“Just What MAKES Any Text Challenging?”

This November (2019), I had a special treat to listen to and talk with teachers at the Pearson booth for a new project, Teaching Challenging Texts. Several teachers asked me just what makes a text challenging. What a brilliant and prescient question.

I decided to write a Blog of my conversations with teachers because our present PreK-12 student population—is our audience—not us or our students of the past. While I suspected then and now, as I compose this Blog is how race immediately takes and consumes the definition of challenging. Now, I want to expand and examine this notion further. The first and most pertinent distinction I wanted to make: “Any idea, word, place, moment, or interaction with which our students are unfamiliar makes a text challenging and impedes reading.”

Yes, race and ethnicity are critical components of challenge for our students and for us adults. For this generation, especially, however, other concerns pose equal literacy challenges. For example, regional dialects, culture, geographical location, cultural practices/traditions further add depth and complexity to the diversity of our students. Scaffolded into our students’ own contemporary diversity as they interact with texts are period/historical references, gender and children’s roles/identity/voice—or lack thereof—with an ever-expanding world of difference/Other.

All of these challenges for our students are further complicated by cultural and social stereotypes and lack of first-had exposure/experience. Many of our students are simply unaware, for example, that language itself is alive—protean—always moving and changing, evolving, and reflecting the immediate audience using it, while always in tandem with the past. With all of these components weaving in and out as we and our students read texts, our making sure that wecan read a text through their literacy-lens is critical to foment students’ critical thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listing and research for life.

The final, and, perhaps most subtle and critical, issue that can make texts challenging for our students emerges with our own assumptions of what we think students do or do not know, have or have not experienced, where they do or where they do not come from. During West Virginia’s Council of Teachers of English’s conference this year, teachers and I discussed how we sometimes assume what we think we know about our students—their experiences, their background, their aspirations—and their potential.

For example, as ELA teachers, we truly intend no harm, and yet, because I am an African-American woman from the South—Houston, TX—I have been and continue to be aware of how assumptions others make can impact one’s interaction not only with people but also with texts. To this day, I have recently experienced being told, “You are so smart,” “How do you know scholars in other countries?” “You’re not first generation college? Really?” “You are not Black enough.” And, no, not any of these assumptions emanated for students—Pre-K-12 or graduate. The queries emanate from colleagues of different cultures, ethnicities, and states.

I share a very few of these very personal experiences because I have seen just how the literature we teach canempower our Generation Z students not only to inquire with depth and seriousness but also to identify, hone, and assert their voices. And I am so enjoying learning and discovering with them. I stretch them; they stretch me more. I no longer read any text as I did in the past, for this generation engages every text differently.

Whether the text is age-old or newly minted, GenZ approaches all of them from the same entry point: So, what does this [text] have to say to me? Why should I care?

For those of us who hold close the theories and approaches of Aristotle, Longinus, Freire, Dewey, DuBois, Langer, Burke, Applebee, to cite a very few, we must be ever-aware that GenZers in their own way, also subscribe to the essence of these scholars’ intent. Simply put, GenZers do not just sit and await knowledge to be poured into them. Rather, they have inquiring minds and perspectives they want to share and explore. And I love it.  As Freire cites, we can no longer “deposit” content.

I now reread every text through the lens of GenZ—not allowing my predilections to interfere. My expertise informs but does not impede. And I am always open to students’ voices and perspectives and experiences. I also have ceased to assume what students “know” or “should have experienced,” just because I think they should have. Income levels and geographical location and exposure truly do play critical boundaries with ALL of our students across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, class. And we as their ELA teachers cannot assume we know who has come from where.

Last summer during the Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) Summer Teachers’ Institute, Hendy Elementary School principal and assistant principal, allowed our inviting a few of Michelle Halperin’s 4th graders with whom my co-author, John E. Grassie, and I have been working for some time—in person and digitally. The students who had listened to me read aloud to them Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” (1874) shared their experiences with 60+ teachers. Our collective experience was unscripted, immersive, and profound. The students felt solid in their own voices, perspectives, and recommendations to the teachers. At no time were the teachers aware of which students had personal, challenging circumstances/challenges. The parents, administrators, and amazing teacher all pulled together with us at CMTS to make it happen for the students and the participating teachers. The same experience has occurred time after time with students and teachers around the country.

