NJCTE 2019 High School Writing Contest Winners Announced

by Michele Marotta
NJCTE 2019 High School Writing Contest Director

It is my privilege to announce the NJCTE 2019 High School Writing Contest Winners. These are the students who have infused such imagination, insight, genuineness, color, precision of idea, humor and drama into their poems, essays and short stories that their words convinced at least four different judges to award them top scores. (Click here or the link above to see the list of award winners, their schools, sponsoring teachers, and the titles of the winning pieces.)

I am often asked, “How many schools participated in the contest? How many entries were submitted? How many poems, essays and short stories received top awards?” It’s a frustrating paradox that we require the context of numbers and quotas in order to assign a value to the achievement of winning a literary prize.

The same is not true of athletics. A 100-yard sprinter could compete against one other athlete or even against herself, and if the time she ran broke the World Record, her achievement would be recognized immediately. Distinction in using the English language is not so easily measured.

If Abraham Lincoln had submitted “The Gettysburg Address” to a writing contest and had won the gold medal, would it matter how many entries were in the competition? Of course, Abraham Lincoln’s greatness as a writer emerged in the context of the demands of many difficult situations he encountered as President during a time of war. However, he had honed his ability with words through using the English language in many more mundane activities earlier in his life. Our writing contest provides students with another opportunity to sharpen their language skills and prepare for greater demands on them as writers in the future.

Our judges, active or retired English educators, are up to the task of helping students grow as writers in this way. They are characterized by the multi-faceted intellectual gifts they bring to their reading of the entries we receive. They include among their number a sizable percentage of college professors, heads of English Departments, and even a high school principal or two. Many are published poets, or essayists themselves and appreciate any opportunity to grapple with the many layers of the English language inside and outside of the classroom. Above all, they understand the power of the written word and desire students to gain more perfect control of this essential tool.

As for the special set of English educators on our Writing Contest Committee, who sign up for more demanding roles, such as Genre Curator or Judge Liaison, they almost invariably experience a great boost in their educational careers. That is because they responded to a literary challenge beyond the classroom by helping run this contest and trying to put the interest of the students first. However, their value far exceeds any of the career “recognitions” they receive.

Thus, rather than demand quotas and numbers to assess how worthwhile it is to be recognized as a winner of the NJCTE High School Writing Contest, please urge more students you know to participate in our contest.

Most importantly, come to our Annual Award Reception and hear the words of our top medal winners performed by the Union Catholic High School Forensics Club. The event will be held on Thursday, April 11, 2019, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, NJ. David Messineo, a published NJ poet and literary magazine publisher, will offer remarks at the end of the event. This event is free and open to all NJCTE members.

NJCTE 2019 High School Writing Contest Winners Announced

NJCTE to Present Muriel Becker Award to Author Ibi Zoboi at Spring Conference

Ibi.Zoboi_credit Joseph Zoboiby Sarah Mulhern Gross

On March 30th NJCTE will present author Ibi Zoboi with the 2019 Muriel Becker Award for Literary Excellence. The Muriel Becker Award is the highest honor bestowed on a writer by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. The award is named for Muriel Becker, a guiding spirit and the voice of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English for many years. As a three-term president, long-time coordinator of the student writing contest, editor and co-editor of FOCUS, grant writer, and behind-the-scenes producer of the annual STARS conference, Muriel was a key person in almost every achievement of NJCTE. We are honored to give this award in her honor each year.

The Becker Award has been given annually since the 1980s to a writer deemed by the Becker Award committee to be someone who reflects the best of positive ideals that inspire young readers to high achievement. This definition is extended to include writers whose body of works have touched young adult readers, and those whose careers are just beginning to be recognized as exceptional. It was clear to this year’s committee that Ibi Zoboi exceeds these criteria. Her writing is certainly exceptional! Her debut young adult novel, American Street, was a National Book Award finalist. She has gone on to write Pride, a YA remix of Pride and Prejudice set in Brooklyn, and edit Black Enough, a collection of stories about what it’s like to be young and Black in America. Her middle grade debut, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, will be released this summer.  

