Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 3: “Helping Students Find Their Voice”

We invited the NJCTE members who were awarded a grant to attend NCTE 2021 to share a reflection on their experiences at this year’s virtual convention. The third of three appears below, written by Marisol Ruiz:

I look around my classroom library and see the abundance of contemporary diverse literature that I offer my students. They have the many options that I lacked growing up. Thankfully, authors like Kelly Yang, Linda Sue Park, Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, Erika Sanchez, Elizabeth Acevedo, and many, many more have changed that for today’s youth and the many adults that still need their experiences validated through these social justice warriors’ stories. These authors create spaces that allow individuals to feel and better understand their experiences, while granting them permission to also tell their stories, their way, and not the way the dominant culture has enforced over time. 

As a teacher, everyday I walk into the classroom and hope to make a difference in the lives of my students. I look at their individual faces and see the potential that each brings to our classroom. Their experiences and cultures make for a rich and engaging environment that builds self worth and validates who we are as individuals. Overall, I strive to create an environment that fosters and nurtures lifelong learners by helping students find their voice and tell their stories. My actions are always intentional, from the vulnerabilities I share to the stories I select, all are aimed to create individuals that see their reflections in books, find windows into different worlds, and slide into the thoughts of strangers that become family. 

This year’s NCTE Convention focused on bringing equity, justice, and antiracist teaching into the classroom to help meet the academic and social emotional needs of students in order to reach their full academic potential. Workshops provided educators the tools and guidance that one needs to help students find their voice by examining rich inclusive mentor texts and writing workshops that explore the multiple identities that students carry. Linda Sue Park’s passionate words, “Injustice and inequity flourish when not enough of us share our stories, and when those stories are not shared enough,” remind us of the important role that ELA teachers possess. WE need to help our students build their voice and craft as writers. Our students are the next generation of Jason Reynolds, George M. Johnson, Tiffany Jackson, David Bowle, Rex Ogle, and Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 3: “Helping Students Find Their Voice”

Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 2, “The Time We Are Given”

We invited the NJCTE members who were awarded a grant to attend NCTE 2021 to share a reflection on their experiences at this year’s virtual convention. The second of three appears below, written by Allison Kriess:

As a child, I hated to read. I know; it is so taboo for an English teacher to admit hating to read. But I feel like the honesty of it all helps me to connect with my students. I almost feel like hating reading is like a rite of passage. Everyone goes through it at some point. I had to struggle to see that I wouldn’t always be faced with books that I was being “made” to read, but that I would have choices. I’ve gravitated towards historical fiction and fantasy books for as long as I can remember. They were my escape from reality when things got tough, or my dive into the past to scratch the history itch that I often felt. When listening to the Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, talk about the profession of teaching and, “…doing what you can in the time you are given,” it reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Because I’m also an avid movie watcher, I imagined the following being spoken by Sir Ian McKellan in his glorious British accent. He says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” In a lot of ways, the two quotes are similar. As teachers, we have a certain amount of time with students. It can be a month, a semester, or even a year. But our time with them is limited. It’s up to us to decide how we want to spend that time; how we want to try and connect and reach them and help them to understand our passion as educators. We have to be courageous and tread uncharted territory in the classroom because, let’s face it, how many people do you know before 2020-2021 who taught during a pandemic? We have to be purposeful in our pedagogy and mindful of the needs of our students more than ever. And they may not thank us. They may not ever cross our paths again. But trust and believe that you’ve made an impact. 

The convention for me was a welcomed escape. I was able to sit and focus on the things that make me feel good about teaching and what I do. I was able to explore areas of interest to me such as the choice and voice of teachers and students, and using film to unlock literacy. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to experience the convention, I wouldn’t be planning how to use these tools to try to enhance the connections I make with my students. I wouldn’t have the ability to do my best with the time that is given to me. I’m truly grateful for this support and opportunity and look forward to not only the next convention, but many more to come.

Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 2, “The Time We Are Given”

Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 1, “We Must Not Be Silent”

We invited the NJCTE members who were awarded a grant to attend NCTE 2021 to share a reflection on their experiences at this year’s virtual convention. The first of three appears below, written by Megan Tenery:

In the midst of this year’s NCTE convention, I had the great fortune to hear George M. Johnson speak this truth: “Books aren’t exposing children to hard things, they are already experiencing hard things.” 

