NJCTE 2018 Writing Contest Winners Celebrated at Reception Held at Union Catholic High School

Michele Marotta headshot
Michele Marotta, NJCTE Writing Contest Director

by Michele Marotta

Thirty-six years ago, John Kendall introduced the idea of a writing contest. Since that time the contest has survived the vicissitudes of changing mandates and shifting emphasis in the classroom.

Michele Marotta has helped the contest to grow from the days of hard copies mailed to judges to an online system that aims to improve both the submission and the judging process. She has been at the helm for over ten years.
NJCTE firmly believes that the contest is about the process and thus aims to recognize at least one writer from every school that submits at least three entries. NJCTE also believes that the classroom teacher is the most important judge in the process. Each teacher may choose and submit the 10 best entries per category. Any entries beyond the designated number are disqualified based on the submission time stamp.
This year, NJCTE received a total of 309 qualified entries from 40 schools. New schools participating this year included Irvington High School, Calvary Academy, Newark Tech and Trenton Central High School. Beth Ann Bates, as Judge Liaison, reached out to judges to update their contact information. Curators Kristen Angelo (Essay), Karen Davidson, (Poetry), and Kathy Webber (Short Story) distributed the entries to judges electronically.
poetry winners all
Our prompt this year asked students to reflect on an experience of race, ethnicity, class, religion or gender enlightenment that was significant for them. Once again the prompt was popular and teachers asked me to raise or waive the upper limit of how many students a teacher might sponsor so that more students might submit the essays they had written in response to our prompt. Unfortunately, we continue to struggle with a shortage of judges. In addition, we prefer to discourage teachers from sending us an entire set of class assigned essays.
essay winners
garcia 1
Roberto Carlos Garcia

Roberto Garcia, the guest author at the Award Reception whose poetry combines technical skill and linguistic colloquialism, encouraged the student winners to follow his example and change the question faced by all who seriously consider pursuing writing as a career from “How can I make money and write?” to “How can I write? I will make money.”  He chose the writing life over a career as a lawyer and has not regretted his decision. Roberto also emphasized the key role writers play in challenging the status quo and bringing a human focus to social challenges we face.

Maressa Park, a senior at Mary Help of Christians Academy, commented that she wished she could still participate in the NJCTE Writing Contest as a college student. Honored for 3 straight years for her poetry and essays, she praised the dramatic performance of the Union Catholic Forensic Team and the high quality of the guest authors.
Kathleen Webber who teaches at Union Catholic High School has stated, “I have enjoyed being a curator for the short story entries, and the best part of the contest is meeting the student authors at the reception. I always am so impressed with the winning short stories when I read them, and I love talking to the students who wrote those stories and hearing about how they were inspired by our prompt or their life experiences.”
julius michele audrey
Contest host Julius Gottilla, contest director Michele Marotta, and NJCTE president Audrey Fisch

Union Catholic High School has been a steady supporter of the contest and under host Julius Gottilla has provided a venue for the celebration. Eleven years ago a dozen attendees met in the library and listened to Peter Murphy read his work and talk about his writing process. Now 60 or more gather every April for this true celebration of Poetry Month.Photos by Susan Reese

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English


NJCTE 2018 Writing Contest Winners Celebrated at Reception Held at Union Catholic High School

The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird

by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle (originally posted on our blog, Using Informational Text to Teach Literature)

Periodically, on NCTE’s Connected Community, in our hallways, at conferences, and sometimes in our classrooms, we have one persistent and difficult conversation. How do we balance teaching canonical literature on the one hand and offering our students, on the other hand, what Latrise Johnson describes as “texts that include diverse characters but also . . . are reflective of students’ rich and complex histories”? This debate seems to surface, in particular, around To Kill a Mockingbird. Most recently, Will Menarndt argues in “Forget Atticus” that we should stop teaching TKAM.

