Writing Contest for Teachers & Educators

To encourage teachers to join the wider professional community, each year CATE sponsors a professional writing contest. A prompt will be published in California English and on CATEweb. Entries must be electronically submitted, must be 1500 words or fewer, and should show how the writer uses theory, professional reading, or classroom research for classroom practice.

2024 Writing Prompt

PROMPT: Teaching for the Real World

We do not teach in a vacuum.
We teach for people who live in the real world.
Describe a real-world incident or phenomenon that has made its way into your classroom.
How did it impact your teaching?

Deadline for submissions: August 15, 2024

First Place: One basic registration to CATE 2025 in Burlingame, plus publication in California English and on CATEweb.org.

Second Place: One CATE membership, plus publication in California English and on CATEweb.org.

Submission Guidelines

Directions for submitting the entry:

  • Include writer’s name, address, phone number, school and district, and email address.
  • Articles limited to 1500 words.
  • The deadline for submission is August 15, 2024.
  • Email manuscripts formatted in Microsoft Word or Google Docs to Joan Williams via email: joanlwilliams@gmail.com.

Professional Writing Contest Winners

  • 2023 – Janet Dell’Anno

    Dinuba High School, Dinuba

    Theme: Sea Changes: Traditions and Transformations in California English Language Arts

    “Look for the Silver Lining”

    Read the winning entry in: California English - A future issue

  • 2023 – Sarah Ahlers

    La Colina Junior High School, Goleta

    Theme: Sea Changes: Traditions and Transformations in California English Language Arts

    “Rising Above Dilemma”

    Read the winning entry in: California English - A future issue

  • 2021 – Kathleen Rowley

    UCLA Writing Project

    “Is This Year Different? Bruh.”

    Read the winning entry in: California English Vol. 26 No. 4 May 2021 pp. 23-24

  • 2020 – Jay Richards

    Central Middle School, San Carlos

    Theme: LA Confidential: Investigating Teaching, Texts, & Truths

    “The Path to Outrage”

    Read the winning entry in: California English Vol. 26 No. 4 May 2021 pp. 20-21

  • 2019 – R. Joseph Rodriguez

    Literacy Education. San Joaquin Valley and Austin, TX

    Theme: Voices Of Literacy In Pursuit Of Human Rights

    “Into the Fields”

    Read the winning entry in: California English Vol. 25 No. 3 February 2020 p. 19

  • 2018 – Callie Ryan Brimberry

    Tidewater Regional Alternative Educational Program

    Theme: With Literacy & Justice For All

    “Conversations in the Margin”

    Read the winning entry in: California English Vol. 24 No. 3 February 2019, pp.26-27

  • 2017 – Glenn Morgan

    La Jolla High School, San Diego City Schools

    Theme: With Literacy and Justice for All

    “Concepts of Literacy and Justice”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2016 – Jannifer Heiner

    Alverno High School, Sierra Madre

    Theme: Inspiring Literate Lives

    “Literature, Re-Appropiated Language, and Respect”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2015 – Martin Brandt

    Independence High School, East Side Union High School District, San Jose

    Theme: Uncommon Connections

    “Diving Well”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2014 – Mary Adler

    CSU Channel Islands

    Theme: Paying It Forward

    “Reader, Teacher, Text, Poem: Paying It Forward”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2014 – Brandy Price

    Ingenium Charter School Principal

    Theme: Paying It Forward

    “Feeling Home: Our Minds, a Palace”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2013 – Brandy Price

    Ingenium Charter School Principal

    Theme: Keep Calm and Read On

    “Mind the Gap: The Common Core as Social Justice”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2013 – Steve Rodriguez

    Olympian High School, Sweetwater Union High School District

    Theme: Keep Calm and Read On

    “The Messy Pursuit of Rigor and Relevance”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2012 – Thomas Roddy, Jr.

    Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles Unified School District

    Theme: Crossing Boundaries

    “Looking for Loveliness”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2012 – Brandy Price

    Ingenium Charter School Principal

    Theme: Crossing Boundaries

    “Wordsworth Lights the Way”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2012 – Jenny Lambert

    Carondelet High School

    Theme: Crossing Boundaries

    “The Turtle and the Hare”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2012 – Kate Flowers, NBCT

    Santa Clara High School

    Theme: Crossing Boundaries

    “Clinging to Shakespeare: A Desperate Parent's Reading of Romeo and Juliet”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2011 – Lucy Filppu

    Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto Unified School District

    Theme: Never More Crucial

    “From Corner Office to Corner Classroom”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2011 – Susan Strauss

    John Adams Middle School, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District

    Theme: Never More Crucial

    “Five Jobs in Five Years: Joy, Pain, and Academic Optimism”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2011 – Mark Gozonsky

    Crenshaw High School, Los Angeles Unifies School District

    Theme: Never More Crucial

    “You There! Yes, You!’ or, What Inspired You to Enter the Teaching Profession?”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2010 – Karen Yelton-Curtis

    McLane High School, Fresno Unified School DistrictFresno Unified School District

    Theme: Taking the Road Less Traveled

    “Teacher as reformer: Endorsing the need for critical thinking”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2010 – Robin Lilly

    Newbury Park High School, Conejo Valley Unified School District

    Theme: Taking the Road Less Traveled

    “It Can't Be Done!”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2009 – Chuck Dowdle, Retired

    Rincon Valley Junior High School, Santa Rosa City Schools

    Theme: Voices at the Epicenter of Change

    “Teaching the Universe of Discourse”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2009 – Steve Rodriguez

    Olympian High School , Sweetwater Union High School District

    Teacher: Sweetwater Union High School District

    Theme: Voices at the Epicenter of Change

    “A Brief Literary Interlude”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2008 – Scott Soucy

    Oak Hill Elementary, Escondido Union School District

    Theme: Writing the Wind

    “Clay Animation Films to Support Reading Comprehension Strategies”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2008 – Elizabeth Scher

    University High School, Los Angeles Unified School District

    Theme: Writing the Wind

    “Making Hamlet Relevant in the 21st Century”

    Read the winning entry

  • 2007 – Mark Heydon

    Tomales High School

    Theme: Fertile Ground – A Landscape of Voices

    “Dancing With Voldemort”

  • 2007 – Eric Eisner

    University High School

    Theme: Fertile Ground – A Landscape of Voices

    “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

  • 2007 – Christopher Douthit

    Ukiah High School

    Theme: Fertile Ground – A Landscape of Voices

    “Learning to See”

  • 2007 – Susan F. Lusk

    Reedley High School, Kings Canyon Unified School District

    Theme: Fertile Ground – A Landscape of Voices

    “An Album of Memories”

    Over the course of ... read more >

    Over the course of a lifetime, the people we meet and the experiences we encounter along the way, all influence us in one way or another.  As an avid reader, books figure prominently in the experiences that have touched my life in ways that often do not become apparent until years later.  One such book is An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. However, it is impossible to talk about the book without talking briefly about the person who recommended the book to me.  Many of us have experienced the guidance and support of mentors in our personal and professional lives.  These tend to be people who are older and wiser, but in many ways, my greatest mentor is my son Joe.  Joe was killed in 2005 during the War for Iraqi Freedom when his Apache helicopter crashed during what was termed a routine training mission.  I ended Joe’s eulogy with these words: “Age has nothing to do with whom we admire.  Quite simply, Joe is my hero.”  Joe left behind an amazing legacy.  Being in the Army meant that Joe was away from home much of the time. When he was absent on special occasions, he always sent me at least one book along with the flowers or candy or trinkets he picked up in his travels.  It was almost like he was trying to broaden my mind and my thinking while still remembering that my first loves were mysteries and historical novels.  But the lessons I have learned since reading An Album of Memories were the true gifts and they have radically altered my thinking about life and my relationships both in and out of the classroom.

    On the inside cover of An Album of Memories it states “…Members of that generation, characteristically, are modest, yet quietly proud of what they have achieved individually and collectively…In turn their children and grandchildren…are reexamining their own lives and values, measuring them against the legacy of their parents and grandparents…a kind of symbiotic effect in which the generations, by interacting, are giving new meaning to their lives.”  I am both the daughter of a WWII veteran – a member of this “greatest generation” – and the mother of a son who gave his life in the same fight for freedom that his grandfather fought.  It is an amazing position to be in, inspiring both pride and humility as well a burning desire to instill in others the drive to connect with the past in order to understand the present and improve the future.

    When I first read An Album of Memories in late 2002, I was struck by the many hardships and sacrifices endured by the members of this amazing generation and wondered whether I would have the strength to endure any or all of the trials and tragedies they experienced, let alone survive and go on with dignity and head held high.  The stories I read ran the gamut from reflections of a black nurse encountering wartime segregation and a seventeen year old’s description of the Bataan Death March to memories of those serving on the home front – moms and dads, wives and sweethearts – those left behind to live in fear of receiving the telegram that would spell defeat in a very private way and change their lives forever.  Two and a half years later when I received my own “telegram” in the form of two officers standing at my door telling me, “We regret to inform you…,” I discovered that one does find the strength to survive with dignity and to go on with head held high if for no other reason than that our lost loved one would expect it and therefore we demand it of ourselves.  When the initial shock wore off, I returned to the gift my son sent me, An Album of Memories, and read it again with new insight into the trials of the Greatest Generation and decided then and there that I needed to find ways to honor the sacrifices of my son and the thousands of others of his generation who were losing their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The first opportunity arose in the spring of 2006 when I received a letter from an organization called Stories of Service.  This organization is dedicated to bringing young, technology-oriented youth in the community together with World War II vets and their families to capture their stories for all time before this amazing generation passes on.  In addition, this group started Stories of the Fallen as a way of honoring the young men and women being lost to us in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Creating a DVD story of Joe’s life allowed me to mourn my son in a very special and personal way.

