A Child Shall Lead Them: March for Safe Schools

My blog posting for NJCTE.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English

The students at  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are teaching the country a powerful civics lesson. I applaud them for showing the supposed adults in their world what it means to persist and take action as vocal citizens. They are demonstrating to all of us how to be responsible and make change.

MSD Students_jpgThe teachers at MSDHS must be proud of these kids, and let’s give these teachers a round of applause too. They lost colleagues and students, and they lived through yet another gun massacre. They can take plenty of credit for teaching these impressive kids.

As teachers, we are supposed to educate, guide, counsel, and care for our students. I’ve had many education courses in my life and plenty of experience working in schools and colleges, but no one ever suggested that I should learn to use a gun to protect my students. Only people who know nothing about…

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Wide Awake and Ready for Action

 “Morning is when I am awake and when there is a dawn in me.”

Henry David Thoreau

As teachers we need to be “wide awake and ready for action” in a challenging political climate where forces outside our control routinely question our professionalism and aim to circumscribe our freedom to teach and our students’ freedom to learn.  To survive and thrive in such a climate, we should, become awake to the realities of the “brave new world” around us, be prepared, and make our voices heard.

Like Thoreau, dwelling in a state of wakefulness depends on the “dawn” within.  Events in our world often give rise to this internal dawn,  a heightened awareness of our situation that helps prepare use for challenges.  Can we count on the freedom to teach as we, knowledgeable professionals, know best? Can we use practices we deem appropriate to support learning? Can we select the kinds of books and materials we value to support learning and to help our students become literate human beings and lifelong learners? As teachers, we need to abide by our school curriculum, state agencies and code, federal laws, recommendations of accrediting bodies, and local community officials on boards of education.  It remains uncertain whether academic freedom and autonomy exist at the precollege level; and, in fact, it has never been guaranteed at the college level either, especially in teacher education programs that are, like public schools, governed by state code, federal guidelines, and accrediting bodies.  Tenure offers some protections for both precollege teachers and college professors, but it is not a guarantee of safety (Nelson & Stanley, 2001).

So, how do we stay awake and remain alert to our “brave new world” without getting overwhelmed? First and foremost, we need to know what is going on in the world. As teachers we have many constraints on our time, so we must make the most of those moments we have to follow the news.  We should find news sources we can trust and shortcuts to get the information we need as teacher citizen activists.  I find that I rely on certain on-line and in-print news sources I trust. Because of the controversies surrounding false information disseminated especially through social media, I have come to rely on resources like Snopes https://www.snopes.com/ for fact checking. I also depend on current, accurate blogs for news about education. I find, for instance, that Diane Ravitch’s blog serves as an aggregator of timely and reliable education news. Ravitch is a tireless and courageous advocate for teachers, teaching, and learning. Her blog leads me to many news stories in sources I otherwise would have missed. See the resource list provided for useful  and trustworthy blogs.

Because we live in unsettling times, we must be prepared to defend our decisions as educators without being defensive. This means being ready for challenges. Do you have rationales for books, visuals, and materials you use in your classroom, and this includes books that reside in your classroom library? Can you defend the teaching methods you use? Do you have formal, written rationales for books, materials, and methods? Do these rationales contain information about the quality of the materials and methods and their relationship to course and curriculum objectives? Were they developed collaboratively with colleagues and school leaders? Have all the materials you use been formally adopted as part of the curriculum with the approval of the board of education? If they have not, can you defend their use? NCTE , the American Library Association (ALA), and other organizations (see resource list) provide information and resources to help you develop rationales for the learning materials you use and suggestions for defending them. ALA publishes annual lists of banned and challenged books and hosts a Banned Book Week every October. NCTE has a CD with rationales for frequently banned books.

Everyone wants to tell teachers how to do their job, and everyone seems to know more about schools and teaching than teachers do.  Needless to say, this is frustrating.  I doubt that many patients tell their dentist how to do a root canal because they have had them done before. Why do so many people assume that they know more about teaching than teachers do? Don’t accept those assumptions. Use your own writing and speaking skills. Be proud that you are a teacher who specializes in the teaching and learning of language. Make your voices heard!

Write letters to the editor.  Be sure to check the requirements of each newspaper or magazine, since they often have word limits. Include personal stories. They always get the attention of readers. Challenge yourself to write as clearly and concisely as possible. This is a good exercise for us, since we teach writing and expect our own students to master these skills.