Mockingbird has a long history of being lauded; Oprah has called it “our national book” and recent research suggests that many (white) teachers use TKAM to address multicultural issues, particularly race and racism (Macaluso 280). Depending on how that work is done with TKAM, particularly if we are spending the majority of our time highlighting the “obvious and overt racism” (Macaluso 282) in Harper Lee’s novel, we may be in danger of telling what Chimamanda Adichie warns against: the single story. Obvious and overt racism have been and remain only part of the complex story of racism. Students need to deepen their understanding of the institutional and structural racism that pervades Maycomb – in its housing, schools, and employment opportunities. The issues that Tom Robinson encounters with Maycomb’s justice system, like the lynch mob, are just the tip of the iceberg.

TKAM can be taught fruitfully in relation to that broader story of racism, and many teachers, before and after the publication of Go Set a Watchman, were doing that important work: complicating and troubling the dominant narrative of Atticus as the white savior and Tom as the voiceless, crippled, black victim. Michael Macaluso offers a thoughtful example of that work in his discussion of the lynch mob scene at the jailhouse. Reading against TKAM, for Macaluso, offers students the opportunity to see Atticus’s racism, even in this moment of defense of Tom Robinson, as “evidence of how racism works through privilege . . . and how it is laced into institutional and cultural practices and behaviors” (285).

This practice of reading against the text, particularly when the text is a canonical staple and as such has been central to reifying our dominant ideologies, is what Carlin Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Robert Petrone call critical literacy pedagogy (CLP): an approach that “teaches students to read and write against texts and understand that language and texts are not neutral and always ideological” (123).

Using CLP to read TKAM, in other words, reveals a text that on the one hand offers an anti-racist message but on the other hand is bound up with and in concert with a fundamentally racist ideology. This may be what Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Petrone call a dissonant realization for students, but it’s an important pedagogical opportunity.

We need to continue to do the important work of welcoming different voices into our classroom and to be sure that our literary curricula change to reflect our current student body. And surely it’s time for us to leave behind the idea that TKAM is an ideal vehicle for a complete and comprehensive discussion of the vast and complex issues of multiculturalism, race, and racism today.

Still, we need to recognize the cultural capital of Harper Lee’s novel: it continues to be idolized and adored (Macaluso 286) in our broader culture. Teaching TKAM, using the CLP model to read both with and against this text, allows students to discover for themselves the ideological complexity of this American novel.

We offer our model of text clusters and companion texts (our series with Rowman and Littlefield) as a productive component of CLP. Reading excerpts from Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad, two of the Scottsboro boys, about their experience with a lynch mob, students can see for themselves what’s left out of the near-lynching scene in TKAMLoving v. Virginia makes visible the legal and institutional racism that forces Dolphus Raymond’s to feign drunkenness in order to protect his mixed-race family. An interview with white women who grew up with black domestics in the 30s, particularly when paired with excerpts from an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American woman who worked as a domestic in the 1930s South and founded the National Domestic Workers Union, can unpack and unsettle the representation of Calpurnia.

After all, what really matters is not whether our students can read TKAM as racist or anti-racist but whether we are preparing our students to be powerful and resistant readers of the many texts of our world, including those canonical texts that occupy positions of outsized ideological power.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedGlobal. July 2009, Lecture, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
Borsheim-Black, Carlin, Macaluso, Michael, and Robert Petrone. “Critical Literature Pedagogy: Teaching Canonical Literature for Critical Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58.2, Oct. 2014, pp. 123-133.
Johnson, Latrise. “Students Don’t Need Diverse Literature Just Because It’s Diverse.” NCTE, 12 April 2016, http://www2.ncte.org/blog/2016/04/students-dont-need-diverse-literature-just-diverse/.
Macaluso, Michael. “Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird Today: Coming to Terms With Race, Racism, and America’s Novel.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61.3, Nov./Dec. 2017, pp. 279-287.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird

Introducing: Office Hours, hosted by Dr. Patricia L. Schall

NJCTE is launching a new regular feature on our blog, Office Hours. We invite you to digitally “drop in” to seek advice and chat about professional concerns.

