Children’s Literature and the #MeToo Movement

This past week, award-winning middle grade author Anne Ursu wrote a scathing and important overview of sexual harassment in the industry.  The essay has been shared thousands of times on social media and important conversations have started.  A few days later, people started naming names in the comments of a School Library Journal article related to the topicAuthor Jay Asher and illustrator David Diaz have been expelled from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators for a pattern of harassing behavior. 

metooAs we’ve seen with the rise of the #MeToo movement, no industry is immune from sexual harassment and related issues.  Of course, most women were already deeply familiar with the problems of harassment. However, as readers many of us view books as an escape.  As educators and students, we often put authors and illustrators on a pedestal and treat them as “rock stars”. I encourage you to read the linked pieces and the comments.  As educators, we need to be thoughtful about the books and authors we elevate and these issue, while uncomfortable to discuss, is important.

In light of recent events, author Kate Messner shared the following advice for educators:

I’m getting some emails & messages from educators this week, asking what they can do in response to Anne Ursu’s important piece about sexual harassment in the children’s book world, and the subsequent #metoo stories that have been shared as a result. So I wanted to share some thoughts…

If you host a book festival, conference or other multi-author/illustrator event:

1. Institute a code of conduct & anti-harassment policy if you don’t already have one. If you do already have one, now is a good time to review it. Make sure it’s shared publicly and widely. And make sure there are clear reporting procedures and consequences for violations.

2. Please consider the larger climate of adulation of men in children’s literature that contributes to this problem and refrain from participating in it. We can all appreciate brilliant writing and illustration without gushing about who’s hot or cute or so cool. Yes, this happens. A lot.

3. Look at the roster for your panel/festival/conference. If it’s not made up of at least half women and at least half people of color, it’s not really representing the children we’re all here to serve. That imbalance also helps to create an atmosphere where abuse of any kind is more likely and reporting of it feels less safe.

I’m also getting notes from people who host author visits and are worried that they’ll unknowingly invite someone who’s part of this problem. The solution to this is the same as the solution to other kinds of vetting educators do for author visits – ask around. Most of us regularly answer questions and are happy to do so. I get emails from educator-friends asking, “Hey, is xyz author good with K-2 kids?” or “How do you think xyz author would be for middle school?” If you’re worried about this issue, reach out to some women authors. “Hey, I’m considering inviting xyz author. What do you think?” If there are red flags, you’ll hear them in the responses.

And what about the books on our shelves and in our curriculum?  Kelly Jensen, an associate editor and community manager at Book Riot and librarian, offers advice in her post titled “What to Do With Books By Authors Accused of Assault, Racism, or Other Inappropriate or Illegal Behaviors”.  She reminds teachers that weeding classroom books that aren’t circulating is fine but removing books all together is censorship.  For whole class reads, she suggests bringing issues to the attention of your colleagues and administrators and having a conversation.  Can a different book accomplish the same goals?  Is there a better book, perhaps an #ownvoices book, that deals with the same themes or topics?

If you are part of a larger organization that hosts authors at conferences or events, be aware that many authors and illustrators are pledging to no longer participate in events that do not have strong codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies.  NJCTE is currently drafting our own code of conduct and anti-harassment policy.  As an inclusive organization that strives to make sure all members and participants feel welcome and safe, we hope that you will reach out to us with comments, questions, or ideas.

Written by Sarah Mulhern Gross, Vice-President and Board Member, NJCTE, NBCT and English Teacher, High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

Children’s Literature and the #MeToo Movement


Here in Central New Jersey, many read the Asbury Park Press.  Every third Tuesday of the month, the press features young writers whose offerings have responded to a prompt.  Both high school and middle school students respond to the same prompt.  Repeatedly, I amazed by the writing of the middle school students. Young writers in grade seven can and should entertain some of the same issues that are offered to students in grade 12.  We at NJCTE concur with this approach.

Our prompt for the NJCTE Writing Contests invites challenging speculation that may lead to an awakening.  Students are offered a range of subject matter as they are directed to write about a personal experience involving race, ethnicity, class, religion, or gender enlightenment.  Needless to say, there is no right or wrong answer.  Honest engagement with the prompt and careful thought will emerge for both reader and writer as a winning essay.

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.

The prompt challenges thought and engages students in social awareness which can lead to enlightened, responsible citizens.  And, after all, isn’t that really what an education should do?  Participating in a writing contest gives students an opportunity to communicate their ideas and shape their prose for a much wider audience. They are writing authentic reading for others.

