Focusing on the Gains: Explorations and Creative Approaches In a Time of Loss

Originally published on NCTE’s Engage Now! Secondary Section blog

by Valerie Mattessich, NJCTE board member

These past few weeks have changed almost everything we typically experience about our days, and particularly, for those of us in education, our school days. The unwanted disruption caused by the nationwide Coronavirus pandemic can often feel like a loss for educators—a loss of our face-to-face time with our students; a loss of our time with our colleagues in which to discuss our craft and our challenges; a loss of routine, control, and intellectual and creative engagement throughout our day.

Rather than highlighting the negatives of our current situation, however, I choose to focus here on the gains that we have made as we recalibrate expectations, revise curriculum, and revamp the way in which we teach and learn. As a supervisor of instruction for English teachers, I have a birds-eye view of how my teachers have altered their approaches and begun to perhaps see things in a different light, either by allowing more space for student voice and choice in their courses or by giving themselves permission to try pedagogical moves they may have been reluctant to undertake in synchronous learning environments.

Here, I highlight the ways in which my teachers have been exploring “virtual learning” with their students.

Teachers have gotten creative, with one starting a virtual read-in with her students and another refining her “‘Music Monday” feature in her AP Language and Composition class. One teacher has shifted instruction from purely curricular, whole-class novel study to a student-driven reading identity exploration alongside a study of The Great Gatsby. Finally, a veteran AP Literature and Composition teacher has explored the virtual learning space around AP analysis and explication exercises to bring in more student response to poetry as it relates to the topsy-turvy world around us.

Learn more about these approaches below:

Keeping the Independent Reading Tradition Alive through a Virtual Read-in

From Pascack Valley High School English teacher Kate Overgaard 

A Virtual Read-In


Because it’s fun and community building. Hopefully.

Pick a day. Maybe a Wednesday? Optional attendance.

What happens?

Everyone reads.

Students should try to commit to 20 minutes.

Teachers read with video for the chosen duration. It feels awkward at first, but you’re modeling real reading.

What does it look like? How do people participate?

Through a muted video chat, Zoom, or Google Meet.

Participants add the book title and author to the chat.

  • “I’m here and I’m reading . . . (title and author).”
  • “Here’s where I am picking up (say something about the text).”

If students have Twitter, they can also post a Tweet that says “I’m joining the virtual read-in. I’m reading ____, plus good hashtag and @teacher name(s).”

Thank students for joining you!

If everyone agrees, take a screenshot with your books, because these are unique times that we’ll want to look back on and remember.

Here, Ms. Overgaard seeks to replicate a practice that already exists in her classroom, a set amount of time for independent reading to begin each class period, but in the virtual space. This allows for students and teachers to come together, see each other, and be in community around literacy practices. Overgaard and her co-teacher had only two students take her up on this initially, but she anticipates more students joining in as the weeks of virtual learning turn into months and students crave more contact with their peers and teachers.


Reader Identity Exposed and Explored

From Pascack Valley High School English teacher Brett Conrad and student teacher Daniel D’Amico

These two teachers of American literature to juniors had recently begun exploring the concept of reader identity in their work with students, as they move toward a workshop approach based on our departmental study of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days and integrated this with their standards-based approach to assessment.

The approach worked for a fairly seamless transition into the virtual space, as students were still able to work at their own pace toward proficiency in various skills. What came as a surprise, however, was what some students revealed about their reading practices when asked to discuss them. Mr. Conrad and Mr. D’Amico, in switching to the virtual space, saw the opportunity for more reflection time for students and wanted to prioritize that as they worked through The Great Gatsby.

They created this short writing prompt as a discussion board post for their students to complete and then reply to their peers about:

“Over the past few weeks we have read/watched The Great Gatsby in class, but this will be your first time reading the text independently. Reading a text independently presents a new array of challenges, and I want you to reflect on your reading process after completing chapter seven. Please respond to the following questions:

What is your reading process? (Did you perform an interrupted reading to stop and take notes? Did you read the chapter start to finish? Did you take breaks while reading? Did you use a supplemental reading tool like playing an audiobook while reading? Did you read in a certain spot in your house? Did you talk about the chapter with a family member? Did you refer back to chapters we already finished?)