I will host this new feature on our blog and respond to all questions and comments I receive. NJCTE established this dedicated email address for privacy purposes: NJCTEofficehours@gmail.com. I will anonymously post questions and responses in the style of an advice column, using “Dear Doc” as a salutation and “Inquiring Educator” for the advice seeker.

Let me introduce myself for those of you who don’t know me. It is important to know something about a person dishing out advice! I hold the position of Professor Emeritus at the College of Saint Elizabeth, where I directed and taught in graduate and undergraduate programs in education. I hold a BA in English from Montclair State University and an MA in Communications in Education and a Ph.D. in English Education from New York University. I taught high school English for 13 years, primarily at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, NJ, before moving into higher education as the Director of the Educational Media Center at Seton Hall University. I served two terms on the North Plainfield Board of Education. Teachers College Press published a book I co-wrote and edited on teachers and academic freedom. I have written journal articles, presented at conferences, and currently am co-researching and writing a non-fiction book on a notorious 19th century murder that happened in my town. I remain active as a retired educator in the National and New Jersey Councils of Teachers of English, the Morris County Retired Educators Association, the NJ Education Association, and the National Education Association. NCTE recently appointed me to a two-year term as a policy analyst for higher education in New Jersey. I am spending significant time in retirement working with organizations focused on social justice and political change. I am committed to continue advocating for quality teaching and learning.

While I’ll serve as the host of this new feature, I hope our readers will respond in the comments section and provide a lively and supportive forum, enriched by the knowledge and experience of the many educators who read this blog. There is strength in many voices. Of course in responding we will expect respectful on-line discourse—no flaming or trolling. NJCTE reserves the right to delete comments that are hostile or disrespectful. Please respect people’s privacy. Use pseudonyms to protect others if you describe people, incidents, or situations. Do not mention the names of communities, schools, or districts.

As a teacher educator, teacher, and educational leader, I have sought and offered advice on many issues. Here are some questions based on 40 plus years of conversations with students and colleagues. I pose them to “prime the pump” and launch this advice column. I am sure you can think of many more, and I invite you to submit them in the comments section. Here’s a start:

  • How can I find a real mentor I can trust?
  • How do I handle a new teacher who is my mentee and is not performing well?
  • How do I handle professional jealousy, either as a new, untenured teacher or a seasoned educator?
  • How do I challenge an evaluation I think is inaccurate or unfair?
  • Is it possible to work for a supervisor who is not a people person and doesn’t understand my teaching?
  • How do I handle the paper load so typical of English teaching?
  • How do I resist the pressure to pass non-achieving students to maintain the graduation rate?
  • How do I maintain my enthusiasm for teaching in a school with a toxic culture?
  • How to I handle challenges to books, materials, or pedagogy?
  • What do I do with angry parents?
  • How do I handle a colleague or supervisor who is making biased remarks about kids? About others?
  • How do I balance my private and professional lives and find time for myself?
  • How do I cope with negative people at school?
  • Can you recommend any strategies for doing advanced graduate work while teaching?
  • How do I keep up with the rapidly changing demands of technology?
  • How do I avoid burnout?
  • What do I do if a colleague or supervisor is engaging in sexually aggressive behavior or language?
  • How do I handle “needy” students who demand a lot of attention when I have 130 other kids?
  • How do I cope with the exhaustion typical of workers in the caring professions?

I hope some of these prompts get you thinking about your work. Feel free to post more questions in the comments section below.

Remember, the office is always open here! Reach out to us at NJCTEofficehours@gmail.com. Let’s talk!

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Introducing: Office Hours, hosted by Dr. Patricia L. Schall

10 Mentor Texts for Young (and Older!) Authors

by NJCTE board member Oona Abrams (originally posted on her blog, ELA in Permanent Beta)

OA 1

Picture books are such an enjoyable avenue for teaching fiction and nonfiction writing. After attending Pernille Ripp’s session on the power of picture books for all grade levels at #NerdCampMI, I realized that as a high school teacher, I, too, can use picture books meaningfully to teach my students. Tone and irony are tough to teach in isolation, but if we want our students to write clever and original stories, they’ll need to appreciate and practice how these skills are executed. Below is a list of picture books that my kids enjoyed thoroughly this year, and that I believe could be used to coach writers and use as examples. Happy reading and writing!