As an educator for the past 17 years, I have always strived to make my classroom a place where students can learn and grow, not only as students but as people. Students come to our classrooms often burdened with the complexities and hardships of their lives, and it is important that they see their stories in the books that we read. Seeing themselves reflected in the stories we read helps them to recognize that they are not alone and perhaps learn how to navigate the challenging waters that they are in. However, this school year has proven to be challenging when trying to uphold this philosophy. Concern over age-appropriate and controversial material in the classroom has muddied this process and has caused me to second-guess every move that I make for fear of backlash. Fortunately for me, I was able to attend this year’s NCTE’s annual convention. 

This convention was a breath of fresh air and a source of strength and inspiration for me. To hear notable people such as Michelle Obama, George M. Johnson, and Amanda Gorman emphasize the importance of what we do in the classroom and how vital it is for students to see themselves in the books we teach was invaluable. Session after session afforded me the opportunity to share ideas with incredible educators and help me reflect on my own teaching. 

Through the various sessions at the convention, I learned how to use different portals to lead my students into the medium of poetry. I learned how to select texts that will afford my students the opportunities to experience lives unlike their own as well as seeing their own reflected in the words. But most importantly, I learned from Kylene Beers that it is time for us to be brave and take a stand. We need to take a stand for our students and for their freedom to read and learn in ways that will challenge, comfort, and teach them. We cannot sit idly by and let others dictate, due to their own fear and discomfort, the books we teach and give to our students. We must not be silent.

Reflection on NCTE 2021 — Part 1, “We Must Not Be Silent”

Reflection on NCTE 2020

As NCTE 2021 gets underway, we’d like to share this post written by Courtney Kalafsky, who applied for and received funds to attend NCTE 2020 via NJCTE:

During my time as an undergraduate teacher candidate, I found myself surrounded by professors and mentors who were lifelong learners; their passion for growth and willingness to change with newfound knowledge instilled the same values in me. Once I began my teaching career, I always knew I wanted to continue to engage with professional development opportunities. Although I am very lucky to work in a district which truly supports me and encourages me to continue learning, most in-house professional development tends to be interdisciplinary, and my English teacher heart was still craving even more. I decided to apply for a grant to attend NCTE’s 2020 Convention, and was lucky to receive the funds. 

During the convention, I learned about effectively facilitating the revision process through intentional strategy. I listened to black authors discuss how they found their way to storytelling and how they hope to see black identities develop in fiction. I was privy to conversations about challenging the ways that things have always been, especially in regards to curricula, and placing students at the forefront of our decisions and practices. Most importantly, I was given the opportunity to ground myself, to forget about the to-do lists and the piles of grading, and to remember why I love teaching. Trevor Noah’s opening session reminded us of the universal value of not only storytelling and teacher, but of humor and laughter. 

In a time where everything was overwhelming and uncertain, NCTE’s 2020 Convention, its panelists, and my fellow attendees gave me clarity, inspiration, and hope. I am so thankful to have been supported in this experience, and look forward to the next convention!

Reflection on NCTE 2020

New Jersey English Journal 2022 Call for Manuscripts

Attention ELA educators! While many of us have returned to a new normal for teaching and learning in English Language Arts, we continue to struggle with responding to the educational consequences of COVID-19 and amplified calls for schools to more directly address inequities and oppression. What do we as English teachers need to do better and how might we do that?

Read the call for submissions here and consider submitting your work for publication! Submissions are due January 9, 2022.

New Jersey English Journal 2022 Call for Manuscripts

NJCTE’s 2021 Writing Contest is open!

The New Jersey Council of Teachers of English
invites New Jersey students in Grades 9-12 to participate in this year’s Writing Contest

“Narrative Time Capsule – 2021”

Submission Deadline: December 30, 2021, at 12:01 am

All categories of writing must respond to the theme “Narrative Time Capsule, 2021.”