Some student responses that struck these teachers are seen below:

  • My reading process is pretty normal (at least it seems so). I typically open the book or ebook and start reading until I’m either bored or until I’ve filled my reading requirement. I also don’t read every word on the page. I like to go through every page of the book and pick up important ideas. If need be, I do re-read the passage because sometimes I miss important stuff. Overall, my goal is to make reading a short event, instead of taking up a large portion of the day.
  • The REAP graphic organizer did help me understand the reading because it made me summarize the chapter, then back it up with quotes. The part with the quotes really helped me the most because it made me really know my stuff with the summary. I was skeptical at first but I think it actually worked quite well.
  • When reading The Great Gatsby, I used different methods depending on the chapter and the day. If I feel that I am having a hard time concentrating or understanding the flow of the chapter, I will listen to a recorded reading on the Internet. I personally feel that this helps me see the chapter as part of a story rather than words on a page when I am struggling. Otherwise, I just read the chapter in one sitting from beginning to end and take notes afterward. Regardless of how I choose to read the chapter, I always take a few minutes before I read to think about what happened in previous chapters and my predictions on what is going to happen.
  • I read in my room because that’s the only room where I can be somewhat alone. While reading Gatsby I jumped around the chapter. I started at the beginning, jumped to the end, and piece-mealed the rest of the chapter together by jumping around in the middle bits. It is the only way I can focus sometimes because I get so bored being locked away. I didn’t really like the REAP organizer because of the way it was formatted because I always felt like I was doing something a little wrong. When I read I like to read for enjoyment and absorb the information to share without the notes. I only think quotes are useful to support yourself in your paper.

Conrad and D’Amico realized that students’ reading processes were highly varied and idiosyncratic, something that isn’t readily apparent in high school English class, where students congregate in the same room to either read independently at a student desk or listen to a chapter of a curricular text read aloud by the teacher.

As Conrad and D’Amico now have a window into students’ habits of mind when reading, they can plan interventions, graphic organizers, and other supports to aid students as they make their way through an online version of Gatsby.

They also plan to have students create an entire synthesis project based on their reader identities as a culminating assignment for the year. Thus, the “disruption” of moving to virtual learning actually deepened these teachers’ knowledge of their students as readers, and allowed them to use this knowledge to not only plan future instruction differently, but also asked students to begin to iterate their own literacy practices, likely not something they had been asked to do in the past. 


The Power of Music and the Discussion Board

From Pascack Hills High School English teacher Alexandra Pfleging

When I first started teaching AP Language, I found that reading speeches with students was important, but I wanted them to understand the rhetorical strategies without also navigating some of the more difficult texts.

I had the idea to choose a Taylor Swift song (“Love Story”) to teach logical fallacies. Moving forward, every Monday I chose a song that we would first listen to, write about, then discuss in regards to rhetoric. I would anchor the song in another text or world event, and try to push students to draw their own conclusions. For example, we read a text about stress during the holidays, and how this may be related to family. We then listened to When You Love Someone by James TW, a song about divorce. By this time, I asked students to start picking their own songs, and assigned the remaining Mondays left in the school year to groups.

I could have easily kept those dates and had the remaining students upload their work, but that did not feel right. So, while keeping with the tradition of Music Monday, I am asking the class to choose songs individually each week. Last week they chose a song and had to explain how the lyrics related to how they were feeling. Through this assignment, I was able to understand what students were going through, while students were able to reinforce what they already learned about rhetoric. They had to cite specific lyrics, which also helped their skills in writing claim-based arguments.

This week students had to choose a song playing in the background of a scene from a movie or television show. Everyone is watching a lot of Netflix; this assignment helped keep them focused on the beauty of analysis, even when they are streaming their favorite shows.

I hope to continue with Music Monday for the rest of the school year, adding variation towards different purposes or occasions.

What is gained through continuing this assignment?

  • More introverted students can and do express themselves more freely than in f2f class
  • Better relationships grow with students who can ‘get lost’ in other classes
  • Peers learn more from each other this way too because more voices are heard


Poetry to Pursue Reflection on Our Times

From Pascack Hills High School English teacher Virena Rossi

Of her choice to not only have students in her AP Literature and Composition class analyze poetry the “AP way” but also reflect upon its meaning to them in this precise moment, Rossi writes that teaching virtually is “not necessarily either/or. I just felt like now there’s time for AND. They can respond to this but also read and analyze metaphysical poets. Carpe diem has a different meaning today than it would have a month ago.”

Her prompt and some ensuing student responses encapsulate this ethos and are seen below.

Read the poem “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda. (This poem is available online via search.)

  1. Choose 1 or 2 lines that speak to what you are thinking or feeling in the present moment. This doesn’t have to be today, but can be more generally in the present situation. Explain why you chose them in several sentences.
  2. Choose 1 or 2 lines that speak to your hope for the future. This doesn’t have to be the immediate future, but can be more generally after we have stopped social distancing and can get back to school / work / friends / family. Explain why you chose them in several sentences.