    I have since gone on to help another mom with her story and plans are underway to reach out to the more than twenty families in our area who have lost children in the current conflicts.  One of my students once asked me, “What is the best thing you have ever written, Mrs. Lusk?”  This query was in response to an end of the year assignment where they were to choose their “best” piece of writing, rework it and then present it to the class.  I took a deep breath and trusted them with the story of Joe’s life.  When the story ended there were tears and respectful silence.  A few honored me with a hug on the way out of class.  Joe’s story had an impact to be sure, but I had yet to realize a way to extend the impact of that experience on my students beyond that one showing.

    As any veteran teacher for knows, teaching is not a job; it is not even a profession or a career.  Teaching is a lifestyle, a calling that requires a commitment and dedication far beyond the requirements of a typical job.  We do amazingly weird things like saving Styrofoam packing material because it just might come in handy for an art project later in the year or taping a documentary on a world event because it may apply to a unit we have planned for an American Literature class or collecting unique shells on a vacation because the beautiful colors and shapes might possibly inspire our students to create an award winning poem.  As teachers we are never really “off-duty”.  Our minds are always on the alert for ways to improve our teaching and connect with our students.

    As time passed and I moved farther along my journey of grief, it occurred to me that if I were to stop with Joe’s story and those of other Gold Star parents, I would not be fulfilling my destiny as the daughter of a father who is a member of the “greatest generation” and the mother of a son who is a member of this newest “great generation.”  So I returned to An Album of Memories, reread my favorite stories and pondered ways I could further honor these men and women and my son and his comrades.

    I am forever telling my students that in order to understand and appreciate literature, they must first have an understanding and appreciation of history, of the events and issues of the times during which a particular piece of literature was written.  Students today tend to dismiss as boring anything to which they cannot readily relate.  What better way to make literature and history relevant than to allow my students the opportunity to connect with both on a personal level?  Tom Brokaw through his books and Stories of Service through their DVDs already provide a venue for the voices of “the greatest generation.”  How could I help my students to connect with living history in their own communities?  We have a very large and active veteran’s group in our town. The Vietnam Vets in particular are a constant and involved presence both in the community and the schools.  The plaque on the base of our high school’s flag pole is dedicated to the “Reedley 13”, the thirteen Reedley High School graduates who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Why not borrow an amazing idea from the experts and develop a project that allows my students to interview Vietnam veterans with the goal being to give a voice to the men and women of what, coincidentally, is my own generation?  So here I am three and a half years after first reading An Album of Memories and two and a half years after the death of my own son, developing lessons that will bring history and literature to life in ways that will broaden my students’ views and experiences, and hopefully, raise awareness of the trials and hardships of an earlier generation.

    I am grateful to my son for introducing me to an amazing book and for opening my eyes and my heart to the great generation that shaped me and instilled in me strong values; values buried under the hassles of everyday life, but brought crashing to the surface by my own tragedy.  It is my sincere wish that all of us, but especially my students, listen to the past, take note of the present, and influence and inspire future generations.

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  • 2006 – Lacey Segal

    Poway High School

    Theme: An "E Ticket" Experience

    “Noticing Siddhartha”

    I was nine years ... read more >

    I was nine years old when I took off all my clothes and stared in the mirror. Scanning the length of my body, I paused and gazed into my own eyes. Is that what the being thinking these thoughts looks like? The expressionless face observing me seemed distant, somehow, to my thoughts, my feelings, all the sensations, emotions, memories, and pulsations that made up “me.” I wondered by the mirror that day who, and more importantly, what I was.

    Thomas was in his body, too, like me. If he could open his eyes, he would see a body. But Thomas wasn’t really alive. Mom told me that he was a vegetable and that meant his brain was dead. They (I wasn’t sure who they were) had to pull some sort of a plug and then he would be dead, officially; even though, she said, he might as well be dead now. He was my friend who died in a Jet Ski accident on Mission Bay when we were nine.

    Was my body a shell or was my body my self? Why did Thomas still have a body but he didn’t really exist any more? What does it mean to be half alive? I stood by that mirror for a long time, thinking and looking.

    I’ve learned a tool for successful introspection. It goes like this: trace the thought that lead to the thought, and then mine for the thought behind it. If I really want to get subtle, I try to examine the energy behind the thought that lead to the thought that lead to the thought….. It’s a seemingly endless process of knot-untying. So many of my thoughts today lead back to that day when I heard about Tom and I looked in the mirror.
    Since I am now a high school teacher, I wonder about my students and their experiences. I think good teachers observe their students quietly, and thoughtfully, viewing each child as an individual, and recognizing the knots they will spend their lives untying. Great teachers provide tools and inspiration to help students understand themselves with clarity and honesty; thus students see the world through lenses not tainted by inner turmoil or warped by personalized misconception.

    At the same time, a model teacher realizes the importance of a learner’s autonomy and self-reliance. The novel, Siddhartha highlights this truth when the fictional Buddha-to-be tells his best friend, Govinda, of his recent revelation that wisdom cannot be verbalized or written down. “I’m not kidding. I’m telling you what I’ve found. Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers” (Hesse 115). To Siddhartha, wisdom is like a harmonious sensation, as the mind and the physical body blend. It is something to be experienced, not learned from an outside source.

    I loved the novel Siddhartha….when I read it at age 23 after I had gotten really excited about yoga. I had a context for the novel as well as an intrinsic drive to read it. As I approached my world literature teaching assignment in a suburban, mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly conservative district, I can honestly say I shuddered at the thought of teaching the novel. I could already hear their voices: “Miss Segal, this is so boring! Why do we have to read this!”

    And truthfully, the first time I taught the book I did a terrible job. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it either. (What is enlightenment? For example) How to teach a novel with very little plot drive befuddled me. They said what I imagined and much worse: “I hate this book!” “Everybody said it was bad so I didn’t read it last night.” “What’s up with this Sidd guy running around naked? What a freak.” “This book sucks.”

    Besides the inherent challenges of teaching a book with a humdrum plot, a vast cultural divide between reader and character, and some unique philosophical essences, I balked at the idea of teaching a book which embodied the message to readers: You Don’t Need Teachers.

    I spent the next year trying to understand Siddhartha. I did this because I wanted to be a better teacher but I also did it because it bothered me. Maybe Siddhartha knew what he was when he looked in a mirror. Maybe if somebody is enlightened, she gets to know answers to secrets about life and death. If I really thought about it, I was still trying to figure out what happened to Tom, my own primordial question, and I was using great literature as a guide.

    So began (or perhaps continued) my own “spiritual journey.” I attended yoga classes which seemed more like aerobics with burning incense and I tried to learn meditation. It was really boring and stressful. My father taught me a mantra but my list of “things to do” would always trump his “Ra-Da-Humm.” After meeting a few self-professed “healers” and attending a handful of quasi-spiritual gatherings, classes, and services, I began to feel like young Siddhartha himself, only much less dedicated. I was not willing to renounce my life and wander in the forest; I was just a teacher checking out some spiritual stuff in her free time.

    Then, two significant things happened. I met an acupuncturist who taught me Taoist standing meditation and I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery in Big Sur. The contents of those experiences may be reserved for another essay; however, I can profess that I learned techniques to lower my stress level, increase my vitality, and feel connected to things bigger than me. Most important of all: I learned to teach the novel Siddhartha!

    On the first day of the unit I told my high school seniors, “This book changed my life.” I told them of my terrible time teaching it last year and how I went to a monastery for a week in the summer so that I could teach it better.

    I created an anticipatory set that included Buddhist philosophical ideas, themes from the book, and then had them rate the ideas on a spectrum of 1-10, one indicating strong agreement, and ten indicating strong disagreement. After that, they stood in places along the spectrum in the room, discussing their perceptions of the statements and opinions. They formed groups and discussed hand-picked passages before reading the book, making predictions and sharing out to the class.

    I met a filmmaker who had just created a documentary about two young kids from the United States traveling in India during a rare spiritual gathering of Gurus and followers along the Ganges called the Kumba Mela. I convinced the artist to give me a copy of his film so that my students could visualize the book and get a taste of the country.

    Each teen received a straw that he was to breathe through as I briefly lectured about Herman Hesse. They observed their breathing. Was it smooth and rounded? Was it choppy and shallow? Did it spasm? These were the questions I asked. Then I explained how many eastern religions, like Buddhism, believe that the way one breathes is a direct reflection of his health: mentally, physically, and spiritually. If one is stressed and living in the future, his breath would be choppy or shallow or tense; therefore, his blood could not flow properly into his internal organs to nourish them, and his thoughts might be racing, his hasty actions not matching feelings in his heart.