What I have learned is that no one “thing” makes a text challenging.

Rather, any singular or combination of terms, experiences, moments, events, locations, and/or culture, can impede a student’s total experience, possibly, squelching voice and inquiry and relevance GenZers seek. The potential result? No equity. No equality. Hobbled life-long literacy. This looming possibility keeps me moving and learning.

So, to every teacher who came to share with me during the roll-out of our new project with Pearson, Teaching Challenging Texts, THANK YOU. Like our students, you and I took a bit of time to address the hard questions.  It’s our hope that this free-access  project will serve as a reliable resource that aids in our new mission with this generation—allowing our students to develop and hone their perspectives and voices and identities through their lenses, using the literature we teach—past and present and future:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is only the beginning. Pearson will post books and short stories and poems and essays to come, in groups of ten in each series.

“Bringing It On Home:” What VA Teachers, Students, and VATE 2019 Allowed Me to Synthesize

As Jill Nogueras clearly stated at the conference: we prepare students for life because ours is a sustained AND required experience and exposure throughout K-12. I have described Jill’s description as cradle to grave, our preparing ALL our students for life-long literacy. And we do— ELA teachers—PreK-Graduate.

We all teach Hegel’s dialectic model—both consciously, deliberately, and sometimes, unconsciously: Thesis—Antithesis—Synthesis in scaffolded instruction through fiction and nonfiction, both containing writing—from PreK to graduate.

What brought me, however, full circle in the totality of my understanding of what we do emerged so very clearly in the final two days of VATE 2019—a journey that began in the classrooms not only with teachers with whom I collaborate around the country, but also with teachers and students in classrooms in  Virginia whereI have collaborated digitally and in person since 2012. On this trip around the state,  the tachometer stated I had traveled from Sunday to Sunday well over 1,000 miles. I regret not one centimeter.

The culmination of my syntheses for understanding required three seemingly separate people and times and comments, all coming together to create my own moment of synthesis-understanding:

  1. The amazing English department I had the fortune to meet when I began my teaching career at Irving High School in Texas when I was 21: I lovingly and respectfully described them then and to this day as the mavens. Their mantra was “We are the sentinels at the gate for our students.”
  2. Paige Horst’s statement during her Presidential Address on Saturday night: “I have hope for the future.” “Our students keep us alive.” And she continued, “We know this job is with us to save each other and our students. There is no Superman swooping in.” [Italics mine] and Finally, “We can do it.”
  3. Giovanni E. Grassie, my co-author partner said after I arrived home from VATE, “If literature can’t be proactive for students to explore and distill, then it is doomed because it does not reflect the direct concerns of the readers and society in which is survives.”

Suddenly, I totally understood what not only keeps me writing, researching, inquiring, but also, and most importantly, listening to our students and learning from them. As ELA teachers, we really are the last sentinels at the gate of life-long literacy for our students—not to create English-major mini-me’s. No. We are the life-long literacy sentinels at the gate, assuring equity in communicative skills. And, yes, no one will swoop in to help us because we do what we do and how we do it because we feel and love and teach passionately with focused dedication. We believe we can; we know we can.


“We know the job is with us to save each other and our students.” Paige’s comments “brought it on home” for me, as you, Paige, triggered my rememory of my home church as a child in Houston, TX with my parents. College ELA teachers (scholars, researchers, pre-service), HS, MS, Elem, and PreK teachers, we must implode our own self-made moats and drawbridges. To be clear: we ALL must talk, sustain, shore-up, and listen and learn to/from each other. Implode our moats and drawbridges.

Thank you, Stonewall Jackson MS, Culpeper MS, New Kent HS, Commonwealth Governor’s School, VATE, Irving HS grammar mavens, and Giovanni for guiding me to my synthesis.