Examples of student responses:

Parker L.: “I chose the line ‘It would be an exotic moment.’ I think this line can describe an event that is either surprising or long overdue. I long to see my friends in the near future. I want to not be judged based on idio-syncracies in the future. I want everyone to be treated as equal in the future, not this cliche idea of ‘equal’ we have right now, because it’s not really working out. I want to see change in the future. But when people think a viral epidemic is justification to be outwardly racist to my people, we get nowhere. When race is a factor used in college and job admissions to ‘check me,’ we get nowhere.”

Heather F.: “Those who prepare green wars, / . . . and walk about with their brothers”—I think that these lines represent my hopes for the future. I hope that when all of this is over, when we get back, everyone won’t just pick up where they left off. I hope that everyone continues to stay connected in the sense that we all worked together and survived this. That wars won’t just continue on as usual, that people will stop to think about why we are fighting in the first place. The world right now is a scary place, with wars and fighting affecting almost every country in some way. I hope that maybe everyone learns that we aren’t so different and some good will come out of this scare event. But that might be just a bit too optimistic.

Hallie W. : “The lines that speak most to how I am feeling in the present moment are ‘What I want should not be confused/ with total inactivity.’ On a typical day, I am usually very busy and have little time to do things that I want to do. Now that everything is canceled, I finally have the time to do things for myself. A majority of people feel bored and like there is nothing to do in quarantine, but I have been using this time to my advantage to work out, eat better, sleep more, and take time for myself to relax and reflect. Even though I am not what I consider to be traditionally busy anymore, I am not just sitting around letting the days pass me by.”

Shawn S.: “I think being in isolation should show everyone how life doesn’t need to move that fast, and because it can go away at any moment, we should appreciate every moment we have. I think that ‘everything seem[ing] dead’ should teach us that sometimes we are most connected to life in these times because this is when we have all the time in the world to sit down and consider what we have to be thankful for.”

Focusing on the Gains: Explorations and Creative Approaches In a Time of Loss

Cocktails in Crisis! Round 4 — June 4

unnamed (3)Calling all ELA educators, K-16!

Let’s come together virtually with your favorite cocktail or mocktail.

Join us on Thursday, June 4th, from 4-5 pm on Zoom for a teacher social hour. We’ll share ideas, frustrations, and triumphs and be there for each other.

Date/Time: Thursday, June 4, 2020, 4:00 PM Eastern Time

Meeting ID: 957 8036 2429

Password: 59175101

Join Zoom Meeting

Cocktails in Crisis! Round 4 — June 4

NJCTE Announces the Patricia L. Schall Visual Literacy Award

IMG_2593In loving memory and honor of our wonderful friend and colleague, NJCTE announces the formation of the Patricia L. Schall visual literacy award. This award, to be presented annually at the fall conference, recognizes the significant impact of authors and illustrators who create works for young people. The inaugural award will be presented at the Fall 2021 NJCTE Conference.



It is with regret that NJCTE announces the cancellation of our annual Fall Conference for Fall 2020.

We are in the process of developing alternative online events. Please stay tuned for additional news about programming that we plan to offer in summer and fall to meet your professional needs.

NJCTE Announces the Patricia L. Schall Visual Literacy Award

Cocktails in Crisis! Join Us for Round 3

unnamed (3)Calling all ELA educators, K-16! Let’s come together virtually, with your favorite cocktail or mocktail.

We did it before and we are doing it again because it was such a success!

Join us on Thursday, May 7, from 4-5 pm on Zoom for a teacher social hour. We’ll share ideas, frustrations, and triumphs and be there for each other.

Join Zoom Meeting

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Password: 251870
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Upcoming Virtual PD


The New Jersey Department of Education is partnering with Newsela to host a series of free webinars designed to help teachers maximize the use of Newsela as an instructional tool. Newsela is a cross-curricular online resource that provides high-quality news articles at varying reading levels for students. Access to Newsela and its subscription services are free to educators through the 2019-2020 school year.

The first webinar will equip teachers of grades 3-6 with effective online teaching strategies such as addressing multiple skills through one assignment and blending the varying student needs such as ELL instruction, SEL strategies as well as accommodating the special needs of learners. This webinar will be offered twice: once on Tuesday, May 5, and again on Thursday, May 7. Both will begin at 3:00 p.m. The links for registration can be accessed here:

May 5 Webinar: Remote Instruction for Grades 3-6 with Newsela (free resource to NJ educators)

May 7 Webinar: Remote Instruction for Grades 3-6 with Newsela (free resource to NJ educators)

Webinar participants will receive a certificate documenting 1 hour of professional development.