    We did mind-body, stress-reducing, metacognitive activities like this through the entire reading of the book. As we ended the novel, I guided the students through an optional meditation (with an alternative assignment if students did not want to participate) where the goal was to notice tension in their bodies and release it.

    How did the Siddhartha unit go this year? They loved it. It was their favorite. At least ten of them, on separate occasions approached me in the hall and asked when we could meditate again.

    Something really beautiful happened. They slowed down. They read the text. In Socratic Seminars they pointed out how the number three resonated throughout the book. They liked the rhythmical flow and the poetry of the repetitions. One student said that Hesse’s syntax flowed like the river, a very important symbol in the novel. I am not kidding about this: he actually said the word syntax. I almost fell off my wooden stool. When my students took a deep breath, relaxed, and read Siddhartha, it wasn’t boring anymore. My students noticed it.

    “You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes”(Hesse 113).

    Works Cited
    Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. New York: New Directions Books, 1951.

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  • 2005 – Cheryl M. Clarke

    Ramona Unified School District

    Theme: The Power of One

    “When Little Aunt Emmie Wouldn't Grow Up”

    Several years ago, after ... read more >

    Several years ago, after I had finished my doctoral studies, I vowed I would spend the next several years reading only books I chose myself. Having bush-whacked my way through acres of research and dry statistical findings, I found myself yearning to fall into a lagoon of the mindless, trashy novel. As anyone enmeshed in full time college classes can attest, leisure reading if there is any, is very dear and as selfishly spent as the parsimonious miser parts company with his bag of pennies. Therefore I looked only for titles with words such as “rapture” and “unbidden love” in them. Anything sounding vaguely intellectual, definitely didn’t make the short list. I yearned for mindless reading to satisfy my reading appetite. Eventually the bustle-busting aforementioned novels began digesting my brain cells and I knew it was time to move on. Remembering the warm fuzzies I had experienced growing up with children’s literature, I next decided to revisit those old friends once more.

    Family travels to second hand book stores and Salvation Army shops in search of something to good to read, were a regular part of my childhood summer vacations. It was a family affair, and we each came away with a crate of treasures: science and travel for my father, Victorian novels for my mother, romances for my sister, and the Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, or Trixie Belden mysteries for me. Good used hard backs could be purchased for a dime to fifty cents. Back then second hand books weren’t known as antiques; the bookseller just considered them old books. He might even throw in a couple for free on a good day. My book collection grew and grew as I could never bear to part with a single one. By the time I left home, my library was long outgrown and gathering dust for many years. I bid a sad farewell to each volume, and then left them on the doorstep of an unsuspecting resale shop. Now thirty-five years later I was most enthusiastic to rediscover the tomes of my childhood.

    Looking up old school friends or acquaintances from many years past can be poignant, joyous or downright disappointing. People change, their lives may take a turn for better or for worse. The ideas and interests we might have had in common while in our youth, may not hold true in later maturity. Books on the other hand are steadfast. The story we read when we were twelve will be the same story we read when we are fifty. My expectations were quite high when I began haunting second hand stores, catalogues, and the internet in search of the titles I had so carelessly abandoned years before.

    It didn’t take long to amass most of the books I could remember enjoying, plus some titles that had escaped my notice. These were an especially serendipitous find, as the story lines were completely new to me. There is, however, one particular book that stands out as affording an epiphany moment on my re-reading journey. Little Aunt Emmie, by Alice E. Allen, was written in 1925, and was my most cherished childhood book. For some reason I hadn’t abandoned it with all the others, and it had traveled with me for the past three decades. I had probably purchased it on one of our book forays. There is a fifty cent price mark written in pencil on the inside cover. It also carries an inscription, “To my sweetheart, from Daddy” in beautiful old time handwriting. When I look at the book, I wonder if “sweetheart” is still around. The color pasteboard cover pictures the heroine on a mule, riding up a mountain path. I have vivid memories of reading about Emmie’s adventures while sprawled on my stomach in front of the fire. To my young mind she seemed so self sufficient, even though a very little girl. I loved reading the descriptions of the Adirondack Mountains and the children in the story exploring Indian legends there.

    So it was with great anticipation I looked forward to spending time again with Emmie. As I turned the first page I was ready to once again seek the paths where Emmie and her friends played in the woods. But quickly into the second chapter, alarm bells began to ring. Where was the Emmie of my childhood? Where was the adventurous spirit who motivated me to yearn to be in charge of my own world? Who was this petulant little brat stamping her foot when she didn’t get her way? Perhaps most perplexing of all, how had this trivial piece of writing become my most cherished childhood book?

    English teachers are quick to point out that books read for the first time in school, will be read quite differently in later years. Catcher in the Rye at sixteen is not the same novel when read at twenty-five or thirty-five. Life experiences and maturity levels give us new perspectives when judging text that were not in place in our teen years. In our youth Holden Caulfield might be someone we want to emulate. With the perspective of distance and time, he might seem an endearing young man in an impossible world, but we probably wouldn’t wish to take his place.

    When I reread Little Aunt Emmie, I knew it wouldn’t have the freshness of a first read. But I did expect to feel some of the awe and adventure I remembered sprawled on my belly in front of the fire. This caused me to think about the literature my students and I read and recommend to each other and the class. We are reading the same books, yet are we? When I talk to the kids about a book like Holes, I am thinking of a solid plot, interesting characters, and some good moral convictions. When kids discuss or recommend Holes, they invariably point out the underdog overcoming the odds and taking the power away from the bad guys. They can identify with the underdog; they can become incensed over the evil use of power. Because Holes is inherently a good novel, it can be read again and again with the enjoyment level remaining high and appreciation deepening for new reasons. Perhaps at a future date my students will also note its solid plot, interesting characters, and good moral convictions.

    Little Aunt Emmie wasn’t a very good novel. Although I loved it at the time, it didn’t stand the test of time, nor did it give me something to savor at a later reading. Good reading begets good reading. For this reason it is imperative that young readers have access to good literature which they will internalize as a benchmark for future book choices. This is not to say that the occasional trashy novel doesn’t fulfill a need. It can also be a quite satisfying quick fix for the beach chair or endless plane ride. The fix here, though, is superficial. This kind of novel is easy to give away or put in the thrift shop bag. It doesn’t become the old friend you are pleased to see occupying a special place on your bookshelf.

    On the other hand, a Huckleberry Finn or Gone with the Wind speaks to us on a much deeper level and causes us to grapple with universal issues germane to everyone. Great literature invites profound thinking. Shallow literature demands no thinking. Our young readers should be served a smorgasbord of reading materials they can devour on a variety of levels. With our experience, we can offer something for every appetite, and no one should ever leave the table hungry. Little Aunt Emmie filled my plate to overflowing when I was ten. But then again at ten one can easily be filled with ice cream and cake. As the head chefs in our classrooms we have the ability to nurture the love of great literature. And if in thirty years one of my students decides to reread Tom Sawyer, I know he won’t be disappointed; his plate will be full.

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  • 2004 – Janet Hansen

    Sonoma Valley High School

    Theme: Legacy

    “Resolved: Forensics Promotes Academic Success”

    Ask any teacher—a moment ... read more >

    Ask any teacher—a moment of complacency will be paid for with hours of self-accusation. I began teaching Speech and Debate with the desire to pass on to my class the legacy I received from my speech teacher at the same high school many years before. I hoped my students would become powerful communicators with questioning spirits, passionate about their future as informed citizens of our great democracy. Six months ago, watching the new recruits mutter and drone through their first assignment, that goal seemed far away. Now, as members of my cheering Forensics team received their trophies in the packed university auditorium, I could savor that instant of pride in our progress. Although not every student in the large group had advanced to championship level, they had all, as writers, speakers, scholars and citizens, improved noticeably—every one of them.

    I was able to bask in my success until I climbed back on the bus with the team and started work on my week’s lesson plans for my three 11th grade English classes. Immediately I was forced to compare the uneven progress of my English classes with the steady improvement of my debaters. Would an outside observer assessing my English students over the course of this year find that most had made gains in their skills which had transformed them as students? The moment was over–the answer was clearly no.

    In my Speech classes we develop skills which enable students to succeed in competitive public speaking. Our Northern California league, the Golden Gate Speech Association, is affiliated with the California High School Speech Association, and the National Forensic League. Any weekend of the school year will find thousands of suit-wearing high school students giving up their Saturdays to compete for applause, glory, and cheap plastic trophies. These Speech programs are often called ‘Forensics’ because students are trained in argumentation and examination as practiced in a court of law. On the bus I set myself a research task: identify the elements of the program which make Forensics training so effective, and develop plans to incorporate these successfully into my English classes.