Hester Prynne, #WhyIDidntReport, and Me: Now I Stand

On many bright Sunday mornings at church in Houston, Texas, I was a small child, sitting next to my Mother on the second pew, seeing my Father sitting on the first pew with other Trustees of the church and the Deacons sitting in front of the pulpit, filled with ministers, flanked on both sides by massive choirs. I have never forgotten to this very moment how I felt. My “home church,” as we used to say in the South, was a massive edifice, dating from slavery—a huge Hammond pipe organ and two Steinway pianos. I always felt safe, secure, and I marveled at what I would come to understand was the acoustical sound. This description was the one most often repeated every Sunday from my infancy until I left my home church when I was 21 to live in Dallas. As a small, only child, cloistered in a tight group of children, we assumed such to be the same at all churches—not simply at our Black Baptist Church. Now, as an adult, I am not so sure anymore.

But, there were “other” Sundays . . .

Not often at all, but so vivid were these “other” Sundays that to this very moment as I am writing, I can see each girl’s face; I remember the long transom in the middle of our church with the scarlet red carpet—which seemed even redder on these particular Sunday mornings, always before the sermon. No sound in this massive edifice. No movement. All eyes on the singular girl walking from the back, always from the very back of the church. My home church had an equally large upstairs gallery; so, eyes were fixed on the girl side-to-side, straight on, once she reached the front where the deacons sat in plush swivel chairs, and eyes from above, looking down on her.

Once she reached the front, the girl would say, “I want to ask the church’s forgiveness. I sinned.” She would then wait until the pastor arose behind the pulpit to say, “We forgive you of your transgressions, (NAME of girl). Let the church say Amen.” The adults said Amen. The girl would walk the long walk back to the end of the church. All eyes fixed. No sound. No movement. What her “sin” was on this Sunday when she had been at church every Sunday was never verbally revealed.

Young children such as I, never understood what was actually transpiring, and more importantly, nor did we ask. What was communicated to each of us  silently was “you never want to do whatever it was that warranted your having to do what each girl did.” I saw this same scene repeated until I myself was a young teen; My Father had passed away in 1966. It was only as a teenager that I realized what each girl had in common was     then described as “having had a child out-of-wed-lock.” And like Hester Prynne, whatever talent she had contributed to our church was suspended in-perpetuity. And each girl remained in our church every Sunday with her child.

I recount this scene for this Blog because much has weighed on my heart since Dr. Ford’s letter, her necessitated emergence in public, and the response from a bevy of men who should know better—who DO know better but have determined to turn their backs on us—all of us, regardless of our party affiliation, age, ethnicity, culture, religion—in this case only the gender is key.

My decision to share this Blog it has come as a result of reflecting 72 hours on a re-memory that because of Dr. Ford’s experience caused me to flashback to a moment in time that I had put into a place—a place never to forget, but one to just keep. After conversations with my beloved husband and with myself, I have decide to share that haunting, frightening memory. I share because I can no longer be quiet about the necessity for us as women, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, along with our professional pursuits to come forth and say—enough of the attitude—as has been expressed on some of the news programs and in Tweets, such as, “Well, nothing happened.” Or, as one Senator stated,”He didn’t get away with anything.” Seriously?

As for me. I still remember the man who assualted me in an elevator—a colleague, and an associate, I thought. I can remember every second, in slow-motion. I became acquainted with him through his wife and through his institution’s affiliation with my own in Dallas, Texas. We had planned a meeting-conversation about an idea for students, and he suggested we meet for a glass—a glass of wine—after work. I said, sure. We met, discussed the idea, and I stood to leave. My one glass of wine not in the least finished. He followed me to the elevator, and we both got in.

What I remember vividly to this moment: we were talking, my back was to the wall of the elevator, and in what seemed to me a second, he was directly in front of me, forcing himself on me, tying to kiss me. I was struggling to remove myself, struggling to say stop, what are you doing???? I pushed him off, shouted at him, “Who do you think you are? What on earth are you doing, Don’t even come close to me.” He abruptly stepped to the other side of the elevator, and as the doors opened, I was so angry and frightened, I was shaking. He was following me , pleading that I not tell his wife. I was telling him not to follow me.

I ran to my car. Locked my doors, shakily inserted my key into the ignition and drove fast out of the parking lot.

No, gentlemen and some women, of Congress, I do not remember the date, the hotel, but I have never forgotten how violated I felt and was made to be fearful—even to this very moment. Even after two years had passed, I could not enter an elevator alone if there was a man in it.

Reporting this man to the Dallas police would have gotten me nowhere, as the discussion on the Hill at present clearly illustrates. That said, my Mother and my the love of my life to whom I am now married, helped me and “had words” with the man.