She regularly works with young readers; she designed and taught a course on female archetypes in world mythology to young women in the Sadie Nash Leadership Project where she also taught creative writing and leadership classes. She has been a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, Inc. The Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, her original program, partnered with local organizations Dwa Fanm, Inc. and Haiti Cultural Exchange in Brooklyn, and Fondasyon Felicite in Haiti to conduct a 3-day workshop with teen girls in Port-au-Prince.

Born in Haiti, Zoboi immigrated to New York when she was four. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has been published in The New York Times Book Review, the Horn Book Magazine, and The Rumpus, among others.

The Becker Award committee is thrilled to present Ibi Zoboi with this year’s award at our annual spring conference. After receiving the award, Ibi Zoboi will present the Becker Address. Be sure to sign up now to be in attendance!


NJCTE to Present Muriel Becker Award to Author Ibi Zoboi at Spring Conference

NJCTE Spring Conference Schedule

pasted image 0The New Jersey Council of Teachers of English and Ridgewood High School


Doorways to Teaching in a Digital World

March 30, 2019

8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.


Schedule in Brief:

8:15 – 8:45 a.m.   Registration and Continental Breakfast – Exhibits/Publishers

8:45 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.     Welcome by Dr. Tom Gorman, Principal RHS

9:00 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.     Introduction to Georgia Hunter by Lisa Wiater, Holocaust Studies

9:15 a.m -10:00 a.m.     Georgia Hunter and Researching and Writing the critically acclaimed We Were the Lucky Ones

10:00 a.m.-  10:30 a.m. Booking Signing – Exhibits/Publishers

10:35 a.m. – 11:20 a.m. Session I (Session descriptions to follow.)

11:25 a.m. – 12:10 p.m. Session II (Session descriptions to follow.)

12:15 p.m. –  1:00 p.m. Session III (Session descriptions to follow.)

1:00 p.m.  – 1:30 p.m.   Lunch Service and Exhibits/Publishers

1:30 p.m. –  2:00 p.m. Presentation of the Becker Award to Ibi Zoboi, National Book Award Finalist for American Street

2:00 p.m. –  2:45 p.m. Keynote Afternoon Address  Ibi Zoboi on Writing American Street, Pride and Black Enough

2:45 p.m.   Book Signing

2:45 p.m.  – 3:15 p.m.     Presentation of Teacher Awards and Closing Remarks


Workshops and Presentations:

Session I:       10:35 a.m. to 11:20 a.m.

Learning Commons                                                        General-Professional

Dr. Lauren Zucker and Dr. Emily Hodge, Co-Editors for the 2020 New Jersey English Journal          

Title: Reflecting on Your Practice: Write for the New Jersey English Journal

Have you taught a great lesson, and want to tell others about it? Would you like to reflect about your teaching, develop your voice as a writer, and connect with a community of practitioners? Join our workshop session about writing for NJCTE’s flagship publication, New Jersey English Journal. First-time writers welcome!


Kathryn Nieves                                                                            Rm. 244. M-S

Title: Bringing Blended Learning into the ELA Classroom

Description: In this session, the different types of blended learning will be discussed and step-by-step integration strategies will be covered. Different technology tools and software will be demonstrated. Participants will discuss potential obstacles and solutions and will receive time to begin planning their own blended learning instruction for the classroom.


Molly Winter                                                                                  Rm. 236 E

TItle: Elementary-Qs: Strategies for Scaffolding Document Based Questions

Description:  DBQs provide a fantastic framework for an inquiry approach to teaching in the content areas while developing literacy skills. Participants will leave with the tools needed to implement a DBQ with their own students as well as a classroom-ready Elementary Mini-Q  unit and a free trial account to DBQ Online.


Jason Toncic                                                                                     Rm. 248 M-S

Title: How-to: Mobilize Your Students’ Open-ended Responses Beyond Summary

Description: Do students respond better to reading comprehension questions in collaborative, synchronous online spaces?  You: IDK! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ This presentation compares students’ traditional answers to those from a classroom-based, online chat.