    Like a good debater I rejected the weaker arguments. First, the teacher is not the key to Forensics success. Forensics students improve in a variety of schools with a disparate group of instructors. I work hard to prepare thoroughly and instruct effectively for both my subjects; I have a passion for both. A particular group of students is not the hidden strength–Forensics does not succeed because the classes are populated only by talented students. Although many academically successful students are attracted to debate, a high GPA does not guarantee self-confidence on stage, and students join the class from diverse backgrounds for a variety of reasons. My class includes language learners, special education students, and kids who need financial aid to buy their competition clothes. One of our most successful students in the last few years enrolled in the class as a freshman because he thought he would learn how to do autopsies. Finally, there is no powerful curriculum unique to Forensics. All of the skills developed in Forensics are delineated in the California State Language Arts Standards. Though the task is often squeezed by conflicting demands, every language arts class should be developing students’ public speaking abilities. Forensics and English classes also share an increasing emphasis on non-fiction. Forensics students, who begin with a wide range of reading skill, often develop substantially as researchers and readers over a semester. One reason is that they are reading purposefully—searching for material useful in supporting their arguments. Also, Forensics students are reading evaluatively. Opponents will challenge them on the nature and quality of their source material, and they must be able to defend it. As an English teacher, I learn from Forensics that a clear and imminent need for information increases the efficiency of the reading. Class debate, which can be used in so many ways in English, is an excellent way to encourage this type of focused reading.

    Speech is a part of Language Arts, but some of the most effective elements of the Forensics program are unique. Foremost, though its importance may be exaggerated for the participants, a Forensics tournament is real. It’s obvious to students that Speech assignments don’t belong to the teacher, but to the class. Research, writing, and rehearsal are required for success in competitions. Assignment deadlines are dictated by the schedule; late work is of no use to the team. At tournaments, lack of preparation or effort is not just a matter between student, teacher, and transcript. Our league’s attitude is encouraging and supportive—students who prepare to the best of their ability feel positive about their progress, win or lose. Still, at a tournament there are dozens of adults who have given up a day off specifically to evaluate a student speaker’s performance. Hundreds of student speakers have spent weeks preparing to engage their peers in argument. A student who does not bring her personal best to a tournament learns very quickly that it’s no fun to waste people’s time.

    The consequences of lack of preparation are real and immediate, and so also is the recognition for good effort and excellent work. In addition to trophies, last season my Forensics students received large checks, newspaper coverage, boxes of free pizza, and trips to Southern California. These are public and tangible recognitions of the sort seldom awarded to well-written essays in English class. Writing programs stress the importance of ‘publication’, but in the rush and pressure of the modern English classroom that time consuming step is often neglected, though many of our students are motivated by such rewards.

    Speech programs have another important component: Forensics moves students into the adult community in meaningful ways. An excited student once described his morning for me. He arrived early for a phone interview with the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC; visited a middle school faculty meeting preparing for a Language Faire, and negotiated a deal with the copy store manager for a team discount. Forensics students learn how to function in the formal adult world outside of school. I have heard repeatedly from my students that the skills they developed in these experiences have been their most valuable tools for success after graduation. My fledgling program to connect English students with community book groups is a first step in this direction.

    No teacher will be surprised to learn that real world recognition and adult involvement are effective in the classroom. Though downplayed by speech coaches in recent years, Forensics does have a more controversial advantage. I’ll bravely say it out loud— speech tournaments are competitive. I’ll go even further into controversial academic territory and boldly claim that competition frequently helps students improve. Competition often drives students to new achievement; it can give them the example of excellence. It teaches students how to function under pressure, and they carry that knowledge into future situations. In my English classes students now vie to create the “Most Helpful Research Poster” or to be victorious in our spirited rounds of Password vocabulary review. Winners are rewarded with candy or extra credit, and students are engaged by these games. The concept may not yet have returned to academic fashion, but a large number of our students ARE competitive, and in a balanced and good-humored atmosphere, many discover for the first time that learning can be a game.

    For students not athletically inclined, Forensics also provides a chance to discover competition’s companion—teamwork. They find, to their surprise, that the football coach is telling the truth—with support from teammates, students can achieve more than expected—they can surprise everyone, including themselves. They become important members of a unit where they feel appreciated and KNOWN for their own unique and irreplaceable contributions. There is recognition of the power of team structure for developing students in burgeoning achievement programs such as AVID, and in the continuing movement to reshape large schools into smaller, more personal groups.

    A learning goal for my school and many others is the eventual graduation of a good citizen, ready to take her place as a participant in our complex pluralistic society. Of all the gifts competitive speech gives to my students, none is closer to my heart than the vision of American public discourse supported by Forensics: an opponent with a different point of view is not an enemy. Disagreement is not destructive; individuality is not a threat. As teachers, our highest calling is to develop courageous leaders—students who are confident of their right, their obligation and their ability to speak out in defense of justice and truth. Forensics training nurtures this kind of student. Any curriculum which makes connections to current events, encourages open discussion, and examines challenging contemporary material will engage students and foster true democratic values. This is the essence of an American education, and in providing these opportunities, Forensics classes are the team to beat.

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  • 2003 – Emily Fuller Gibson

    Grades N/A

    South Gate Middle School, Los Angeles

    Theme: Valuing the Voice of the Classroom Teacher

    “Voices: Reflections of an Urban Educator”

    At the culmination of ... read more >

    At the culmination of each school year, teachers pause to reflect. What worked or didn’t work? What should I have done differently? Did the kids learn anything? Or, in these days of high-stakes testing, will I still have a job after the assessments are tallied? Sometimes we get answers we don’t want to hear; occasionally we don’t get any answers, but always we are confronted with the voices that pose the questions and frame the issues. How we interpret these voices and what we do in response to them determines our worth as educators, especially in large urban settings where success is usually outdistanced by failure.

    This “gem” came to me unbidden, not from a contemporary colleague, but from a blues singer of another era. The date was June 27, 2003, graduation day for my 8th graders. Only one of the 150 students who had started the year with me had earned a failing grade. The rest were there that afternoon in their own unique finery, receiving the diplomas that marked the end of one phase of their education and signaled the start of another. There was Amie, her dark locks dangling over her shoulders looking for all the world like a modern day Pocahantas, and Karla, hardly recognizable without her frayed cutoffs and Converse sneakers. Emma’s neon green hair would have been garish on someone with less presence, but against the backdrop of the California sun, it did not even clash with the fuchsia of Yolanda’s magnificent mane. The two of them were simply distinct flowers in a garden of diversity.

    Rafa, too, stood out from the crowd, his stiff hair carefully sculpted into spikes, reminding me of the Statue of Liberty. Johnny was resplendent in his tux and tails while Antonio, still sporting a slight blemish from his last scrape smiled mischievously, sharing a silent joke with Abraham in his classy, tailored suit . Their own individual style spoke volumes about how these students defined themselves, but their academic success addressed another topic. They had “made it ” — the “gifted” as well as the “at risk”. This was the feature that set them apart from thousands of other urban minority students.

    The voice of the skeptic asks, “ How did you determine their academic success? What did you as a teacher do to bring it about? How can it be replicated ?”

    Later that day, in search of answers to these questions, I returned to my own den and creature comforts, kicked off my shoes, and reclined in an easy chair. I decided to reflect and unwind with the music that usually puts my tired mind in focus. The sultry-sweet voice of Esther Phillips suddenly surrounded me, its raw intensity filling the room, wrapping itself around my thoughts, twisting them straight . As Li’l Esther sang the heart-wrenching songs from her 1972 album, “From a Whisper to a Scream”, her haunting voice carried the message she intended, the message I needed to hear. In her dulcet tones I could hear her pain as keenly as her pleasure, her desperation as clearly as her desire. That’s what voices do to you if you listen to them. Soft or loud, silent or strident, they put on a command performance. They bring messages that demand acknowledgement , and if you are a teacher, they goad you into action that encourages you to perfect your craft. How you do this depends on your perspective.

    Ever since “no child left behind” became the national mantra, school administrators and policy makers have been less interested in good teaching than in measuring student progress. From their perspective, progress is measured by performance on standardized tests, and in their mad scramble to collect and record scantrons, many of them are floundering and some have lost their moorings. What does the teacher do in these circumstances?

    As a teacher with more than 20 years of urban classroom experience , I am more inclined to swing into action than to host a “pity party”. My inner voice nudges me forward, urging me to revisit the classroom practices that have met with success, to listen to the voices that have proven worthy, and to use them as a bridge between the realities of the present and the challenges of the future. What I came up with is a recipe for success in the urban classroom, the new ABC’s:

    Alter your perspective. See students as the priority, not the problem.

    Build community. Let students learn collaboratively rather than competitively.

    Change focus. Guide student thinking; challenge them to venture into uncharted waters rather than directing them to perform like trained seals.

    These three strategies came to me in the voices of veteran educators whose wisdom helped me to hone and refine the instructional practices that led to success.