OA 2 I Wanna Iguana by Karen Orloff. Great for teaching: argument, letter writing, point of view.





OA 3Meet the Dullards by Sara Pennypacker. Great for teaching: point of view, irony, tone.





OA 4Where Are My Books? by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Great for teaching: story mountain, irony, foreshadowing.





OA 5Snapsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book!) by Julie Falatko. Great for teaching: point of view, tone.






OA 6


Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett. Great for teaching: writing process, revision, point of view, irony.





OA 7Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell. Great for teaching: point of view, suspension of disbelief, irony.





OA 8Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul. Great for teaching: process analysis, point of view.






OA 9Manners Are Not for Monkeys! by Heather Tekavec. Great for teaching: irony, point of view, suspension of disbelief.




OA 11How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps by Jennifer LaRue Huget. Great for teaching: process analysis, irony, point of view.




OA 12


Counting Lions: Portraits from the Wild by Katie Cotton. Great for teaching: repetition, description, research.




New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

10 Mentor Texts for Young (and Older!) Authors

Tech Tuesdays: CheckMark

Here is the second in our new Tech Tuesdays series by Kathryn Nieves. If you missed the first installment on Essay Metrics, you can check it out here.

Leaving feedback on student writing can be a long and repetitive process. First, there was the paper drafts covered with red pen marks. Then, there were the Google Doc comments. No matter how the comments are placed, they appear to be a jumbled mess by the end of a feedback session. Plus, there is the time spent writing and rewriting similar comments. CheckMark, a Google Chrome extension, can help make the feedback process easier for teachers.

CheckMark, created by EdTechTeam, can be added from the Chrome Web Store. Once added, it will appear on the toolbar at the top of your Chrome browser. A simple click on the checkmark will allow you to easily disable and enable the extension. When the checkmark appears green, the extension is activated. When it is gray, it is in an inactive state.

Check Mark 1

After opening a Google Doc of student work, enable the CheckMark extension. When you highlight an area of concern where you want to leave feedback, a popup will appear with the most common comments. The comments are abbreviated on the keyboard but hovering over them will allow you to read the comment in its entirety. Once you select your comment, it will immediately appear on the right side of the text.

Check Mark 2

CheckMark 3.png

CheckMark is completely customizable. Teachers can remove and rearrange the comments into an order that is comfortable for them. Abbreviations can be altered, as well, in order to be the most practical for the user. To customize, select the checkmark and enable the extension. The popup will window will have a section titled “Preview” with a pencil next to it. Clicking the pencil will allow you to customize your comments and abbreviations.

CheckMark 4

CheckMark 5

In addition, teachers can add their own frequently used comments. In the same editing section, you can select the green plus button to add your own comment and an abbreviation or symbol to represent it on the keyboard. Since it is so simple to add and remove new comments, the extension can be altered to fit the writing assignment being graded.

Check Mark 6

Overall, CheckMark can help teachers through the editing or grading process. By providing a one-click solution to common errors, teachers can focus on the personalized, constructive feedback.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Tech Tuesdays: CheckMark

NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference “Approaches to Writing”: Call for Papers

Keynote Speaker Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick


Submit your proposal by May 15, 2018 at http://bit.ly/NJCTEFallConfProposal

On September 29, 2018, we will gather together at the Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ to focus on teaching writing, K-16.

We have developed several topics we hope our presenters and participants will explore together. Please feel free to submit a proposal for a presentation on a related topic. We welcome the contributions of all educators.