Ashley Rillo and Luke Dolby                                                           Rm. 240  M-S

Title: Word Soup

Description:  The leap from chalk to Chrome compels teachers to explore new methods that orient students toward mindful communication. We advocate “think precisely, write concisely.”“Word Soup” challenges the obsession with word count and the fallacy that “more is more.” Instead, each student determines: “What exactly am I trying to say?”


Matt Cheplic                                                            Rm. 239 S

Title: Video Essays: A Multimedia Writing Unit

Description:  Video essays are a hybrid of the narrative essay and film. This presentation will take you through the components of writing and filming that has students consider language in relation to image with an emphasis on editing that wholy invests students from idea to final product.


Carlin O’Hagan and  Amy Brooks                                             Rm. 234 M-S

TItle:  The Color Guard Strategy

Description: The Color Card strategy provides discussion prompts in the form of a card game. Through this low-stakes competition, the Color Cards strategy encourages productive peer collaboration, creates more interesting and detailed conversations, and gives students responsibility for their own learning, all while posing a healthy challenge in a safe environment. This strategy supports differentiated learning, serving as a scaffold for independent text analysis.


Maheen Ahmad and Arturo Rodriguez                                        Rm. 233    M-S

Title: Purposeful Platforms: Using EdTech Tools to Boost Student Engagement

Description: As teachers, we feel a constant push to incorporate technology in the classroom. But which “tools” provide the best approach to address student needs? In this session, we will present a variety of EdTech tools that help students understand, critique, and engage with the content in meaningful ways.



Session II: 11:25 a.m. to 12:10 p.m.

Learning Commons                                                                                  General-M-S

Dale Russakoff, veteran Washington Post Journalist and author of The Prize, will discuss Education and the role that Journalism can play in fostering critical thinking with Ridgewood teachers Luke Dolby and Dan Luts, who are former broadcast news and social media journalists.  

Title:  Giving Students Voice: Social Justice, Journalism and Truth

A discussion by journalists and teachers  on the role that journalism can play in education by giving students voice to advocate for social justice and truth on the issues that matter.

Moderator: Patricia Hans                                                                 


George Salazar                                                                                                Rm. 244 E-M-S

Title:  Creating a Gamified Literature Classroom

Description:  Gamification is an exciting new body of research regarding student engagement.  Using the Classcraft platform, this presentation will model how gamified learning can be applied in traditionally non-gaming environments like a literature classroom, and how to develop learning units with an organic structure of goals,  feedback, and rewards.


Michelle Wittle                                                                                               Rm. 240 M-S

Title:  A House Made of YouTube and Ted Talks: Navigating Through the Digital Texts of the 21st Century

Description: The way we define a text has changed. In this hands-on workshop, teachers will use the graphic organizer called the Text X-Ray to weed through different informational texts from  Ted-Talks to Facebook and Instagram posts to distinguish between truth and non-truths and identify bias.


Heather Esposito and Allison Kreisler                                                        Rm. 239 S

TItle: Student Voice and Digital Literacy Action Research

Description:  Student voices should be the loudest when we talk about the future of literacy in the ELA classroom.  This presentation highlights an action research project showcasing student-preferred digital platforms, strategies for literacy instruction in high school, the data to support the findings, testimonies from students and the outcomes of the student-selected strategies.


Johnette Halpin and Jeanne McVerry                                                         Rm. 234 M-S

Title: Google Extensions and the Reading-Writing Connection

Description: Johnette will show you how to use a team of extensions for Google Chrome to give your students timely, meaningful feedback. Attendees will leave the session being able to use Goodrich, Doctopus, Checkmark. and Draftback together.

Jeanne will demonstrate how student learning can increase exponentially while providing maximum insight into the student’s cognition and maximum support for students in inclusion classes.


Donna Zepeda and Valerie Matteisch                                                       Rm. 236 M-S

Title: Tech Tools for Authentic Instruction and

Description: Learn how to use technology to create authentic instruction, personalized inquiry based learning  and lessons that foster critical thinking in engaging ways. Sample lessons and assignments will be provided to demonstrate how digital learning can increase reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.