    The first strategy, Alter your perspective , arose from discussions with frustrated colleagues who were torn between a desire to make a difference in the classroom and the realities of an educational arena in which learning is often sacrificed on the altar of high-stakes testing. The voice of sociologist Eric Klinenberg jarred me to my senses as I read a review of his latest work in English Education . Book editor Todd DeStigter, was impressed that Klinenberg “models the act of shifting perspective, of cultivating a healthy irreverence for assumed realities.” (p.323). DeStigter wonders what would happen if educators put aside “entrenched notions that certain students are ‘at risk’ due mostly to their own presumed deficiencies”, and if we understood “that many students struggle in school not because of individual characteristics, but because their educational experiences cannot be separated from the effects of living among abandoned buildings, ruined businesses, and violent crime” (p.324)

    My inner voice translated DeStigter’s comments into a mandate for change: Teach to the needs of the child, not to administrative demands for higher test scores. I implemented this practice and ironically, my students, both “gifted” and “at risk” not only showed marked improvement on the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test , but also demonstrated scores significantly higher than those of their peers at the school site. Although high scores had not been my priority, they had come as a result of shifting my perspective, and honoring my commitment to teach children according to their needs.

    Teaching children according to their needs prompted another positive change.

    It renewed my passion for teaching and automatically changed my instructional focus. I found that I had become the guide in a student-centered classroom rather than the “sage on the stage” whose role it is to impart wisdom.

    In this setting questions became the currency for trading information and controversial topics were met head on. There were no “sacred cows”, and in the best practices based on Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), students were encouraged to seek out answers and to apply their knowledge to understanding problematic situations they encountered in literature and in life.

    Many of my students live in situations where pain is a more constant reality than pleasure, and some of them have looked into the eyes of Bad Experience so often that they meet New Experience with distrust and hostility. As urban minority students, their voices are crying out for validation of their worth as human beings. They want to be able to make personal connections to the literature they read. They want role models who are mirror images — authors, poets and real life heroes with names like their own, not just Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickinson and Crane. They want stories that engage them and speak to their needs for authentic experiences, not those that have been artificially contrived.

    The scholarly voices of Donna Y. Ford and J. John Harris, say all this and more in their seminal work on the value of multicultural education (1999). Their voices helped to shape my classroom practice and encouraged me to expose students to literature that is rich, varied, complex, inspirational and empowering.

    Isn’t this the goal of education? Why teach children facts and skills, critical thinking and creativity if not to empower them to make a difference? If we expect them to be the future torch bearers of democracy and the architects of viable social structures, then our schools should be their training grounds, and our teachers their guides.

    As a guide in the classroom, my primary role was to build community.

    This is the key to unlocking the mystery of why one group of urban minority students succeeds and others fail. We –my students and I — succeeded because we had come together in chaos and formed a community of learners.

    This was a tall order considering the realities we faced at the start of the year. I am an African-American English teacher on an big city campus bursting at the seams with more than 4,200 students, 99 % of whom are both Hispanic and low income. Located a few miles east of Watts — a community that has twice burned its way into America’s memory with racial conflagration, my school has a large percentage of “second language learners”, and according to the 2002 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) , only 26% of of them scored at or above the national average in reading.

    These were the realities as reported, but I have never been one to be stultified by statistics nor bound by the stereotypes that spring from them. When I set out to make things better, at least in my classroom, the one small corner of the world where I am in control, I listened to the soulful voice of another blues singer, Aretha Franklin belting out her signature song,

    Find out what it means to me…”

    These lyrics merged with the academic voices to provide the backdrop for my ABC’s of classroom success. These words had been running through my mind as I altered my perspective to view students as the priority, not the problem. They were the cornerstone in building community, and the road map I used in changing my focus from director to guide, encouraging communication in a non-threatening atmosphere in which the students had a real voice.

    I, too, had learned from the experience.

    I had increasingly led students into divergent thinking and had learned to honor every response, even when it was not presented prettily in standard English.

    I had listened well to the voices of Ford and Harris (1999) and Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (2000), as they taught me to gently pose questions designed to prompt, clarify, analyze, interpret and evaluate. My students emulated this behavior, besting me at my own game.

    Together, as a community of learners, we had searched for answers in an atmosphere based on collaboration. In the process, we discovered there was room for Emma’s anger at social injustice and Karla’s fierce ethnic pride, for Johnny’s conservatism and Marisol’s militancy, for Abraham’s compassion and Amie’s anarchy, for Victor’s introspection, and Jordan’s insatiable appetite for knowledge. This is the essence of education. This is why my parting words to this wonderful class were,”Por favor, recuerden me siempre, como me recordaré de ustedes — con mucho cariño.” Please remember me always as I will remember you — with much love.

    Works Cited
    DeStigter, T. “Why Did You Teach Us This? Becoming Unstuck from Familiar Perspectives.” English Education, Vol 35 Number 4, July, 2003, pp 322-327.
    Ford, D.Y. & Harris, J.J., III (1999). Multicultural Gifted Education. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
    Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2002) Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding. York, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
    Klineberg, E. (2002). Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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  • 2002 – Anna J. Roseboro

    , Greater San Diego

    Theme: Dream Keepers

    “Balloon to Lace to Lesson”

  • 2002 – Coleen Bouris

    Rancho Bernardo High School, San Diego

    Theme: Dream Keepers

    “What Are My Dreams For My Students?”

    I’ve always been fond ... read more >

    I’ve always been fond of hiding-from-housework reading. In elementary school I sought out those stolen moments when my mom “naively” believed me to be mating socks or scrubbing grout, when I was really huddled in some corner, trying to help Trixie Belden solve a mystery.

    In high school, even though my classmates were skimming the Cliff’s Notes for The Scarlet Letter or watching old film versions of Macbeth, I was holed up in my room, avoiding that same work and allowing myself to become captured, transported, and enchanted.

    Sometime between those days and college graduation, my desire to convert others to reading was born. I determined that I would be a teacher-crusader, persuading all students in my realm to look at life through a love-of-literature lens. The end of my influence would never be known. My students would embrace the challenge of reflecting on books, as well as know the joy of postponing vacuuming in favor of finishing that last chapter. I knew I might not witness overt enthusiasm, but I believed they would one day arrive at class excited to discuss the finer points of the previous night’s reading.

    And we all could live happily ever after. The End.

    No, this isn’t the fairy-tale vision that I shared with my master teachers, interviewers, or school administration. But it was my heart-felt desire, and I suspect it’s a common dream, especially mongst other teacher-disguised reading escapists.

    Of course, in my four years of teaching, not even most of my students have been won over, even though I do believe that reading has rescued a few. Unfortunately, what began as a personal mission escalated into a war. I squared off against the student apathy and disinterest, compulsively
    stockpiling strategies and then implementing them with reckless abandon.

    My dreams for my students, previously so clear, were muddied. I’d come away from reading a book, attending a conference, or conversing with a colleague, inspired and headed in yet another direction. I’d focus on one set of strategies and then add on the next, hoping that in the midst of this haphazard approach, I’d somehow reach all of my students. I couldn’t blame them for not being able to articulate what they had learned.

    Last August found me grappling once again with what Jim Burke calls “August Dreams and Realities.” I decided to take inventory of my students’ prevalent beliefs early in their sophomore and senior years.

    If literature doesn’t connect to my life, it’s pointless to read it.
    Teachers ruin books by overanalyzing them.
    Some discussions are interesting, but they don’t help my grade.
    Authors don’t use themes, symbols, or imagery intentionally.
    Poetry is cryptic and impossible.
    The teacher will tell me what the literature means, and I’ll memorize it, whether I agree or not.
    Writing is for the teacher, not for me, and teachers are looking either for formula essays or for something else that I don’t understand.

    These weren’t new revelations, but they provided fodder for, yet again, refining my classroom vision. I reluctantly admitted that the barrier in my students’ minds between school books and independent reading books might be unsurpassable. I understood my students’ frustration. They don’t like hearing lectures about the conch as a symbol of power in Lord of the Flies, yet they’re confused by pseudo-student-centered classrooms where their personal opinions don’t matter on the test. They also have no idea how teachers (and other people with no lives) find so many “hidden” meanings in texts.

    Writing had become miserable for them because of all of the above; they don’t like the books, are unsure if they’re really allowed to state their opinions, and still can’t figure out how to arrive at original” or “debatable” thesis statements, so they swipe one from the internet or coax one out of the teacher, and the cycle begins again.

    I became entrenched in these “August Realities.” Having fallen in love with literature, I had tried to infuse that passion into my students; as a result, they perceived that deciphering and dissecting literature were my ultimate goals. I needed a paradigm shift. I concluded that I could live with British poetry or The Bean Trees not making my students’ “Top Ten” lists, as long as they acquired the reflective and critical thinking skills which transfer across texts and disciplines and into the real world.

    I decided to teach literary theory, a decision that might seem to contradict my skill-based goal. However, I wanted to demystify literary analysis, revealing the true agendas and identities of the wizards behind the curtains. I also wanted to transform my students from point mongers to thinkers who were empowered to explore the world beyond the bubbles of their lives through understanding others’ perspectives.

    By mid year I had a new strategy stockpile, composed of old college notes, AP English handouts, and Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. I created a one-page handout with brief explanations of the historical, biographical,
    psychological, feminist, Marxist, rhetorical, archetypal, formalist, and reader response literary theories. And I unveiled my plan.