  1. Writing Identities
  2. Our Writing Lives
  3. Writing to Develop Student Voices
  4. Writing to Develop Teacher Voices
  5. Reading and Writing
  6. How We Use Literacy to Shape the Life We Want to Be
  7. How Writing Stories Helps Students Read Deeply & Critically
  8. Writing in Our Digital World
  9. Handling the Grading Load

NJCTE invites educators of all types (public, private, cyber, charter, elem. – univ., etc.) to submit session proposals to collegially share

1) successful and trusted approaches for the teaching of writing that have evolved from or been improved by collaboration among colleagues;

2) examples of literacy instruction meant to develop students’ abilities to read, write, and think critically while adhering to the Common Core/New Jersey Student Learning Standards;

3) ways teachers can reach out to and include leaders in our communities (public librarians, local historians, business people, etc.) in order to enrich our students’ literacy education; or

4) any related presentations on the teaching of writing.


New Jersey educators gather at the NJCTE conference to benefit from professional programs, panels, discussions, exhibits of books and materials, idea exchanges, guest speakers, and shared classroom experiences. Additionally, many opportunities exist for educators to participate as speakers, chairpersons, recorders, and to assist with conference preparation.

Educators at any level and at any phase of their career, including pre-service teachers, are encouraged to attend and/or present.

The conference is an affordable professional development opportunity. Conference registration includes a light breakfast and boxed lunch and an NJCTE membership.


As a presenter, you have the unique opportunity to influence a wide body of educators.
We expect that you will join us as an active member if you are selected to present.
Half-year memberships are available for the discounted rate of $15.

PLEASE NOTE In accordance with the policy of the National Council of Teachers of English, and as a non-profit educational organization, NJCTE is unable to reimburse participants for travel or lodging.

Questions? Contact:

Joe Pizzo: joseph.pizzo@chester-nj.org
Twitter: @ProfJPizzo

Denise Weintraut: NJCTEMembership@gmail.com
Twitter: @SmilingTeach

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference “Approaches to Writing”: Call for Papers

Congratulations to the 2018 Student Writing Contest Winners!

Please join NJCTE in congratulating the winners of the 2018 High School and Middle School Student Writing contests! The winners will receive their awards at a reception on April 24, 4:30pm-5:30pm, at Union Catholic High School.

2018 Middle School Writing Contest Winner:
Kelly Xu, “Outside My Window,” Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School
Kristine Shurina, teacher

2018 High School Writing Contest Medal Winners:

Winner’s Name School Name Sponsoring Teacher Title of Work Award
Madeleine Song Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest Marisa Januzzi “Aquarius” Gold
Isabella Gonzalez Livingston High School Susan Rothbard “The Weight” Silver
Eloisa Sablan Livingston High School Susan Rothbard “An Almost Something: Lovefool” Silver
Maressa Park Mary Help of Christians Academy Elizabeth Evans “Beautiful.” Bronze
Stephanie Shue Bergen County Academies Richard Weems “Breathe” Bronze
Madison Wade Livingston High School Amanda Buyes “Don’t Ask Why, Ask Why Not” Bronze
Winner’s Name School Name Sponsoring Teacher Title of Work Award
Swathi Kella Ridgewood High School Patricia Hans “Family Recipe: How to Make an Indian Thanksgiving Dinner” Gold
Gillian Parker Northern Highlands Regional High School Brian Belluzzi “Communion Cake and Christmas Break” Gold
Elyse Genrich Morristown High School Allison Janosy “Childlike Curiosity” Silver
Amber Leung Pascack Hills High School Edward Sandt “Rice Cakes can Never be Uncrustables – And That’s Okay” Silver
Kathleen Parkhurst Northern Highlands Regional High School Philip Leib “Handstand” Silver
Lauren Hirschmann Livingston High School Jessica Rivchin “When Our Home Became Hers” Bronze
Sarah Lackey Bergen County Academies Richard Weems “A Tiger in Chinatown” Bronze
Short Story
Winner’s Name School Name Sponsoring Teacher Title of Work Award
Kushal Dhungana Livingston High School Mary Brancaccio “Lost in Thought” Gold
Hee Jae Jung Tenafly High School Lauren Malanka “Whole Again” Silver
Vani Shankar Bergen County Academies David Wilson “Tears of Yesterday” Silver
Camila Fang Wardlaw Hartridge School Stephanie Cohen “The Nature of Resentment” Bronze
Su Min Kim Bergen County Academies Richard Weems “To Us, He Is Eliah” Bronze