Personal Essays
5-page maximum, double-spaced

Short Stories: 
5-page maximum, double-spaced

Any style, does not have to be in narrative form but must respond to prompt (50-lines maximum)

Writing Prompt
Write a poem, personal essay, or short story that creates a time capsule for 2021. 

Beginning at the end of 2019, the world was rocked by the coronavirus. A pandemic brought new practices, procedures, and values to our lives. How did you, your family, school, or community deal with the pandemic? 

Future generations may ask what life was really like learning from home, wearing a mask, and social distancing. Time capsules are a unique way of collecting evidence. Time capsules are an opportunity to find or express what is important at a designated time and place in life. Through your short story or personal essay submission, create a narrative time capsule account that lets the reader experience the changes you felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Visit for further details and to submit your students’ work!

NJCTE’s 2021 Writing Contest is open!

Summer reading, having a blast …

by Susan Chenelle, NJCTE blog editor

While many look forward to their first beach trip of the summer, for me, especially this year, it was my first trip to my local library in more than a year(!) that marked the start of summer. It felt so good to walk through the stacks, carry away an armload of books, and dive into them. Ah, bliss!

So far, Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections is the standout of my summer reading. I’ll definitely be recommending Evans’ story “Boys Go to Jupiter” or the titular novella to the English teachers at my school. And I’m thrilled to finally be joining the N. K. Jemisin fan club, even while I’m only half way through the first volume of her Broken Earth trilogy.

And of course, I’m not alone in my summer reading revelry. NJCTE board member Nicole Warchol writes that she recently finished Jeff Zentner’s forthcoming In the Wild Light (August 2021): “As a musician with an appreciation for poetry, readers will find a certain lyricism in Zentner’s prose. Similar to his other novels, this story focuses on what teenagers care about most: the depths of friendship, trying to navigate circumstances that are many times out of their control, and exploring who they are and who they want to be. Cash Pruitt’s story reminds me of the line from Anaïs Nin, ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’ I’ve had a difficult time reading during the pandemic. Cash’s story about deciding whether to cling to the safety of home or leap toward his future is one of the few books I have been able to finish and enjoy.”

NJCTE membership chair Denise Weintraut shared these recommendations: “When one thinks of fairy tales, we often recall the sanitized versions that comforted us in our childhoods. In The Hazel Wood and its sequel The Night Country by Melissa Albert, fairytales take a dark turn with some magical realism. Set in the modern-day, urban location of New York City, the story examines the extremes that one will undertake in order to save one’s family, and possibly one’s self. Seventeen-year-old Alice is thrust into a series of strange events after her estranged grandmother, an author of a cult-classic book of dark fairytales, dies alone on her hidden estate. Driving the story is the kidnapping of Alice’s mother, supposedly by a character who claims to be from the Hinterland, the cruel world where her grandmother’s stories are set. The only clue left behind is a message from her mother to stay away from the Hazel Wood, the estate where her grandmother lived. One need not be familiar with any of the classic fairytales in order to enjoy this story. If you like adventure, intrigue, and a fast-moving plot, this story will do the trick!”

NJCTE president Valerie Mattessich reports that she “just finished Shiner by Amy Jo Burns and was blown away by the beautiful language and heartrending storyline. I am also currently enjoying World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, which also features beautiful turns of phrase and captures the natural world as it relates to the author’s life.”

Finally, NJCTE board member Joe Pizzo has “been reading A Suitcase of Seaweed & more by Janet Wong. It features poems about Wong’s three cultures: Chinese, Korean, and American. The poems are brief, and there is a backstory and discussion questions accompanying each poem. I’ve also been reading Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 (second edition) by Dr. Debbie Silver. She has updated her original book to include Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and more.”

We’d love to hear what you’re reading and enjoying! Please share your summer reading reviews and recommendations below in the comments. We are also looking for recommendations for our next Muriel Becker Award for Literary Excellence winner. If there’s an author of young adult literature you’ve recently discovered and would like to recommend, please send your suggestion to

And don’t forget to sign up for our Summer Learning Virtual Sessions, which kick off tomorrow, July 8, at 4pm, with “Love & Literacy: Developing Student Voice and Agency in Discourse,” led by 2015 NJCTE Teacher of the Year Stephen Chiger.

Summer reading, having a blast …