    Throughout the year, we worked through the thinking process together, going down the list and trying to put ourselves in the shoes of a critic from that school of thought. We studied group psychology in Lord of the Flies, debated nature vs. nurture in The Bean Trees, and searched for the archetype of the fallen woman in “The Lady of Shallot.” Students, who initially couldn’t make connections between “ancient” pieces of literature and their lives, now could interpret Hamlet or “My Last Duchess,” unafraid to apply the critical approaches that appealed to them. They examined cloning from the perspectives of doctors, patients, politicians, and scientists when reading Brave New World and contrasted the different points of view of the mothers in the Joy Luck Club. They looked for advertising bias and questioned history written by the dominant culture.

    Whenever delivering information to my classes, I explicitly identified the perspective from which I was teaching, so that the Marxist critic, not the overzealous English teacher, pointed out Hamlet’s anger when Polonius didn’t treat the players well. They understood.

    Short “think piece” assignments allowed students to explore their thoughts and ask questions. And suddenly, supporting several interpretations of the same passage on a test seemed fair. Even essays became more rewarding. Students had already started thinking, knew that interpreting a text from a specific perspective usually created an interesting thesis, and could manipulate quotes to fit a particular point of view.

    Using the existing literary theories gave my students the scaffolding to find their own voices. I modeled this by explaining how my small-town upbringing affects my worldview. I grew up where everything from painting a house to planning a wedding is a community project, much like a Little House barn raising. As a result, when I read Lord of the Flies, I blame the boys’ lack of compromise and community for their tragedy; however, some of my students who have had different experiences thought that the boys should have been allowed more freedom to express their individuality. We reflected on these biases. Future screenplay writers found themselves visualizing novels as the next Hollywood blockbusters; students who are religious naturally sought out religious themes.

    Together we examined how these life experiences affect our connections to characters. I can’t forgive Beowulf for letting his friend get crushed by Grendel, and I think Lancelot made the wrong choice in giving up the Round Table for Guinevere. My students disagree with me, and we discuss the rationale behind our convictions.

    Approaching the curriculum from this new perspective changed my classroom. Rather than being organized around texts or historical periods, the larger framework of the critical literary perspectives formed the organizational umbrella. In the former “Anglo-Saxon unit,” our discussions ranged from the epic hero and the hero’s journey to obscure literary terms like kennings and caesuras, concluding with reflections on slaying monsters in our own lives. Now, I could explain literary terms under the formalist lens; discuss the hero’s journey in the context of archetypal criticism, and still have a place for reader response. In addition, we could use feminism to examine the role of women in the story and the historical perspective to reflect on how Beowulf embodies Anglo-Saxon values.

    Of course, my classroom is not perfect. I’m beginning this year with new “August Dreams” and new battles. For instance, I was disturbed to learn how many of my students choose to look at life through an “ignorance is bliss” lens. In May a group of seniors confessed that they expect to settle into Office Space jobs where they don’t have to think critically or reflectively; they would prefer class the old, easier way. So I find myself gearing up once again to combat student apathy and disinterest. My mission: to persuade my students to think, perhaps against their will, through their newly-discovered lenses.

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  • 2001 – Joel Kammer

    Maria Carrillo High School, Sebastopol

    Theme: Words, Words, Words

    “What’s in a Grade? An Ethical Dilemma”

    A graduate school professor ... read more >

    A graduate school professor once told my Literary Criticism seminar this anecdote about I.A. Richards, the influential professor, critic, rhetorician, and poet: Richards completed a good deal of graduate work at Cambridge, but never completed his doctorate, allegedly asking with disdain, “Who would examine me?” In retrospect, given Richards’ historical importance and substantial contributions to the development of critical theory and thought, his question might not have been as arrogant as it first seems. When considered together with other stories of great thinkers whose thought processes or work habits didn’t fit commonly accepted standards of the time and place, Einstein’s failing math in school and the ridicule heaped upon the work of the earliest Impressionist painters come to mind, Richards’ question gives me pause. Apocryphal or not, the story points toward a long standing and intensifying dilemma for me and, I suspect, for most teachers: grading and credits.

    In an era of standards, or at least an era in which the notion of standards crops up in every element of the educational conversation, what are we to do with students who can meet or have met any and every standard, but reject or ignore the need to fulfill checklist requirements for advancement or graduation? I suspect everyone has had a student or twenty who are voracious readers and natural and enthusiastic writers, who read what they want rather than what they’re assigned, and write from their hearts without regard to the demands of a given assignment or course. They might be alienated or just non-conformist, refusing to grade grub for philosophical reasons, or doing no homework out of sheer laziness: the Sidney Cartons, Ferdinand Tertans, and Holden Caulfieds of contemporary schooling. In some ways, such students are why I got into teaching English in the first place; often (when they happen to have done last night’s reading and, sometimes, even when they haven’t) they spark discussions to deeper, more complex levels, and all of us in the room learn in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. Their love of words and ideas and learning can enthuse other students and change the intellectual tone of a class. But when grading time rolls around and points are toted up, such students are often in danger of failure or loss of credits. To phrase the dilemma in its starkest terms, then, my question is what the awarding of grades and the awarding of credits represent. If goals and standards are the centerpieces of twenty-first century schools, should a student who reads widely, writes fluently, clearly and with authority, but has only turned in four of the eight required essays fail, and another student who has wrested meaning from Cliff and Monarch, and dutifully turned in all assignments, but cannot put together a clear and coherent paragraph much less an entire composition, pass? Since statewide testing results and APIs suggest that our real problems are with students at the lower ends of the literacy continua, my concern may seem trivial; but to me it raises a central question of our free public educational system: what is the purpose of schooling?

    At 6′ 4″, Alex was immediately noticeable in any crowd of his high school peers, but he also stood out in ways having nothing to do with his height. He was an outstanding swimmer, a featured performer in his senior year production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, scored well over 1500 on the SAT (including a perfect 800 on the math portion), more-or-less ran the school’s computer network and the library’s computer lab, and, not infrequently, corrected my Latin. “I think you mean ‘e.g.’ and not ‘i.e.’ on this handout, Mr. Kammer,” he’d begin, and then go on to patiently explain the difference. “You see, id est, meaning ‘that is,’ is used to introduce….” Other students would shake their heads and roll their eyes, but he clearly enjoyed such intellectual one-upmanship, which also set him apart from his contemporaries.

    If he was sometimes pedantic, Alex was also insightful, wonderfully well read, talented, and, often, charming. He was certainly among the most able and best-prepared high school students I’ve ever encountered. And yet his performance in my class led me to crystallize my thinking on an ethical dilemma that has troubled me since I began my secondary teaching career, in the waning days of the Carter administration. While he clearly knew more than and could out-read, out-think, and out-write most if not all of his fellow students (and quite a few of his teachers, including me), Alex was constantly in danger of failing and, since it was a senior English class, in danger of not graduating. His situation caused me, for perhaps the thousandth time, to rethink the issue of the purpose, application, fairness, and, yes, ethics of grading and credits.

    What are grades, after all, and why are they such an important part of school? What do they measure? On what are they based? At whom are they aimed? Whose interests do they serve? How important are they? How, and how closely connected are they to standards? How comparable are grades in what it takes to earn them from year to year, classroom to classroom, school to school? What are teachers’ obligations, ethical and otherwise, to students, parents, schools, employers, and universities for impartial and consistent grading? Once students have left high school, do their grades matter to anyone, ever again? If so, why? These and other, related, questions occur to me periodically, when my grades are due, if not otherwise. But the grades must be tabulated and assigned, the sheets bubbled, the transcripts updated; under the intensive pressure of semester or year’s end, the”why” of grading all too often takes a back seat to the necessity of having grades, of handing in computer sheets and printing report cards whatever those grades are, however accurate they are.

    Alex continued to hug the edge of failure through the fall semester, his grade hovering in the 55-58% range, a solid “F+.” He did just enough of the assigned work that was graded to stay in contention for a passing mark, but never actually reached a passing level. Then, the last few weeks of the semester, we did a senior class-wide poetry unit, and Alex’s interest and involvement increased enough for him to pass the class. On the day of the final exam, he did a wonderful job on the presentation assignment which was a portion of the final; he showed up without the accompanying journal and poetry collection, however. We talked at the end of class, and after some half-hearted attempts at excuses, he told me to just go ahead and flunk him. We talked a bit longer and worked out an agreement by which he would turn in the required work the next day, before my last final. He did, the work was exemplary, and I gave him a D- for the semester, a grade that I gave him with many qualms.

    One Merriman-Webster Dictionary definition of “ethical” is, “conforming to accepted, esp. professional standards of conduct.” But what are the ethical, that is the accepted professional standards, relating to grading student work, to granting or denying credits for it? “Ethics” and “ethical” come from the same Greek root as “ethos,” meaning, according to Merriman-Webster, ” distinguishing character, tone, or guiding beliefs.” This suggests that there exists a set of guiding beliefs about grading that infuse any school’s grading systems. Yet none of the three schools in which I’ve taught had such a system, at least not one spelled out explicitly enough to be both workable and fair. Teachers, perhaps under the “standard” of professional autonomy, individually chose how to weight factors such as quality vs. quantity of work, class participation, etc., and set their own requirements about late and make-up work, grading for groups, and so forth. In the dictionary definition sense, I wonder, is it strictly ethical to allow such discrepancies? Is it ethical, much less fair to students that two classes, both named “Senior Academic English,” be taught by two teachers with very different ideas about expectations and rigor, where comparable amounts and quality of work might earn a student in one class an “A-,” and a student in another class a “C+”?