Jennifer Persson                                                                                           Rm. 248 M-S

Title: It’s Still a Celluloid World

Description: Participants will learn about the relationship between teaching film and literature and how film analysis can enhance student’s reading comprehension. Analyzing film elements such as lighting, camera placement, and sound helps students develop their media literacy, which can enable them to consume media with a more critical eye.


Session III: 12:15 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Learning Commons                                                                                    M-Secondary

TItle: Writing Narrative in High School through Virtual Author Visits

Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the acclaimed, Nine Ten, and Educator Oona Abrams will show teachers how to leverage technology and organize in- school field trips with an author to study the craft of writing both fiction and nonfiction narratives.


Eileen D’Elia and Jennifer Landa                                                       Rm. 248- General

Title: The Balancing Act – Using Mindfulness in a Technology Driven World

Description: Even though technology is a great resource, with increased use of it, there is greater need for human connection, kinetic activities, and mindfulness. This workshop will explore quick and easy mindful practices that can revolutionize your  classroom, your relationships with your students and how you teach.


Nicole Warchol                                                                                      Rm. 244- M-S

Title:  From Reading to Writing with Historical Fiction: Bringing Your Students Full Circle

Description: Author Gae Polisner proposed that the best way for students to develop empathy was to not just read historical fiction but to write it. Join Nicole Warchol and learn how her students transitioned from reading historical fiction to using online databases in order to research and compose their own historical fiction vignettes.   


Vanessa Kabash                                                                                   Rm. 240- M

Title:  Letting the Horse Out of the Barn: From Small Tech Steps to a Meaningful Gallop

Description: Infusing technology into instruction can be intimidating, even paralyzing. How do we open those barn doors? Explore how small tech steps transformed an “old” Animal Farm unit into a new, evolving experience for engaging with texts, contexts, and others, and for applying what we learn to our digital lives.  


Joseph Pizzo                                                                                        Rm. 234-M-S

Title:  ELA 2.0: Blending Fun with the Fundamentals

Description:  Participants will engage in various hands-on activities to create and share original writing in the areas of poetry, persuasion, personal reflection, and more. Find ways to tap into the natural curiosity of students within a framework that demands trust and adherence to personal dignity. Motivating students through the process of energizing writing topics by “setting the write tone” will engage all participants. Strategies to address State standards will also be addressed, along with ways to inspire student writers to be engaged.


Audrey Fisch                                                                                     Rm. 236-S

Title:  An Experiential Lesson in Fake News: Trump, J.K. Rowling, and Confirmation Bias

Description: Like many educators, I am working to address fake news in my teaching. This session engages participants in an interactive lesson that illustrates ours and our students’ vulnerability to manipulation. The session also offers concrete strategies for analyzing sources and basic fact-checking moves.


Nimisha Patel and Nicole Mancini                                              Rm. 239- M-S

Title:  Flipgrid and Social Learning and Looking for that Hole in the Wall

Description: Flipgrid will energize your classroom discussion as you learn about online platforms, while Sugata Mitra’s famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment will teach you how to help students organize their learning.  The focus of this joint workshop, which will end with data and tested classroom activities sharing, is to give you a shopping bag filled with innovative ways to teach and help students learn.

NJCTE Spring Conference Schedule

CALL FOR MANUSCRIPTS: 2020 Issue of New Jersey English Journal

New Jersey English Journal, a peer-reviewed publication of New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, invites you to share submissions on the theme, “What’s Next? Embarking Upon a New Decade of English Language Arts.

We seek research and practitioner-oriented pieces (1000-2000 words), as well as personal essays (700-1000 words) and other creative responses related to the theme and geared towards an audience of P–12 and postsecondary English Language Arts educators. In addition to submissions that respond to the theme, we also welcome poetry on the topic of teaching.

We welcome single and co-authored submissions from both veteran and new teachers, and we especially invite new writers, pre-service teachers, and graduate students to develop submissions. Writers are urged to read past editions available online at www.njcte.org to review past successful submissions.

