Idaho, janined @ uidaho.edu

Abstract. Boyd and Darragh report on a national survey administered to secondary English teachers to explore the factors that influenced their text selections and to examine how those factors varied according to socioeconomic considerations.

The authors would like to thank Chad Gotch for his contributions to the design of the survey utilized in this research and for his insights into analysis. In addition, they would like to thank Kathleen M. D. Malley for providing statistical consultation and offering insightful feedback on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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What We Choose, and Why

Marci Glaus, English Language Arts Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Marci.Glaus @ dpi.wi.gov

I was fortunate enough to attend the National Council of Teachers of English Convention last November and found myself participating in several sessions related to the teaching of literature. One session, titled, “Starting off Right: First Literature Choices in the High School English Classroom,” focused on which text educators chose to start off the school year. There were five educators from five different schools or universities, each with a unique twist on which text he or she chose and the logic behind that choice.

The purpose behind the session was to spark conversation among the crowd. After hearing about the texts from each of the panelists, it was apparent that participants in the audience were welcome to share titles from their local contexts. There were some familiar names and titles and some questioning across the crowd about which grade some of the books were used. I found myself wondering, what was it about a particular text that could provide a meaningful experience for all students in a classroom? Can just one text do this?

One of the most interesting takeaways from this session was that out of all of the texts educators shared, there were no repeats, even within the same grade level. Some educators even said that they did not start the year using one text, but started offering choice right away. There were not many, but a few educators broke from the theme of book titles to talk about different digital texts they started with for students to read and explore in various ways. By the end of the session, there was no consensus on a text that might be the “best” with which to begin a school year; however, that was not the point. The focus of the panel and ensuing discussion turned into a meaningful examination of what different texts actually do for teaching and learning purposes in different contexts. From offering students complete choice to following a district mandated pacing guide, educators focused on why they chose particular texts, especially if they were breaking from perceived tradition.

Focusing on why educators chose particular texts was also a natural segue into how they taught literature. Even though this was not the focus of the session, there were important contributions related to the teaching of literature, along with some disagreement. There was some pushback from the audience related to set curriculum, district pacing guides, and even the fear associated with blazing one’s own path in the name of meaningful instruction. It actually turned out that one of the panelists was required to use the same purchased curriculum and pacing guide an audience member talked about. The panelist described how she stepped away from it almost immediately and continues to do so based on what transpires in her classroom without it. She also had a trusting principal who saw the progress students were making.

Whether discussing the first text of the school year or the last, the literature that we choose says something about how we teach. As Bergman (2017) points out, although teachers have varying levels of freedom when it comes to curricular choices, “it is important, whenever possible, to select texts that are culturally relevant; feature young, relatable protagonists; and offer ample opportunity for real-world connections” (p. 188). In order to incorporate literature that that speaks to the individual students in our classrooms, it is imperative that we take opportunities each year to reflect on the texts we use for teaching literature and why. This begs several questions. How often do we reflect individually and collaboratively on texts we use in the classroom and why?  What access do we have to various texts or resources for continued reflection and practice? Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) well-known motto regarding the purpose of books resonates here. She states that books can act as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” I firmly argue for myriad opportunities for students to see themselves in what they read, opportunities to see out into the world and experience new and different things in what they read, along with space to step into what they read in order to question, try out, and co-construct the worlds available to them through literature. This does not happen with one text, but many. It does not happen simply in the act of reading, but through introductions to various texts, exposure, and myriad opportunities for discussion.

An imperative part of teaching literature has to do with providing time and space for students to talk about what they read. This reflects not only the integrated nature of the English language arts, but where students’ motivation comes from when they read in different contexts, which are situated among different social values (Crumpler & Wedwick, 2011). This means that we first begin to understand our students as people. This is how we make literature viable to all students and the many different strengths they bring into the classroom.

Whether you start the year with Faulkner or open up the classroom library with book talks and recommendations, it is what happens in the spaces with and around those texts where we get to know students, what they think, and where they are coming from when they read that will continue to matter through the semester, school year, and beyond.  


Bergman, D. (2017). “‘It’s easier when it’s personal’: What made reading real for two tweens with learning disabilities. Language Arts, 94(3): 180-189.

Bishop, S.R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi.

Crumpler, T., & Wedwick, L. (2011). Readers, texts, and contexts in the middle: Re-imagining literature education for young adolescents. In S. Wolf et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature (63-75). New York: Routledge.