2018 High School Writing Contest Certificate of Merit Winners:

Winner’s Name School Name Sponsoring Teacher Title of Work Genre
Helaina Parejo Cinnaminson High School Amy O’Hearn “Jenkins Road” Short Story
Emma Cooke Immaculate Heart Academy Sue Kenney “Unrequited” Poetry
Cedrick Cantave Irvington High School Sarah Caddle “Brooklyn” Poetry
Kaja Owens Kinnelon High School John Penola “In the Straights” Short Story
Aidan Carter Madison High School Jason Ellrott “Haze” Short Story
Naima Troutt Montclair High School Beryl Steinbach “Life Without Orange” Short Story
Smruthi Sathya Morris County School of Technology Emily Bohn-Drake “Never Again” Poetry
Simone Dimatteo Princeton Day School Tom Quigley “Junk” Poetry
Deavihan Scott Rutgers Preparatory School Eireann Corrigan “Ice Cream” Poetry
Sydney Larino The Calais School Cynthia Polles “Challenges Led to Dreams from the Heart” Personal Essay
Julia Ozgar Union Catholic Regional High School John Rotondo “What We Do at Night” Short Story
Alyssa Kabezian Vernon Township High School Kathy Weyant “The Rose Poetry
Celia Murphy-Braunstein West Orange High School Janine Sullivan “A Life in Different Eyes” Short Story

The prompt for the Personal Essay Contest was:
Write a personal essay or narrative about an experience of race, ethnicity, class, religion or gender enlightenment that was significant for you.

We would like you to steer away from general to more personal experiences and observations.  For example, you may choose to write about particular toys that were or were not given to you because of your gender, the expectations of important individuals in your life, decisions about where to sit in the cafeteria or what classes to take, conflicts over what information to share or not share in school, decisions about where to go and if you should go to college; the possibilities are wide ranging.

This prompt may bring to your attention a preconception previously unnamed, but it may also enable you to speak about your strengths and joys, about what unites us instead of what divides us.

Check the NJCTE website for details about the 2019 writing contests!

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Congratulations to the 2018 Student Writing Contest Winners!

Congratulations to M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winner: Nimisha Patel

Please join all of us at NJCTE in congratulating Nimisha Patel, one of the 2018 M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winners.

Nimisha Patel has taken a non-traditional route to teaching English Language and Literature. She graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and English, and then again with a Masters in Literature. She started her teaching career in the greater Princeton Area–teaching high school English at every single grade level. She then moved to the North Brunswick High School English department and has served as an adjunct professor at Middlesex County College, Kean University, and Rutgers University. Her interests lie primarily in literary theory and post-colonial literature and is currently studying Hindi. She enjoys mentoring young students and serving her community.

We look forward to Nimisha’s contributions to NJCTE and to her continued success in English education.

If you have a teacher whom you would like to nominate for this or another NJCTE award, please check out the criteria and nomination process on our website.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Congratulations to M. Jerry Weiss Early-Career Teacher Award Winner: Nimisha Patel


By Patricia L. Schall, Ph.D., professor emeritus, NJCTE Executive Board Member, republished from the NJCTE Newsletter e-Focus, Issue #38, Spring Conference Renewal.