We invite you to respond to the theme of “What’s Next? Embarking Upon a New Decade of English Language Arts” by considering such questions as:

  • In what ways has the ELA classroom evolved? How, if at all, will the role of ELA teachers change in the future?
  • How and when can ELA teachers make space for new voices, texts, and approaches? 
In what ways might interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches shape teaching and 
learning in ELA and beyond?
  • How have your teaching methods evolved over time, or in what ways do you anticipate they will evolve? What factor(s) catalyzed these shifts? (e.g, technological innovation, the sociopolitical landscape, learners’ interests & needs)
  • How can technology enhance traditional methods and/or create innovative modes for student communication, assessment, and learning? What opportunities and challenges does technology pose?
  • What’s next for ELA? Over the next 10 years, how will our students change? How might we need to change? Which traditions and practices will (or should) grow obsolete, and which should be preserved?

    Submissions will be accepted until Friday, December 27, 2019, via www.njcte.org. All submissions will be reviewed through a double-blind process by multiple members of the Editorial Board. Submissions should not have been previously published or under review elsewhere. Manuscripts should follow MLA guidelines for citations. All writing should appear in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, and authors’ names and identifying information must be removed from all submissions. Send any queries to njenglishjournal@gmail.com.

CALL FOR MANUSCRIPTS: 2020 Issue of New Jersey English Journal

New Jersey English Journal Spring 2019 — Table of Contents

The New Jersey English Journal, 2019 Issue, Volume 8

The Intersection of Literacy and Democracy: What role does language arts play in a free society?

This issue is published in full at https://www.njcte.org/n-j-english-journal
Artists: Cole Bespalko, Bridget Fajvan, & Kendall Shirvan

Call for Manuscripts Letter from the Editors

Sue Kenney

Getting It Done           Maureen Connolly

About Relationships, Nor Prerogatives: Editing the New Jersey English Journal        Julius Gottilla

Teaching: From the Inside Out           Jeffrey Pflaum

Picture Books Teach Empathy and Much More         Sheryl Lain

Choice Reading and the Intersection of Literacy and Democracy         Scott Hebenstreit

The Politics of Classroom Engagement:Practicing Nonpartisanship in a First-Year Writing Classroom       Maria Geiger

Conflict on March 24th            Liz deBeer and NJCTE Spring Conference Attendees

A Conversation about Overcoming Barriers to Using Social Justice in the Classroom through Critical Literacy          Rebecca Maldonado & Allison Wynhoff Olsen

I Said Poetry    Sara deBeer

Winter              Patricia Bender


New Jersey English Journal Spring 2019 — Table of Contents

New Jersey English Journal Spring 2019 Issue Available Now!

From the Editors of the NJ English Journal:

This letter is modified from the 2019 edition of the New Jersey English Journal, which can be found in full at https://www.njcte.org/n-j-english-journal. The table of contents and the call for manuscripts will follow in our next blog posts.

NJCTE journal cover 2019The Intersection of Literacy and Democracy:
What role does language arts play in a free society?

Literature allows us to be open, to listen to others and be curious.
Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States

Reflecting on the 2019 edition of the New Jersey English Journal’s theme regarding the intersection of Literacy and Democracy, we may envision Civil Rights leaders like John Lewis, who remind us about the stringent and often unfair literacy tests which prevented even educated people of color from voting.

Or the famed memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, where Douglass stresses that learning to read and write gave him the tools to be viewed as fully human by others – and by himself: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” he wrote.

Or the reports around the world, that the vast majority of illiterates are female. Why? Again, literacy is the means to freedom, and denying others literacy is a blatant form of oppression.

Moreover, the intersection of democracy and literacy must contain a generous space for listening, whether it is listening via reading others’ memoirs or listening to our students and colleagues. There can be no real dialogue without genuine listening. This may seem obvious, but listening brings its own demand, especially when the speakers and listeners do not agree – initially or ever. Zora Neale Hurston tell us, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.” We are not always in the position to have sufficient time to listen to others, yet as teachers, and in this instance editors, we remain cognizant – even vigilant – about what it means to listen.