The deadline is February 20. Please see the NJCTE website for details on how your students can submit their work.

As a classroom teacher, you have been given the agency to encourage your students to respond to the prompt in a meaningful way that does, indeed, result in an “Awakening.”  Every teacher who submits entries will be recognized.  We at NJCTE have found that this recognition generates enthusiasm for writing and community support in other areas also.

We hope you find the prompt lends itself to mini-lessons on form, development, paragraphing, word choice, synthesis, analysis, voice… The list is endless.  Incorporating the prompt into the daily lesson plan is easy and beneficial in many ways.

I hope that my reasons will convince you to engage your middle school students in this most worthy enterprise.

Written by Susan Reese, NJCTE President, former Chair of the NCTE Achievement Awards in Writing Advisory Committee

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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


Out of the Office

Professor Faust, in Goethe’s 19th century rendition of the Faust legend, is in his university office contemplating suicide. While an earlier story by Christopher Marlowe had Faust wishing for ultimate knowledge, Goethe’s professor believes he already has all the knowledge he will ever need and yet is unfulfilled. He sees his teaching and learning as empty and futile. He says, “But the consequence is, my mirth’s all gone. No longer can I fool myself I’m able to teach anyone how to be better, love true worth.” Faust is having not only a teaching crisis but also a basic human identity crisis—what is sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome.

All the life and cheer has gone out of life for Faust. He counts his learning for nothing.

NatureFix_2 with frame.jpgHe decides he will kill himself by drinking poison, ironically from a cup that had once been used for family celebrations. In this sad contemplation, Faust is interrupted by his servant, and the two of them eventually go out of the study for a walk. Once out of the office, Faust sees life happening—people walking and laughing, and enjoying one another’s company. He breathes air, hears music, and gets a temporary stay of execution.

Having taught this text many times, I am often reminded of days that I have doubted my teaching, and there are times in my office that I would rather be outside enjoying nature and other people.  Sometimes in the midst of grading papers I will opt for a stroll across campus, and I am nearly always surprised at how the shortest walk around the grounds or to the library and back clears my head and lifts my spirits. Wallace Stevens once wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake,” and Wordsworth famously said, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” My experience tells me these writers knew what they were talking about.

However, research about walking in nature is now confirming, at a scientific level, what the poets knew long ago. A recent book, The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams notes that Wordsworth is believed to have walked about 180,000 miles in his lifetime, much of it mentally composing poetry, and author Florence Williams posits that he “intuited the neuroscience in both psychology and cognition.” As an English professor, I love it when science finally catches up to poetry.

So, what are the implications for us in the “ivory tower” or for teachers in concrete buildings everywhere, some of whom are in classrooms without windows? I certainly hope none of us is contemplating drinking poison, family goblet or not. But, if most of us are honest with ourselves, we find our spirits lagging from time to time. Some may even feel a bit resentful come springtime when the students are playing Frisbee or soccer outside as teachers look wistfully out the classroom window, dutifully checking the commas in the Works Cited pages of the stacks of research papers—not something to feed the soul, but important just the same.

WordsworthMaybe at least sometimes the Rx we need is to take a break and go outside for a short walk. I added a “walking office hour” to my schedule so I can walk with a student to help him or her figure out some career goals or just get to know them better.  I have walked often with a colleague, and in brisk weather the effect of alertness is better than caffeine to prepare for the long afternoon class. I keep a pair of walking shoes under my desk, and when the doldrums descend upon me, I go outside, take a walk, and begin afresh.  Just seeing the green in nature, revives me, even if it is patch of moss in winter.  I think of the lines Dylan Thomas writes of, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” and believe it will drive my life also, in teaching and in living. Or, as Wordsworth has said,

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

 Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

 To me the meanest flower that blows can give

 Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Teachers of students of all ages struggle with wanting to give their best teaching to their students, but we have to know that without the daily refreshment that comes from giving ourselves a break, we can’t be our best. Part of the answer is in just getting out of the classroom or office long enough to renew ourselves, and for those of us who can get out in nature a few minutes a day, even better.

Written by Kathy Dillion, an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Harding University in Arkansas. Dillion works with teacher candidates to prepare them for teaching careers.