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Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. … Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our society can remove this sickness from our land.” 
Robert F. Kennedy
As I write, I am reflecting on Easter, a holiday my whole family celebrated with eggs, chocolate bunnies, new clothes, church, and traditional Italian food. When the family gathered around the holiday table at my grandmother’s house, the children were relegated to the kids’ table, a metal collapsible table brought out for the holidays. Joining the main table as a young adult was a genuine rite of passage.
As children at the kids’ table, however, we were expected to enjoy our dinner but keep the volume down, refrain from killing each other, and maintain the requisite distance from the adults and their conversation. In my family, kids were to be seen and not heard. Joe Giaquinta, one of my favorite NYU professors, once joked in class that his upbringing in a Sicilian-American home was not “an exercise in participatory democracy.” I’ll never forget that characterization of his family since it described my family so well.
I was a “nice” kid, and if I questioned the family rules, I mostly did so quietly, voicing my objections more often to my mother than my father, a man who did not tolerate children with opinions. My mother could be stubborn too, but she was more flexible; and, if you caught her at the right moment, more willing to listen to your grievances. Still, I knew my job was to listen and obey.
My quiet kid image persisted in school, which I loved and where I was the proverbial good kid. I did all my work and was eager to please teachers, though I remained quiet, especially while going through my adolescent years in middle school and high school. I rarely raised my hand to speak and would answer mainly if teachers called on me. While I might be roaring inside, I was reticent on the outside. I went through college as a student who faded into the back of the classroom, responding only if the professor called on me, and letting my political proclivities hang out as a writer and artist for the college humor magazine, Galumph. Once I started teaching and especially after I entered a Ph.D. program, I finally found the courage of my voice.
Perhaps my own history has made me admire the student activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. As I watch these students lead the nation in a fight for sensible gun regulations and school safety, I think about how unlike them I was at their age. They remain confident, exuberant, focused, articulate, and seemingly fearless in the face of many adults who aim to dominate them. They challenge legislators and well-funded, powerful groups like the National Rifle Association. They stand up to bullies in the media and especially in social media. Witness David Hogg’s takedown of Fox News commentator, Laura Ingraham, whose program lost many advertisers due to her media tirade against a high school student.
These young leaders refuse to back down when confronted by trolls whose vitriol and detached bravado grow exponentially with their virtual distance on Twitter and Facebook. These young women and men know how to use language to get things done in the world. They refuse to be victims.
When I was Emma Gonzalez’s age, I shook in fear when I had to speak in front of a class. Emma, however, addressed thousands of people from a stage in Washington, D.C. What courage! She now has 1.5 M followers on Twitter. David Hogg has 737.1K followers. Cameron Kasky, with 373K followers, summed up the student movement’s power in a tweet on 4/4/18: “For clarity–our elders are not bad people, I’m simply saying that social changes like this are so often brought about by the young and passionate. Countless people in generations before us have been infinitely kind to our movement, but we have to stand up. It’s never too early.”
Did these young men and women ever sit at the kids’ table? While the “Never Again” movement sprang from tragedy, these students were ready for action. They understand the power of solidarity and persistence. Adults are following their lead. Among those countless “kind people” who have supported the students and their initiatives are parents and teachers.
Some of the parents of the Parkland student activists have commented in the media about their continuing need to support their children as they pursue their hard-won mission and still provide them with the guidance all kids need to fulfill the typical responsibilities of students moving through high school, growing up, and preparing for college. Cameron’s father, Jeff Kasky, endorses his son’s mission, admitting, “We’re the ones who screwed this up and, fortunately, they have the wherewithal and the voice and the power to work on this.”
The educators and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School share the trauma of the losses, and many of them can take pride in their students’ commitment to a growing movement. As teachers ourselves, we can appreciate our colleagues in Florida who helped these students develop and manifest the literacy skills that have made them nationally recognized social activists. They can take some credit for helping them use reading, writing, speaking, and listening to get things done in the world. In harnessing the power of literacy, these students mastered social media to broadcast their message to the wider world. Parkland teachers  must proudly recognize in their students’ accomplishments that there is more to teaching and learning than preparing students for standardized tests. Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, for instance, credit a social studies teacher who taught them valuable lessons about citizenship.
Many of the Parkland teachers, led by their students,  participated in the March for Our
Lives too, while perhaps wondering about their own rights as citizens and educators who engage in protest and activism. The country may be seeing a new wave of civic activism as teachers engage in job actions, publicly revealing their frustration with legislators who refuse to hear their voices as educators and ignore their concerns about school safety, working conditions, benefits, salaries, and their right to more self-determination as professionals.
At NJCTE’s Annual Spring Conference, attendees posted messages of support on a graffiti wall and wrote notes and letters that were mailed to Stoneman Douglas High School. As educators, we believed it was important to stand with students and teachers in Florida and beyond. The gun violence that has plagued schools and other public place needs to end. There are more mass shootings in the USA than in any other country in the world. America tops the list of per capita gun ownership throughout the world.
These gun statistics remind us that we have reached the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Despite the undeniable progress made through the Civil Rights Movement, too many unresolved problems remain. Many residents of cities, especially unarmed young Black males, die in police shootings.
The Black Lives Matter Movement continues to fight hard to hold police accountable for these killings. Even people who are licensed and trained to use guns contribute to needless deaths. The concern with guns and their use extends beyond the statistics on mass shootings. As Robert Kennedy said, “Violence breeds violence.”  People need to be safe where they live and learn.
NJCTE will continue to support teachers as they advocate for the school safety and a stronger voice in shaping the laws and regulations that govern their work. Professional organizations can help. NCTE has many resources for teachers to build their awareness of issues that affect their professional lives. Teachers also can look to their unions for additional support through the NJ Education Association (NJEA), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
As I consider these options we have to make our voices heard as professionals, I return to my reflections on my own life growing up in a home that was not an exercise in “participatory democracy.” I think my mother recognized my capacity to challenge the rules of the family and perhaps the world beyond. She had a good feel for her kids’ personalities and a habit of characterizing us with pronouncements about us as people. Her favorite comment about me, even into her old age, was, “Patty, well, Patty is a pain in the ass.”
Well, Mom, you were right! I finally escaped from the kids’ table, and I am confident that all of us can do the same. As Cameron Kasky said, “It is never too early.” I say, it is never too late.
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New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English