We have both been fortunate to work for a number of years as editors and judges – we have listened to a wide range of voices. Writers have challenged our own perspectives; most often they have broadened them. Liz as the editor-in-chief of this journal and various textbooks, and Patricia as one of the judges of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Contest for high school students, Associate Editor of Peregrine, a literary magazine; both of us have served as writing coaches, paid or pro bono, for countless scholarships, fellowships, and residency applicants. In these cases, we are listening deeply to the life of another, as we have been trusted to help the applicant win a prize, secure needed funding, or create time to work on important projects. Without listening deeply, we cannot help. Each one of our voices is important, and we all need to work consistently on ways to make ourselves heard.

We have had the advantage – for 30 years – of a key resource in our work. We are friends as well as colleagues.  We have trusted each other enough to listen. Of course, we do not always agree. Our lives have been shaped by very different life experiences and will continue to be. So, what is the common ground? We are not inclined to suggest a recipe, but trust and curiosity have to be in the mix.

How does this connect to the theme of The Intersection of Literacy and Democracy:  What role does language arts play in a free society? Our responsibilities as editors, as teachers, as citizens involve listening even when it is difficult to do so.

The various entries of this journal present opportunities to listen to voices and views we may not have heard before, such as the views of a teacher who is offering ideas for “developing global competencies” or one wondering about graffiti on a desk.

We hear reminders of the ever-present connection between literacy and democracy in Sara deBeer’s poem about teaching poetry to homeless students.  We hear it in the speeches and tweets by March for Our Lives student leaders, and depicted on the graffiti board from the 2018 Spring Conference. We hear it in Sheryl Lain’s “Picture Books Teach Empathy and Much More,” where she asserts that picture books’ messages of empathy and tolerance help model a more democratic classroom, because they demonstrate “Listening, sharing words, and working with others [which] not only creates a warm classroom but also works to develop better citizens outside of the classroom.”

This is our last year as editors of this journal; we gratefully and proudly introduce the next editors: Lauren Zucker and Emily Hodge. This tradition of collaboration continues, as Julius Gottilla reflects on his role as a former editor of this journal in his essay: “About Relationships, Not Prerogatives: Editing the New Jersey English Journal.” Julius stresses that the most important byproduct of his work is the friendships he developed among the editors and the writers.

We also develop relationships with the readers, some we may never meet.  When we listen, when we read others’ words, we often feel some connection, which, with hope, humanizes us and deepens our commitment to learning, to justice, to democracy.  While our roles are shifting, we intend to remain involved with this organization and to continue learning from each other.

Thank you for being part of our community of learners and teachers. We hope you visit the website www.njcte.org to read the journal and learn more about what we offer for New Jersey’s ELA teachers.


Liz deBeer, Editor, and Patricia Bender, Assistant Editor

New Jersey English Journal, 2016 -2019

New Jersey English Journal Spring 2019 Issue Available Now!

Guest Blog: But What If I Don’t Know the Right Answer

by Adrianne Moe-Lawlor

Many arguments about giving more student choice lead to discussions about grading. Teachers will ask, “How am I supposed to grade this assignment if I don’t know the answers or didn’t read the text?”. While I understand the theory behind this argument, it presents many problems that result in actively working against creating a student-centered environment. The heart of this argument lies in the anxiety of teacher ego: I am supposed to know all of the things.

By feeling that as a teacher you should be the owner of all of the knowledge in the room, you are creating an environment of banking learning. In this model, frequently criticized by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, students and teachers play the traditional roles of school: Teacher teaches the material. Teacher assigns work. Students complete work. Teacher grades work for correctness. Students receive a grade based on the correctness of their work. Rinse, wash, and repeat. This model is ineffective in every classroom, however, this model is particularly ineffective in an English classroom.