Contact lawmakers in writing. It is easy to reach out to members of congress now via their websites or through social media like Twitter and Facebook. Old-fashioned letters often garner a greater level of attention. Use aps like Countable  https://www.countable.us/  or Resistbot https://resistbot.news/ to easily reach your legislators. Countable provides summaries of legislation and other initiatives moving through congress and allows you to easily contact your members of congress. Resist Bot will let you FAX your legislators.

Call or visit your legislators. Develop and use a script when you call. Stick to the script and do not ramble.  If you call, be patient. It could take you some time to get through to the office. If you get the answering service, hang on if you can and wait to speak to an aide. If you cannot get through, leave a succinct voicemail. It is better than nothing, and it will be logged in. If you can, try to carve out some time in your busy schedule to visit legislative offices in person. Taking a colleague with you is helpful, since it is reassuring to team with another person, and you can keep each other focused. When you call or visit, you generally will talk to a staff member rather than the legislator. This is fine. Remember, staff members are required to log in all calls and visits and report your concerns to the legislator. Whether you call or visit, focus on one point, and keep reinforcing it.  Include personal stories in your commentary during calls and visits. Stories are easily remembered.  We are English teachers and know narrative is powerful.

I have learned in my own advocacy training sessions that legislators pay most attention to personal visits and phone calls. Actual letters come next, followed by email. I have heard that they disregard all those “sign your name” e-petitions. You are a busy person, so do what makes sense for you, even if it is just an email or tweet. Even brief contacts serve a useful purpose. They are recorded. Remember that most legislators are hungry for data about their constituents and their views. My recent experience with a telephone town hall organized by the legislator who represents my district in the House of Representatives unintentionally demonstrated the power of phone calls. At one point in the telephone town hall, since he refuses to host in-person town halls, he got rather testy and irritable saying, “So you people can stop calling my office. My aides have better work to do.” Really? And who gave you your job, sir? Needless to say, the calling continued. We had justifiably hit a nerve!

Finally, take care of yourself! Attending to your own needs is vital to your physical and mental health. I have been a teacher for more than 40 years, and I recognize from experience that teachers’ work is intellectually and emotionally demanding enough without adding on the time it takes to engage in political activism. Huddle for comfort, reassurance, safety, and increased power. Cultivate your friends and colleagues who share your concerns. Take time to enjoy a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and meal together. Engage in rituals that bring you joy. Find time for yourself, your family, and your friends. Carve out time to do things you enjoy.

I retired a year ago, and I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time volunteering as a political activist. It is not exactly what I expected to do in retirement, though I always aimed to continue to advocate for teachers. My “job” has morphed.  I no longer find myself restricted by an academic schedule. I have no sets of papers to grade or classes and courses to prepare. Now I belong to citizens’ organizations. I rejoined NEA and NJEA after thirty years of working in higher education and have become active in retired educators groups.  I remain committed to my favorite professional organizations, NCTE and NJCTE. While I no longer have the responsibilities of a working educator, I still have to take care of myself.  An early morning class at the gym works for me, as do yoga and long walks in beautiful places and writing I enjoy. Find what delights you. The people and activities you love keep you refreshed and positive.

It is too easy to become trapped in despair and hopelessness in our current political climate, which leads to the loss of our locus of control. We owe it to ourselves and others to take time to awaken to a new dawn within ourselves, become prepared, make our voices heard, and care for ourselves so we can continue our mission as educators and citizens in service to others. Action is healing.


Nelson, J.L. & Stanley, W.B. Protecting the right to teach and learn (2001). In Daly, J.K.,

Schall, P.L., and Skeele, R. (Eds.) Protecting the Right to Teach and Learn: Power

    Politics, and Public Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.


Resources for Intellectual Freedom and Political Empowerment

NCTE provides abundant resources for intellectual freedom and political action. Check out NCTE’s position statements and support materials.


NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center http://www.ncte.org/action/anti-censorship

The American Library Association advocates for intellectual freedom and provides many quality resources. The host an Office of Intellectual Freedom that has a Twitter feed and blog. They track challenges to books and censorship cases and host Banned Book Week each year in October.



People for the American Way engages in political action to support human rights and traces censorship and challenges in the USA. They identify censor targets including  books, materials curriculum, films, and pedagogy.