    Alex eventually failed his last semester of English, though he showed up and participated, in his way, through the last day of the semester. He told me several times not to worry about him, that (no disrespect intended) whether he passed my class or not wasn’t important and would have no effect on his graduation. He needed to pass a junior college class for which he would receive concurrent credit, a year’s worth of high school English credit for a semester of j.c. work, in fact. That would allow him to make up for the lost credits from my class as well as for a class he’d failed his sophomore year. As it turned out, he failed to complete the j.c. class also, and, for good measure, failed his high school government requirement. So Alex, perhaps the most able English student in his class, finished high school without a diploma, leaving me with many more questions than answers.

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  • 2001 – Andrea Ickes-Dunbar

    Barry Elementary School, Yuba City

    Theme: Words, Words, Words

    “A Hill to Die On”

  • 2000 – Erica Blaschke

    , Santa Clara

    Theme: Crossing Thresholds

    “A New Hope: Rethinking Traditional Writing Through Technology”

    When I agreed to ... read more >

    When I agreed to teach four English classes connected to the Electronics Academy, I knew I had to step out of my comfort zone. For two years I had wanted to teach my students how to use technology as a tool in my regular high school English classes, but I was intimidated by not knowing “everything.” When we had studied Amy Tan, for example, I was confident I knew enough about the subject. Now I wanted to include technology in the course, I had to find the courage to expose my inexperience to my students. Even though I was working to earn a CLAD credential, learning what school-to-career curriculum actually entailed, and had a never-ending stack of essays to read, I made the commitment to include a PowerPoint presentation in the traditional “How To” process writing assignment. It wasn’t always smooth, but it truly engaged my students and made me an interactive teacher and learner. It brought new life into my classroom.

    Our Traditional Beginning

    For the technical writing assignment students need for their year-end portfolios, they began by drafting a “How-To” process paper that explained, step-by-step, how to complete a task. The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Piven and Borgenicht proved to be a great inspiration. This little bestseller’s subjects varied from “How to Survive If Your Parachute Fails to Open” to “How to Wrestle an Alligator.” Students immediately started to brainstorm their own ideas. Gone were tired topics like “How to Make a Peanut Butter Sandwich.” They drew from their personal interests. After I okayed their topics, they wrote drafts, revised them with peers, and completed final drafts. Limited to two typed pages, the paper included a title, a brief introduction to the activity, the steps to completing the process, and a conclusion. Besides focusing on keeping the writing detailed and concise, they kept in mind how their topics would translate visually when they produced them in PowerPoint format. At this point, the papers looked like those we’d done before.

    The Technology Component

    I had taken a basic PowerPoint course offered by my school district. Now two years later to provide a model for my students, I created a sample presentation: “How to Escape from a Vicious Dog.” It showed me being “attacked” by my best friend’s very loving Ridgeback/Shepherd mix. To get Sierra to “attack” I held treats in my hands while trying to “escape.” As my class laughed at the silly digital video clips of their teacher being chased, I could practically see their minds planning their own visuals. By creating my own PowerPoint presentation with clip art, animation downloaded from the Internet, digital pictures and video, I understood the steps required for the project. I planned for the technical areas that might require instruction and designed a rubric to guide them.

    In pairs, the students decided which of their papers translated best to the new format and began PowerPoint presentations that included a title slide, at least ten slides to illustrate the process, and a conclusion.
    The visual presentation included:

    • sound effects for the titles and text of each slide
    • visual effects, such as transitions and entrances of text
    • background and text colors
    • animation and clip art (Barrysclipart.com links to other copyright-free sites.)
    • digital pictures of themselves demonstrating the procedures
    • digital video and music (optional)

    We had access to computers with Microsoft Office 98, clip art, a multimedia projector (or TV monitor with S-video input), and the Internet to download images and animation from copywrite free web sites.

    The Process

    My junior English class, a group of thirty students, including recent immigrants from Vietnam, Iran, Mexico, Hungary, and the Phillipines had been together for almost an entire school year before I challenged them and myself with this assignment. While our literature semester had been filled with project-based assignments that kept them engaged, they’d lost interest during the writing semester. Their only interaction was peer response groups and conferences with me. Incorporating technology into this writing assignment changed the dynamics in my classroom. Instead of standing alone in front of my class, I was now sitting side by side with my students. We took turns teaching each other: with some students I shared my skills, such as how to download animation onto a slide, while other students showed me new techniques, like how to import music into my PowerPoint demonstration. On the second day I looked up and saw everyone helping each other. No one was bored. By the second week students were asking me if they could work at lunch or stay after school. The class had transformed itself.

    I was amazed at the level of authentic learning that my students were experiencing. I didn’t need to know “everything” about the material I was asking my students to master. My most valuable resources were my students. Using a multimedia, the more knowledgeable students presented mini-lessons. They especially enjoyed teaching the teacher. Once I stopped thinking I needed to “know it all,” my classroom became a partnership of learners. We were in this together.

    From prewriting to the final presentation, the project took three weeks. It was difficult to gauge how much time was necessary that included time for the students’ varying skills and the computers’ unpredictable behavior. (We lost more than one class period because we needed more memory.) It took patience. I kept reminding my students and myself that becoming upset or calling the computers names would not help solve technical problems. When the iMac lab wasn’t available, we improvised: those that preferred PCs worked at home or in the library. Some worked on my two classroom computers. When students request more time, I opened the lab after school. They were applying the writing process to technology. Peer editing happened without me planning it. Angelo explained that “the most exciting part in doing PowerPoint was the editing. I liked adding and subtracting words from descriptions and instructions, making the process much clearer.” I couldn’t believe how much he had changed. The whole class was engaged, they were learning, but most of all, they were interested in doing their best. Their peers were their audience and they wanted to succeed.


    On presentation day, we cheered Derrick’s “How to Mack on a Girl.” His video included both the right and the wrong way to impress a girl and he had costumes, music, dancing, and beautiful young women (his sisters, he confessed). The hours he had put in at home and after school were evident. Jane and Rachel demonstrated “How to Mix Music like a DJ” with digital pictures of local DJs performing in a club. Mike and Nghia’s ” How to Plan a Romantic Evening” showcased slide backgrounds of swaying palm trees and romantic music. Even though I didn’t emphasize music, many included it. Nicole, a quiet girl who had struggled in the class all year, amazed us. Her five minute show with Mariagna, “How to Ride a Harley” was a favorite. It starred Nicole’s mom with her brand new Harley Davidson. My students were the experts on their topics. It was refreshing to hear, “Can we go first, please?” and “We’re next!” After each presentation, the applause was genuine and deserved.

    Planning for the Future

    I’ll do some things differently next time. It was obvious that the computers we were using did not have enough memory to support all of the video, music, and animation we wanted to include. When slides became blurred and froze up I relied on students, an overburdened technology teacher, and sometimes felt like pulling out my hair, until I found one capable computer. Multimedia projects need adequate, if not maximum memory. This year I’ll search for funding to purchase more memory. We had talked about using the copywrite free website for graphics, and this semester I will continue to focus on legality and musician’s rights. Students needed more time to rehearse their presentations using the projection system. They needed to troubleshoot any technical difficulties and needed to practice speaking. Finally, to take the pressure off me, I need to have the projection system set up the day before the presentations. This year I am planning two multimedia projects so after students learn the basics, they can then build on their knowledge in a second project.

    Building the technology component into this writing assignment took me out of my comfort zone and brought new excitement into my classroom. I enjoyed working one on one with students as they learned new skills and shared their expertise. Rachel wrote in a reflection, “I enjoyed interacting with other students in class, the researching part, and the actual learning process of how to use PowerPoint.” Working side by side, we had developed into a community of learners, proud of our accomplishments.

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  • 1999 – Linda Faust

    Theme: My Personal Metamorphosis

    “Revolutionary Times! Making Writing Meaningful in the Content Areas”

    As a tenth grade ... read more >

    As a tenth grade Modern World History teacher, I am constantly looking for ways to challenge and motivate my students to write and make meaningful connections between the past, the present, and their own personal lives. But in order to do so, it’s important to understand that history is exciting, dramatic, and not just a mere time line of political facts and events to be memorized for a multiple choice exam on Friday. Students need to be involved and it’s crucial that they not only empathize with the presidents, kings, and queens, but with ordinary people, just like themselves, who, caught up in sweeping events and circumstances, also make history. To facilitate this process, I conceived the idea of having my students create Time Magazines for our unit on the French Revolution.

    An advantage of this project is that it can be executed for a single subject, or as an interdisciplinary project involving other subject areas. The first time, I had my students produce the magazines as a history project. It was so successful that the following year I approached my math, English, and science colleagues about expanding the project so that it would encompass those disciplines. We then agreed that this would become our semester interdisciplinary project. I chose Time Magazine because I thought its format provided an excellent model for a thematic, interdisciplinary approach to researching and writing about the French Revolution. Time is generally divided into articles dealing with the nation, the world, science, the arts, people, and social commentary. Thus, by researching and writing articles in this format, my students would be able to learn about interrelationships between events in history and their other content areas.