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

Out of the Office

The Return of Light

I sit here at my computer today, glancing out the window at the frigid white landscape in my yard. I watch the winter birds scrambling with each other, devouring seed in the feeders, desperate to stay alive.

bomb cycloneA “bomb cyclone” has delivered snow and sub-zero wind chills to our area and probably a coveted snow day or two for our students and teachers.   Random thought: why do the weather gurus try to scare us with increasingly violent weather vocabulary? Bomb cyclones, derechos? Really? Well, I guess the terms are good for our science vocabulary. But I digress.

Looking at the frozen, cyclone-bombed landscape outside my window, I struggle to remember that the Winter Solstice passed in December. We are living in the freshness of a new year. I must remind myself that the days, though hardly perceptible now, really are growing longer as we creep toward spring.  Light is returning, and with light, hope.

I needed some poetry to match my mood today, and a search online yielded a Marge Piercy gem that felt just right to me today:

Winter Promise

Marge Piercy

Tomatoes rosy as perfect baby’s buttocks, 
eggplants glossy as waxed fenders,
purple neon flawless glistening
peppers, pole beans fecund and fast
growing as Jack’s Viagra-sped stalk,
big as truck tire zinnias that mildew
will never wilt, roses weighing down
a bush never touched by black spot,
brave little fruit trees shouldering up
their spotless ornaments of glass fruit:

I lie on the couch under a blanket
of seed catalogs ordering far
too much. Sleet slides down
the windows, a wind edged
with ice knifes through every crack.
Lie to me, sweet garden-mongers:
I want to believe every promise,
to trust in five pound tomatoes
and dahlias brighter than the sun
that was eaten by frost last week.

The poem was just the antidote I needed to dispel my winter blahs. I saw the hope in Piercy’s seed catalogs and found that I too wanted to believe the lies of the “sweet garden-mongers.” I craved the “five pound tomatoes” and the “dahlias brighter than the sun.” The poem made me hope.

The poem also led me to reflect on Winter Solstice and what we might call “return of the light” assignments that I might use with students in the post-holiday doldrums.

return of the lightI could see a lesson that begins with some winter poetry—there is plenty of it from classics by Shakespeare and Frost to more contemporary poems by Mary Oliver and Billy Collins—and wraps up with original writing in any format—poetry, prose, mixed media—about the ”return of the light” and the hope implicit in the increasingly longer days. I can see using an open-ended prompt like: “We are beginning a new year. If you could give a gift to the world or a particular person in the world, a gift that would bring light and hope in the New Year, what would it be?”

I know I am in the mood for dahlias these days, and I am tired of being “eaten by frost.” So why not “believe every promise” and welcome the “return of the light” with the writing of hope?

Written by Pat Schall, NJCTE Board Member

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

The Return of Light

An Invitation to Write Banned Word Poetry

Greetings, NJCTE Blog Readers! This is your friendly and vigilant citizen activist English language arts educator, Pat Schall, returning with yet another suggestion for making your voices heard in a challenging political climate.

This time my suggestion for activism encourages more creativity and less correspondence and calls. Sound interesting? Hey, the holiday break should give you a little more time to charge those creative batteries.

Banned WordsHave you heard about the seven words/phrases the Trump administration put on a usage “hit list” for the CDC (Center for Disease Control)? The Washington Post reports that the CDC employees may not use these word/phrases in their writing: “vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.”  How about entering a banned word poetry/poetic language contest with several options for creative expression using these forbidden words?

Recently, I was checking some social media postings and found an entry from Sara Freligh’s blog. Sarah is an author and a recipient of an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) fellowship in poetry. She and Amy Lemmon are hosting a poetry writing contest using the CDC banned words. You will find specific guidelines for writing and submission in the blog post.

Freligh and Lemmon are flexible about the format and encourage “prose poems/microfiction, or even short plays. Forms that use repetition and/or use the required words in inventive ways are especially encouraged. Work may include visual or multimedia elements within the range of literary work.  Video or audio submissions should be accompanied by text transcript.” There are so many possibilities and formats, traditional and non-traditional. They advise writers that “poems will be accepted on a rolling basis for publication on the blog. One new poem by a different writer will be published each week day, Monday through Friday starting January 1, 2018.”

The idea of a “rolling basis for publication” appeals to me and may provide just the kind of incentive and flexible deadline a busy teacher/writer needs to participate and to take a stand against censorship that matches NCTE’s mission to preserve intellectual freedom.