This column is the first in a new series of weekly posts on technology tools for teachers by Kathryn Nieves, inspired by her excellent presentation at the NJCTE 2018 spring conference.

Google Sheets tends to be an underrated tool in English classrooms, as it seems more appropriate for math and science. However, Essay Metrics, an add-on that works within Google Sheets, can provide a teacher with a lot of data about the writing of their students.

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After adding this tool, teachers can import all of the files within an assignment on Google Classroom. For the best results, an assignment where Google Docs is the location of the work is recommended. The add-on automatically populates a spreadsheet of information for teachers, taking seconds to scan through every file in the assignment.

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The first few columns are for identification, such as student name, the URL of the Doc, and student email address. Immediately following the identification is a breakdown of individual data for each student who completed the assignment. Word, sentence, and character counts are provided for the assignment, as well as a paragraph count. Teachers can see the average number of sentences that the student uses per paragraph and the number of sentences that do not begin with capitalization.

An Automated Readability Index number is provided to determine the average reading level needed to understand each student’s writing. From a math standpoint, it puts average word difficulty and sentence difficulty into a formula to create a final reading age. The add-on also flags simple and complex connective words that the student uses, determining how frequently specific transitions or phrases are used, as well as the level of difficulty. Finally, the teacher can see how many revisions the student made, without going into each Doc revision history, and the last time the Doc was updated.

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Aside from the immediate access to writing data, Essay Metrics can help teachers plan targeted intervention for their students. Areas of weakness and strength are visible, which provides opportunities to plan mini-lessons or focus points for conferences or small group work. For example, a student with only one or two sentences on average per paragraph can receive remediation on run-on sentences. Without even opening and reading each Doc, the teacher has an idea of where each student struggled.  Teachers can even email the data back to each student with comments.

While Google Sheets tend to be fearful territory for a lot of educators, the Essay Metrics add-on can provide English teachers with an opportunity to quickly analyze the writing quality of their students.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English