NEA and your state affiliate NJEA provide many resources to help teachers become more politically active and to advocate for their profession. NJEA offers advocacy training for members.



The Southern Poverty Law Center traces hate crimes and provides resources for teaching. They publish maps locating hate groups. Their journal, Teaching Tolerance, offers ideas for teaching social justice.


Newseum Institute and the First Amendment Center provide information, news, and support for freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition.


Daniel Katz’s Blog aims to “ be a place to discuss the current state of American public education and how to preserve its promise of opportunity for all children.” He is a former English teacher and current education professor at Seton Hall University.


Alan Singer’s Blog offers the views of a Hofstra University social studies educator with political commentary and humor.


Steven Singer’s Blog (Gadflyonthewallblog) who describes himself as “husband, father, teacher and education advocate” aims to “Sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”


Diane Ravitch’s Blog. This is an invaluable source for keeping track of issues affecting education throughout the country. Ravitch is a tireless supported of public education and social justice.





Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”

Patricia's Blog

Susan Reese and I just completed editing the back-to-school edition of the NJCTE Newsletter, e-Focus. I include below an article we published inviting our readers to respond to the concept of teacher as “brand ambassador.” After you read the article, we invite you to respond to it here on the blog.

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”
What Do You Think?
by Susan Reese and Patricia Schall
We are happy to say right up front that we know the worth of branding.  We see that NCTE has moved from stodgy blue and gold to vibrant lime green that makes all stop and look twice.  This new look is akin to seeing Queen Elizabeth II, the bastion of propriety, don a Lady Gaga meat dress and strut her stuff.  Lady Gaga has millions of followers.  Branding works for her.  So why not use this same approach for the teaching profession?
Consider a 

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Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”

Susan Reese and I just completed editing the back-to-school edition of the NJCTE Newsletter, e-Focus. I include below an article we published inviting our readers to respond to the concept of teacher as “brand ambassador.” After you read the article, we invite you to respond to it here on the blog.

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”
What Do You Think?
by Susan Reese and Patricia Schall
We are happy to say right up front that we know the worth of branding.  We see that NCTE has moved from stodgy blue and gold to vibrant lime green that makes all stop and look twice.  This new look is akin to seeing Queen Elizabeth II, the bastion of propriety, don a Lady Gaga meat dress and strut her stuff.  Lady Gaga has millions of followers.  Branding works for her.  So why not use this same approach for the teaching profession?
Consider a recent article in the New York Times about Kayla Delzer, a third-grade teacher from Mapleton, North Dakota. She is characterized as a new kind of teacher who “is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology.”
These teachers influencers”attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks” and “are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.”
Natasha Singer, author of the Times article, states that teachers like Delzer have grown in number “as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.”
Delzer and other teachers like her serve as “brand ambassadors,” and through their work in the classroom and as trainers of other teachers, “promote the products and services” of many companies and receive as rewards for their efforts, gifts like t-shirts, gift cards, and some more costly items such as travel expenses to conferences.
Singer goes on to say that these brand ambassador teachers continue to use and promote products and services despite the fact that “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.”
This article has generated some fervent reactions in the education blogosphere. Check out these links to the responses of a few noted educators:
Douglas Hesse, former President of NCTE, Executive Director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver and Professor of English, responded to the article on NCTE’s Connected CommunityIf you are not already a member of this digital community, we encourage you to join. Meanwhile, we quote his entry here for those readers who are not yet members:
Original Message:
Sent: 09-04-2017 11:37
From: Douglas Hesse
Subject: Teachers as Brand Ambassadors –NY Times StoryI’m still pondering a story I read in yesterday’s New York Times (9/2/17) about teachers establishing themselves as brand ambassadors, primarily for technology companies who provide both classroom/school and personal benefits for promoting devices and/or applications. A certain chunk of the teacher’s time and efforts is to make visible, primarily through social media, themselves and their classrooms: to promote themselves as brands, famous for being famous teachers, “emulatable,” as it were.  Now, there’s certainly nothing entirely new about this.  There have long been famous teachers, famous at least within the profession, whose teaching practices and ideas get noticed and circulated, some of them even achieving status as “The Smith or the Lujan Method.”  But those fame-garnering accomplishments have large occurred, historically, through professional organizations: presenting at conferences at various levels, publishing journal articles, occasionally authoring books.