NJCTE will host our Annual Conference on Saturday, March 24, 2018, at Montclair State University. This would be a good forum for sharing some of the poems our members submit to this contest, whether or not they are chosen to appear on the blog. Why not get your creative juices flowing and participate? Here is another chance to be a creative citizen activist and stand up for freedom of speech.

Enjoy the holidays, the break, and this opportunity to let your voice be heard!

Written by Pat Schall, NJCTE Board Member

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

An Invitation to Write Banned Word Poetry

Ready to Throw in the Towel?

Do you ever wake up and just want to throw in the towel? I had a day like that yesterday. I couldn’t bring myself to read the first section of the New York Times.  I fled for safety in the Science section (a favorite of mine);  and while I gained some strength from reading that “Cataract Surgery May Prolong Your Life,” I ran screaming from articles about how “Air Pollution May Harm Babies Even Before they are Born” and “The Scallop Sees with Space-Age Eyes.” I guess I didn’t want to think about eating shellfish that could see their human predators.  Let’s not even talk consider the story about ice melting in Greenland.  The day was off to a bad start even before I finished my throwing in towel

So, how do we cope with the barrage of bad news that can assault us daily? How do we process stories about dubious tax reform, sexual harassment, nuclear threats, concealed weapons, massacres of innocent people in public places, discrimination, the loss of public lands, the assault on immigrants, and the ongoing devaluation of public education? Hey, our members of congress have even proposed to eliminate the small deduction educators can take for classroom supplies purchased out of their own pockets! And I could go on, but I will spare you since I am sure you have had days like mine.

I recognize that I am now a retired educator, and I have more time to obsess about these issues.  I would be compelled to put them in some better perspective if I still had to address all my classroom and administrative responsibilities.  Working educators do not have my advantages.  So, since I have the time, I have started to think more about how to stay sane in this world of daily offenses. Here are some of the strategies I use, and perhaps they could help you cope too.  I resolve to:

  • Control the impact of troubling news by establishing a pattern for reading newspapers. I often start reading a section I find appealing—arts, science, food—and then work my way into the harder news by hitting the editorial section next. I read my favorite columnists, the editorial statements, and features that catch my attention. Once I am inoculated with some good writing by trusted authors, I move to the first section and tackle the headlines. I admit that I might reverse the process if some critical event has occurred.
  • Visit my favorite social media platforms to see what is cooking on Facebook, Twitter, and my favorite blogs. Because I signed on to these feeds that interest me, I often find they are places to connect with people and issues I find compelling.
  • Sign off social media before getting ready for bed. Hey, do we really need all that chatter echoing in our heads when we try to go to sleep? I find myself waking up in the middle of the night with the troubling news interfering with a night’s sleep. Twitter before bed doesn’t help.
  • Avoid trolls on line. I enjoy reading Twitter and Facebook postings by people I respect, including political leaders, but I do not interact with the trolls on their feeds. I think there are better uses of my time than confronting haters on line who use the cover of distance and anonymity to spew venom. I try to remember that some of these trolls could be fakes, bots created to disrupt. I am not going to change a troll’s mind. I believe there is a time and place to call out the haters and to try to reason with those who can reason, but social media may not be the best venue.
  • Do something concrete each day to address troubling issues. Again, I recognize that this is much easier for a retired person to accomplish. Still, even a busy working person with family responsibilities might find that it doesn’t take long to Tweet, post a comment on Facebook, send an email, make one phone call, or use Resistbot to send a fax to a legislator. Even taking action only once or twice a week can make us feel more in control.
  • Remain professionally active. I like to stay connected with other educators. Professional organizations like NCTE, NJCTE, NJEA, and CEL can give us the means to interact with colleagues who care about their work. Remember to write. Keeping a journal helps us reflect. Write for publication. Contribute to professional journals, newsletters, and blogs (WRITE FOR THE NJCTE BLOG!). Draw strength from your caring network of like-minded professionals.
  • Exercise to beat the stress. I know, it is easier said than done when you are working full time and have family responsibilities. But it truly helps to reduce stress if you do something you enjoy—walking, yoga, jogging, exercise classes, dancing, whatever appeals to you and fits your schedule.
  • Continue to have fun. I think we all benefit from taking little family excursions, meeting friends , watching a favorite TV program, carving out time for pleasure reading, pursuing hobbies, meditating, whatever works.

So the next time you are ready to throw in the towel, take a little time to think about some options to keep you focused and happy. Don’t give up!throw in towel

Written by Pat Schall, NJCTE Board Member

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

Ready to Throw in the Towel?