As English teachers, we should be teaching students the active skills of reading and writing. By definition, these skills do not ever have a “right” or “wrong” answer; a student is simply at different points of skill acquisition. A student who has mastered the skill of critical reading will be able to read a text, analyze that text for a deeper meaning, create a claim based on what they’ve read, and choose effective textual evidence to back up their analysis. A skilled writer will be able to turn those ideas into a cohesive piece. It will take many instances of creating an argument that, for example, includes logical fallacies or does not use evidence effectively, before students can begin refining and honing these skills. In order for these skills to be acquired, instances of trial and error must include flexibility on our part as educators. When we give students “reading check quizzes” or ask them to remember very obscure and specific details from a text that have no real inherent meaning (besides the “meaning” that has culturally been assigned to it either by us or society at large), we are teaching regurgitation, not analytical thinking. By asking students to come up with their own ideas based on a text and to support those ideas with specific textual evidence, we are able to peek inside their minds to see how they are able to make sense of a text on their own. As the expert reader and writer in the room, we can then address issues of comprehension or clarity based on what the students have shared. We, as expert readers, know whether or not an idea makes sense based on the context or evidence we are given with it. As expert writers, we know whether or not a piece is cohesive, clear, and sufficiently supported. It really doesn’t matter if we have read the text they are digging into, we can read something and know if it is a valid argument.

In suggesting that student choice isn’t effective because we “won’t know the right answers”, we are also implying that students are deliberately trying to cheat us. The argument assumes that students will give us the wrong answer, in the hope that we won’t know it’s wrong, and then somehow “get away” with something. We, in turn, look like clowns for not knowing that their deliberately wrong answer was wrong. The kids stop taking us seriously and our whole pedagogy becomes a sham. At least, this is what the anxiety of teacher ego tells us. However, if this is the case then not only are we teaching out of fear our teacher ego will be bruised but we are also shelving important experiences for student growth by asking the wrong kinds of questions. Instead of asking questions that have a specific answer, we should be asking questions that require deep thinking and analysis. It is exceptionally more difficult to bullshit an answer to a question like: Describe a factor that creates an imbalance of power in our society by using your text as a primary source, then it is to guess the color of Holden’s hat. (Additionally, even if a student answers the hat question correctly, it does not provide me with any data or information about that student’s ability to read and think critically.)

The super awesome added bonus of allowing for a variety of student choice (aside from increased student engagement and transformative educational experiences) is that grading becomes far less tedious and taxing on us. Instead of reading a hundred responses about the same regurgitated material over and over again, we are seeing a fresh new perspective and idea with each piece we assess. Here we can get a lot more insight into a student’s ability to think and their ability to put together ideas than we ever could by encouraging final assessments that hinge on recycled parroted ideas or obscure text-based questions. If students have a firm grasp on what they read, have a solid idea of what they are trying to say about that text, part of the skill of writing is making all of that known to your reader. In fact, I would argue that as reading and writing teachers, we can be better and more effective if, as their readers, we are confused by their ideas or textual evidence. We can then give more authentic feedback about what wasn’t clear (because we were actually confused) and provide more insight into how the piece can be improved. Since we are not an expert on the text, we are viewing their piece with a level of objectivity that we lack when we already know the “right” answer or analysis. In turn, I can have a real conversation with them about the text by asking them questions that probe thinking deeper because they know that I don’t know the “right” answer; the fear of being “wrong” is removed from the equation. Now, they are the experts on that text and that can be fundamental in building student confidence.

If our main concern lies in whether or not students are getting the “right answer” or whether or not we the teachers know all of the “right answers”, then we are missing out on the bigger picture of education. There are very few times in life when there will be one right answer. In fact, most of the time we have to process many different potential outcomes based on what current information we have. How well we can process those outcomes will affect our ability, or inability, to make an informed decision. It is our responsibility as educators to model this skill and provide opportunities for students to hone this skill in whatever ways we can. If we continue participating in the banking approach to teaching, students will not only struggle to acquire the real academic skill of critical reading and writing but after they’ve left our rooms, they will also struggle to know how to decipher ambiguity in their own lives.

Guest Blog: But What If I Don’t Know the Right Answer