Historically, there has been some sense of an implicit disciplinary vetting that occurred within knowledge communities; sometimes ideas and practices passed through levels of peer review (as in conference selections or publishing), but not always.  And of course there’s been a version of “brand ambassadors” when the “apps” being promoted were textbooks, not software; publishers sponsored professional development led by one of their authors.  The relationship within English studies between not-for-profit professional expertise and for-profit circulation of materials has always been a complex one.  (As a textbook author myself, I’ve tried to resist what have felt to me the crassest requests for promotion.) What strikes me as different in the NYT article is the more overtly entrepreneurial cast.  The tools of social media allow folks largely to bypass the professional associations and channels–organizations like NCTE–that traditionally provided authorizing (or sanctioning) functions.  Instead, there’s more or less direct marketing, with the teacher him or herself being the brand.

The NYT article raises questions about ethics, noting that teachers treading roads that other professionals (especially physicians) have trod: the possible tension between obligations to one’s students through professional standards and enticements to one’s self-interests through business opportunities on the side.  As the story points out (and as I concede), the nature of both school funding and teacher salaries–not to mention, the erosion of teacher status–makes the enticements pretty reasonable and understandable.

Now, as I said at the outset, I’m still pondering this all.  I have concerns, but I want to be thoughtful before pounding my shoe indignantly on a desk.  I am struck, however, by the consequences of these practices for what it means (or doesn’t, really) to be a professional whose professionalism is both signaled and sanctioned by membership in professional associations.

Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, former social studies teacher, and Steven Singer, who identifies himself as “a husband, father, teacher and education advocate and can be reached at www.svteach.wikispaces.com  comments on the role teachers play as pawns in the technology industry money machine and the problems it can create for the profession and kids.  While he is not addressing the Times article in particular, it is clear that he has strong opinions on seductive forces of the technology industry.
What do you think? We invite you to share your thoughts on this article on NJCTE Blog, or if you prefer, you may email responses to us at njctefocus@gmail.com.

I Don’t Like Feeling Powerless.

Have you felt powerless in the face of overwhelming news? Lately I have developed a new strategy for reading the New York Times. I start with the special section of the day, hit the arts section, then work my way into an article or two in the business section. Then, I aim for the opinion page to find a preview of coming attractions to the headlines. By that point, I have consumed enough news to take a deep breath and turn to the first page. Don’t even ask about my televised or streamed news viewing habits. I have mastered a fast finger on the remote and the keypad to click away any images I find disturbing. In fact, I try to avoid watching the news as much as possible.

Still, things happen that compel me to grab my mobile phone or flip in the TV. The recent march of the alt-right, the KKK, white supremacists, and the Nazis in Charlottesville, VA, and the subsequent murder of Heather D.  Heyer by James Alex Fields, Jr., a 20 year-old terrorist from Ohio, were events that shook me to the core and left me feeling hopeless.

The turbulent political climate has made me develop some new strategies for preserving my own mental and emotional health. I find that I need to act in some way to maintain my sense of efficacy. Since I retired, I find that I finally have more for the kind of civic engagement that energizes me and gives me hope. I have been making visits to legislative offices, participating in demonstrations, writing letters, making phone calls, posting on social media sites, attending organization meetings, and generally making my voice heard in as many forums as possible.

I recognize that I now benefit from a more flexible schedule, and so I have committed to doing the work for many people who don’t have the time to do it. I have made a pact with myself to accomplish at least one citizen activist task a day—make a call, send a postcard, post on social media, and so on. Of course some days even I can’t do it, but it is a goal that keeps me focused.

Still, there are some things that busy working people still can do to make their voices heard. In a prior edition of e-Focus, I wrote an article providing tips on how to write a good letter to the editor. I will continue to offer citizen activist tips in future newsletters. In this edition, I provide some suggestions for making phone calls to members of congress.

Once you choose your issue of concern you should:


  • Visit you member of congress’s official website and social media sites. It is wise to know something about them and their voting record before calling them.


  • Decide whether you want to call the D.C. office or a district office. I suggest beginning with the D.C. office since they handle policy concerns. Local offices often help individuals with more personal concerns, such as applying to a military academy or answering questions about government services. You can find contact information through many on-line sources. If you prefer, you can call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected with the office of your representative.