My Father, had he been living, along with my Uncles, would have taken another path.

What I hope now to accomplish by sharing this personal story is to add my narrative- experience to the quilt of painful narratives that some of us have had and continue to bear. We have had to bear the burden of attacks, jibes, touches, etc, far too long—long before Anita Hill whose experience is a beacon on the political scene. Before Dr. Hill, the message had long been silently and visually inculcated into us. The concomitant message, too, is that while we have borne the brunt of being attacked, disbelieved, and scarlet-lettered like the girls in my home church, the “boys” go along under the aegis of “right to passage,” “boys will be boys,” “so they were a little drunk.” No harm, no foul.

Not anymore. We must no longer be quiet anytime, anywhere—there are so many more girls following us, looking at how we stand. Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter no longer stands for Adultress but for Affirmation. We as women affirm our collective Voice, our Place, our Right to Be and be Believed. Equity, Ethics, and Equality.

And those men, who tried to take advantage of us, please remember, though you may say you “don’t remember;” we all know, as do you, that in the “wee small hours of the night”—as my Mother used to say—you most assuredly DO Remember. You will never forget what you did to all of us. As Launcelot Gobbo asserts in The Merchant of Venice: “ . . . in the end truth will out” (2.2)

“When Will We Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z”

“When Will We Listen? Mark Twain Trough the Lenses of Generation Z?”

This new Blog cited above I composed for The Center for Mark Twain Studies and have inserted here on my site, as well, because I know this is a topic with which we as ELA , Humanities, and Social Studies educators have wrestled for longer than some of us have been in  the classroom. Personally, as a woman of color, an African-American woman of proud ancestors–slave, freemen/women/white, and Native American–I remain ever-curious and proud of the history of African Americans in the United States. Ours is a history we initially did not write, AND ours is a history which we did own and tell–verbally passing them down and then writing them. Some, like my maternal Great-grandmother’s brother who dared to learn to read and write in the secret dark of night, ultimately forfeiting his life. All my Great-grandmother heard, she would later reveal to my Mother, was a scream. She never saw her brother again. She did, however, see her own Father sold in the front yard of their cabin. My maternal Great-grandmother could not write, but she could and did tell her story–what became my story, too. The Chadwicks and the Banks (my paternal side) on the other hand, survived and persevered: the Chadwicks as slaves totally mixed by many strands and threads of difference; the Banks–freeman.

What I continue to love about my family on both sides is their dogged determination that their children, their children’s children, and so on, would indeed know our history–the whole truth: the good, the tragic, the triumphant, the failed. Education was and still is the watchword among us.

I recount this personal narrative because what we cousins learned as we grew was that there was never an ALL of anything. Not ALL Black people are the same; not ALL people different from us were portrayed as VILE and untrustworthy. Difference, Tolerance, Equity, Equality, Ethics–my Father insisted and walked that walk until he died.

What great literature accomplishes, regardless of who writes it, allows our students to experience multifaceted  perspectives through their OWN 21st century lenses–assessing, evaluating, analyzing, inquiring according to their here and now–not ours. Students who have memory of their families’ pasts and history and those who do not–the literature we teach is the door through which our students can experience the world–warts and all.

No doubt, the past can inform the present, but our past must never-ever suffocate our children’s “now.” Every classroom I enter–physically or virtually, I am finding the experience with, as some now say,”old” texts and new with these 21st century students daring, refreshing, daunting, and even sad, at times. I describe many of these students as ones with “old eyes,” for they have indeed experienced and seen far more than we want to think about. But think about it, we must.

We have to trust them and trust ourselves as ELA, SS, and Humanities educators. And as a dear friend, Carol Jago said earlier this month, those of us who need help, ASK. There will always be those of us who will say, Of course, we are here.

Blog # 2: Defining Ourselves: Why Now? And to Whom?

If each of us had to define and describe in five sentences or less what we do as English teachers for our students—PreK-Graduate—what would we say? How would we define specifically what we do without using any of the following: grading, papers, long hours, inadequate remuneration, not enough time, trying conditions, and the list would probably continue. However, does such a list really define and describe what we do; who we are as English teachers, educators, intellectuals?