    I proceeded to divide the French Revolution into six phases. Five to six students assigned to each phase, would provide comprehensive coverage for that period and produce a single magazine. Although the bulk of the research and writing was history driven, the math, science, and English teachers each provided their own instruction for their specific content requirements. Math, science, and English all had to be connected into the French Revolutionary period. I worked closely with the English teacher to establish criteria for a reflective essay which would ask students to analyze and make personal connections to the events reported. This would be included in the Commentary section at the end of each magazine. Our team collaborated to develop a plan for integrating, reading, and grading the magazine as a whole.

    The project was a tremendous success. The students felt challenged and enjoyed the process because it enabled them to choose assignments based on their individual talents, interests, and learning styles. Those who were strong in math and science chose to write the articles in those subject areas. The artistically inclined worked on the illustrations, cover, and graphics for the magazine. One group of computer gurus created a complete CD-ROM magazine, with detailed graphics and animation. At all times, accuracy of content for each subject was stressed and everyone was required to research and write. This was a rigorous assignment, but it was rewarding to watch the students collaborate and appreciate each other’s individual talents and abilities.

    At the conclusion of the project, the students demonstrated a deeper understanding of the French Revolution and related arts and sciences, and were very proud of their accomplishments. They decided they wanted to share their projects and began inundating Time Magazine with E-Mail. In fact, one student, while on a field trip to New York, took her group’s magazine to Time-Warner in Rockefeller Plaza and insisted that somebody see it. She was then directed to the Marketing Director who was quite impressed. As a result, a representative from Time paid a visit to our classroom, interviewed the students about the project, and looked at all the magazines. She also gave a presentation about the involved process of producing a single Time Magazine. The students had many questions about how stories were covered and who decided which ones would be published. Many were interested in knowing how the editing process worked at Time and it proved to be a valuable lesson in the writing process and its application to the work place. Currently, copies of the covers of our magazines are being displayed in the Time-Warner building in New York and I am thrilled that many of my students have a new appreciation of the writing process and are now motivated to become accomplished writers. Who knows? Perhaps some will become writers for Time Magazine.

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  • 1999 – Connie St. Amour

    Theme: My Personal Metamorphosis

    “A Project for the Millennium”

    A community of learners ... read more >

    A community of learners moving freely between individual and collaborative work, citizens involved with issues outside the classroom, adept researchers in libraries and on-line, highly skilled and versatile communicators, and above all, young adults who are deepening their knowledge and self-esteem in pursuit of their passions: this is what I hope my students will become as we approach the new millennium. For the past six years I have developed Project Expertise for my 8th graders with these goals in mind, and it has evolved into an integrated, year-long language arts curriculum that not only meets these objectives but also produces heartwarming, serendipitous results.

    The underlying premise is simple: students learn best when studying what they love. With that in mind, the year begins by having them choose a topic that will engage them all year long. (Although I might help them narrow or widen a topic, I never veto it.) Everyone’s knowledge is broadened by their wide variety of interests, from moon exploration to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, from espionage to criminal psychology, horses to dolphins, skin cancer to reconstructive surgery, Marilyn Monroe to JFK.

    Guidelines are provided, research skills taught with the help of a librarian, and students are promised a regular library hour each week. Armed with a working binder, they take research notes, record bibliographical information, and maintain a journal on their progress. In the library they pursue their interests with the focus and intensity of doctoral candidates. The idea is not so much to prove a hypothesis but to deepen one’s expertise in the subject. Their weekly research creates, if you will, the underlying rhythm for a lively, varied melody throughout the year.

    The first activity is Vocabulary Week in October, during which time each student gives a short oral presentation on three specialized vocabulary words deemed essential to the understanding of the topic. (For the study of space exploration, Nick taught the class “gyroscope,” “photolvaic cell,” and “Doppler Effect.”) Students take notes on the words so they can write expository paragraphs on partners’ topics. Excitement builds as students witness the emerging expertise of their peers.

    In November, students learn the elements of poster design in art class and begin designing a small poster for their topic, which can be inserted as the cover for their final portfolio. They also write and share original poems about their topics.

    A collaboration with the history teacher follows in December, when students prepare an original Timeline. Now their research focuses on the evolution of their topic within the context of world history. The Timeline is of their own design but must include fifteen dates of major world events, a bibliography, appealing graphics, and as many annotated dates for their specific topic as possible. When these are displayed, the room literally reverberates with shared knowledge. These Timelines also serve as useful visual aids for final presentations at the end of the year.

    Come January, preparation begins for the Interview Report. Students must conduct a live interview with an expert in the field. By now the class has become a community of learners who support one another by sharing resources. It is not uncommon for them to volunteer appropriate relatives or friends should experts prove difficult to find. Coaches and other teachers all come to the rescue. As a last resort, telephone interviews are allowed. (For her study of the Holocaust, Gwen found, through the Internet, a New York couple who had survived a concentration camp. After an engaging long-distance telephone interview, they sent her a large packet of material.)

    Prepared with a list of teacher-approved interview questions, they set out to learn from an established expert. Students have the choice of different report formats: question and answer, interspersed commentary, indirect speech, or first person narrative. When the written drafts are completed, we set aside several days for serious peer editing, followed by detailed teacher feedback. Finally the revised reports come in and it’s time for the read-around. One class set is read by a different class. Readers must read at least four Interview Reports and take brief notes on what they learned. These reports are included in their final portfolio. For many students, the interview process is an unforgettable experience, often leading to connections that continue outside of school.

    By February, budding experts emerge in our community of learners and an atmosphere of mutual admiration permeates the class as we gear up for the next major assignment, the Grant Proposal. I establish an imaginary organization, The Foundation for Innovative Ideas, which offers grants of ten thousand virtual dollars to the most deserving proposals (one from each of my two classes). The guidelines I give them are based on the NCTE’s own teacher research grant format. They must include a formal cover letter, sections on purpose and significance, previous exploration of the topic, methods for conducting the project, and a detailed budget (the format of which I often have to teach). If grant proposal ideas are slim, the community of learners comes to the rescue once again.

    Grant proposal drafts go through the same rigorous peer and teacher editing as the Interview Reports, always with an appropriate rubric. After reading the final revisions, I select the eight best from each class for final judging. Each class is the selection committee for the other. I read the grants aloud and display the budgets on the overhead. Students mark individual tally sheets as we proceed. Excitement peaks when it is time to announce the winners. Over the years, I have given virtual money to such proposals as “Summer Basketball Camp for Underprivileged Youth,” “A Museum Exhibit of the History of the Monterey Jazz Festival,” “An All-female Climbing Expedition to K-2,” “A Trip to Kazakhstan for Nuclear Assessment.” I have growing faith in the younger generation’s creativity, problem solving, and philanthropic instincts. One class felt so empowered that they expressed the wish to go directly out into the world to “accomplish things.”

    With firm confidence, students brace for the culmination of Project Expertise, the Final Oral Presentation. A twenty-minute time limit has, over the years, given way to an entire period for certain presentations. I solve the scheduling nightmare by begging, borrowing, and stealing time. (It helps to have supportive and understanding colleagues!) Pre-requisite individual conferences allow me to monitor the interest level and feasibility of their focus and help them incorporate aural/visual aids or related activities. They must prepare a formal outline of their presentation, which is included in the final portfolio.

    A formal schedule is posted around school and sent home to parents. Each presenter is assigned a reporter, who is responsible for taking notes and writing up a news article on the presentation. I ready my camcorder and evaluation rubric. For the next two or three weeks, students take over the class, demonstrating their expertise with complete confidence to a roomful of fascinated and respectful classmates, interested adults, and sometimes another class. We are often forced to seek other venues: we have engaged in mock Civil War battles on the athletic field, learned about gymnastics in the gym, synchronized swimming in the pool, dance and music in the multi-purpose room, guide dogs for the blind on the field; we have even taken a school bus to a nearby billiards parlor to learn the basics of Eightball, and to a skating rink to watch a demonstration of champion roller skaters.

    The last presentation over, students reluctantly leave this magical time. They have acquired exciting new knowledge from their peers and have come to admire each person’s unique expertise. It is always a thrill for me to bask in their new-found empowerment. And then, at last, comes the denouement. Students must write a Personal Essay assessing their growth throughout the year; they must hone their bibliographies and organize all papers into a final portfolio worth 200 points. This year in computer class, they even finalized individual web sites based on their expertise.

    The repercussions of Project Expertise extend beyond the academic year. Because of his study of ornithology, Juan became the youngest docent at Elkhorn Slough. While studying musical theater, Thomas began a libretto and musical score. He finished it later in high school, and his music teacher allowed him to perform it with the orchestra. Diagnosed with diabetes, Carol became an expert in controlling her disease and teaching others about it. The mother of a reluctant reader told me she had never seen her son read or write with such enthusiasm as when he was researching his topic, surfing. Several years later, he told me he often refers to his portfolio. And Simone, who studied spinal cord injuries, is going to be of invaluable help to her mother, a single parent, and recent quadriplegic victim of a tragic auto accident.

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