  • Prepare for the phone call by making a script. Begin by stating your name and address, often the zip code is good enough. Then write one point you want to make in succinct language. Stick to the one point. Don’t ramble.


  • Recognize that your call will be answered by an aide or intern. Just stick to your script. Don’t ask the aide’s opinion on your issue, since they often are not familiar with all issues. Expect the aide to say that he or she will convey your concern to the congressional representative. They will do it. Aides provide reports and tallies of calls on issues to the representatives. Thank the person for his or her time.


  • Leave a message on the voicemail if you do not reach an aide. Sometimes you will get a voicemail message when you call prompting you to stay on the line or to press a number if you wish to wait to speak to an aide. It is always preferable to speak to a live human if you can reach one. Keep in mind that legislators currently are receiving an unusually high volume of calls. So be respectful of their time, succinct, and polite. I have found when I made calls lately that I will get a message saying the voicemail is full and call at another time. I have discovered that if you hold for a while, an aide will often answer. So be patient.


  • Feel free to call a member of congress who does not represent you. These men and women do committee work and vote on issues that affect all citizens, not just their own constituents. When I call a member of congress who does not represent me, I add a brief statement to my script. I will say something like, “I recognize I am not Senator Murkowski’s constituent, but am calling her because she makes decisions that affect all citizens. I do not expect a response from her.” You may be surprised that those you contact will start sending you email and newsletters. I understand that the aide answering the phone has a right to refuse to take your comment if you are not a constituent, but that has not been my experience.


I am not a person who enjoys making phone calls to strangers. However, once I start calling, I am engaged in the process and ready for the next call. Remember, you don’t have to spend an extraordinary amount of time making calls. Pick one member of congress and one issue that concerns you, and make that call. It only takes a few minutes, has the potential to make a difference, and it will make you feel empowered as a citizen and dispel the gloom that prevails when we feel hopeless.  Feel free to contact meat njctefocus@gmail.com  or visit me on Facebook or Twitter if you need any further tips or support.


Tips on Writing Good Letters to the Editor

Our current political climate in the USA is inspiring people to take action as citizens. One of the ways we can share our ideas with an extended audience is to write letters to the editor of newspapers and other publications.

Teachers sometimes despair that their own voices are not heard often enough in public forums.  They become exasperated with all the non-teaching “experts” who claim to know what is best for classrooms and schools and who, because of their prominence or connections, often have “bully pulpits” to express their views.  Writing letters to the editor is manageable way for busy teachers on tight schedules to advocate in their own voices for what their experience and education has taught them about teaching and learning. Writing a letter to the editor will not consume extensive time or resources.  One good letter may be sent to multiple newspapers, magazines, or on-line forums. It is easy to save the letter and revise it for future commentary.

I recently wrote to my congressman about a bill that was under consideration in the House of Representatives.  I sent the letter and posted a copy of it on the Facebook page of a political group I have joined.  Many people commented that they liked the letter, and one of the group organizers suggested that I revise it and send it out to newspapers as a letter to the editor, using the guidelines the group provides.

My first step: check the target newspapers for their requirements for letters to the editor. When I saw that these newspapers had a 200 word limit for letters, I recognized the immediate challenge awaiting me: I had to reduce a 489 word letter to 200 words without losing the main point.

I started by focusing on my main idea and my audience. I was no longer writing to a congressman. My aim was to make my point to a much wider audience of general readers.  I cut anything that seemed tangential or irrelevant to my main point.  I removed whole paragraphs and sentences.

I then continued to wordsmith the document, doing word counts as I progressed, until I reduced the letter  to exactly 200 words. I remembered the advice I would always give my doctoral students as they wrote: aim for high impact words, especially power verbs, and say what you can in the fewest words possible.  I followed the guidelines the group provided. Their tips were excellent, and they helped me write a more focused, appropriate letter.  Here is a link to the guidelines:


As I wrote the letter, I recalled my ninth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Sloan, who always encouraged us to be active, informed, vocal, voting citizens. I give him credit for helping me become a citizen activist, and I urge you to be vocal too. Teachers also might consider using the skills they learned to teach their own students to express themselves on issues that concern them by writing their own letters to the editor. Holding them to a 200 word count and making their points in succinct and powerful, publication quality prose is an excellent exercise in real-world writing and citizen action.

I encourage teachers to let their voices and the voices of their students be heard with a wider audience. These times demand action.