All too often, we rely on job-synecdoches—listing the descriptive “parts” of what we do in lieu of drilling into and revealing the “scope and sequence” of what we do—the order of units, plans, curricula. But what exactly do we do, and why is now, the critical time for us to know and share, and, yes, control, the narrative?

What We Do: The integral components requisite for a child, tween, teen, adult of all human and social iterations to function and succeed in daily living and career require that ELA teachers expose and provide the accesskeys through reading (fiction, nonfiction), writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, researching, and viewing. Sparking and fomenting sustained critical thinking contextualize the learning environment.

“What we do” has had resonance and consequence throughout the history of this country for educated and illiterate, for chattel and immigrant, indentured and migrant, for those born free and those who were later freed. “What we do” has enabled individuals to defy efforts to deny the vote, deny voice, deny one’s very presence, and to deny difference.

More importantly, students themselves articulate best what we do. Recently, I asked several groups of students—MS/HS—around the country to explain to me and to each other if their reading, writing, speaking, research, and listening in their English classes have or have not affected their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Their responses were thought-provoking. Here are a few nuggets:

• The books we read make me aware of different people and cultures I have not met yet.
• I understand better how to deal with difficult situations and when to speak and not.
• I did not know other people felt the way I do about split families; it was good to read about someone else and what he did when his parents left each other.
Who Is Our Audience and Why Must We Do Something Now ?
Emerson stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (Self-Reliance). To be sure, consistency and certainty are not wholly undesirable. English teachers are consistent and constantly embrace change, ever-reflecting the notion of Emerson’s thesis—that we need not fear defining and redefining, adapting and evolving “what we do:” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
Ours is an ever-changing audience: students from generation to generation who actually don’t age and mature from year to year with us. In addition, both teachers and students from year to year are in a different space and place, constructing meaning and building relationships differently. Parents, too are our audience, as are local, state, and federal policy makers. Finally, another factor to this list is any person who feels comfortable commenting on the state of education and on who we are, describing us as some innocuous group who have weekends and summers off. Well. . . In the midst of these varied audiences, our students and their parents represent our permanent audience that is never in stasis. What affects this audience directly affects us. Parents and their children today, more than in the past, contend with social change, upheavals, uncertainty, a technology juggernaut, and a general, expansive sense of dis-ease.

While some of our colleagues yet contend we need not pay attention to any of these audiences, and others contend students decidedly don’t qualify as audience, we must pay attention to our students as audience—an audience who remains with us for a significant portion of their lives.

Within the dis-ease, the cacophony of non-teacherly voices, and our generationally-shifting students, we must acknowledge the immediacy of our using voices, best practices, and students’ testimonies as to the import and efficacy of our profession and our expertise within it. For too long, we have allowed others to intuit what we do. For too long we have been satisfied with the notion that people just know and remember what we do and its import.

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

We, ELA teachers, represent the sustained, coherent, cohesive, and substantive instructional pathway Dr. King articulated. Now, the path before us requires that we define, articulate, illustrate, and model all we have done, are doing, and will continue to do for life.

This is what we do and who we are as English teachers.



Blog#1-Who Defines US–ELA?

If there ever was a time for English language arts teachers (PreK-Graduate) to wrench out of the hands of those who do and would define who we are, what we do, how we teach, when we teach, and what we teach—the time is NOW! Over the next months, as we approach NCTE’s national convention in St. Louis, I want to have a conversation that explores our defining who we are—ourselves. This conversation is an important one if we are to re-acquire our Voices, our Agency, and our Mission.

As for me, I am a lifelong, dedicated passionate English teacher who loves students, literature, writing, research, reading, and other ELA teachers. Like our students, I remain ever-curious, and I have had and continue to have the unique privilege of teaching secondary and college students, as well as collaborating with colleagues as I present, work with students, conduct workshops, etc.

Despite the challenges we all have every day as educators, I still love the profession and know that WE must now tell our narratives. We much explain in no uncertain terms that what we do as English teachers, students in this entire United States of America depend—from cradle to grave– on the foundational life-long skills we teach: reading, writing thinking, speaking, listening, and viewing. English, yes, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and film, art and music—these elements abound in our classes.

Now is the time for us to rebrand and assume control of our narrative. Let’s talk!