Climate Generation is hosting several events in May to celebrate Earth Day and to support ELA teachers in their transition to virtual learning. Climate generation strives to engage and empower educators and youth in climate change solutions.

Webinar: Using Storytelling and Literature to Build Student Engagement and Connection During a Global Crisis
Thursday, May 7, at 1pm ET
Join on Zoom to find new resources and lessons, and to hear how storytelling, Climate Fiction (CliFi), and writing can increase student engagement and connection during global crises.


Upcoming Virtual PD

2020 Issue of New Jersey English Journal Available Now!

NJEJ 2020 CoverWe are thrilled to announce the publication of the 2020 issue of New Jersey English Journal, the journal of NJCTE, the New Jersey affiliate of NCTE. We are proud to share work from writers in New Jersey and across the country, including practicing and preservice ELA teachers, as well as teacher educators. Writers responded to the theme, “What’s Next? Embarking Upon a New Decade of English Language Arts,” in research articles, poetry, and reflective pieces. In response, writers addressed a variety of topics, including:

  • Young Adult literature
  • social justice
  • artificial intelligence
  • climate change
  • mindfulness

All pieces are open access and free to read and download! Thank you to our authors, reviewers, and the editorial board for them help in bringing this issue to life!

2021 Call for Manuscripts 

Check out our call for manuscripts and consider submitting a research article, personal reflection, or poem to our 2021 issue, “Course Correction: The Adaptive Nature of English Language Arts.” We seek submissions related to the current pandemic.

2020 Issue of New Jersey English Journal Available Now!

Join us Wednesday for Cocktails in Crisis!

Calling all ELA educators, K-16! Let’s come together virtually with your favorite cocktail or mocktail.

Join us on April 22 from 4-5pm on Zoom for a teacher social hour. We’ll share ideas, frustrations, and triumphs and be there for each other.

Time: Apr 22, 2020 04:00 PM Eastern Time

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 545 112 779

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For Pat Schall: The Contagion of Courage

Dear NJCTE Members:

I have some sad news to report. On April 6, NJCTE leader and past-president Pat Schall passed away after her battle with colon cancer. Our organization has lost a great leader and a wonderful colleague. I know all of you who knew Pat know what a special person she was. I was lucky to have known and learned from her.

Some of you may know Pat from her wonderful writing on our NJCTE blog. Of the many pieces she wrote, this one caught blog editor Susan Chenelle’s attention (and heart), and this one offers advice very relevant to this strange and anxious time.

We hope to do more to commemorate her tenure and accomplishments with NJCTE.

In the meantime, below, find Susan Reese’s wonderful tribute to Pat.

Audrey Fisch

President, NJCTE

The Contagion of Courage

A woman of great worth has left us. There is a space in my air as I consider a world, currently consumed in great loss from COVID-19, that must suffer yet another vacancy. Patricia L. Schall, a truly courageous woman, has succumbed to colon cancer, leaving behind an army of devoted students, colleagues, friends, and family.

Pat was an educator of excellence! She taught by example; her text gave us life lessons. She was generous with her resources, unsparing with her praise, and relentless in her pursuit of achievement. She did all of this with an admirable reserve and restraint. She advanced the idea, the proposition, the goal rather than her desire to stand in the spotlight.

NJCTE became better because Pat took a leadership role. Her initiatives involved supporting and recognizing teachers who declared their quest for excellence. She designed a program to recognize two significant NJCTE contributors: Marcia Holtzman and Jerry Weiss. The NJCTE Marcia Holtzman Preservice Teacher Scholarship Award identifies and honors the commitment of those teachers entering the field. The NJCTE M. Jerry Weiss Early Career Teacher Scholarship Award recognizes those in their early teaching careers who are making a difference.

Through Pat’s desire for preservation, the NJCTE archive came into being. Consulting with Peter Wosh, an NYU archivist and historian, Pat selected important documents and in the process discovered that NJCTE had been founded the same year as NCTE. Pat arranged a centennial celebration. Peter called for reservations at a nearby restaurant to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Peter and Pat have been married for nearly 34 years.

Along with Donna Jorgensen, Pat shaped Project SPARK and handed it off to Patricia Hans in the North and Denise Weintraut in the South. Sharing Passion and Rekindling Knowledge became the plan for small groups to discuss their educational concerns.

Through Pat, NJCTE gained our banner. Her former student’s students created a dozen self-portraits that amalgamated into a banner representing the many faces of NJCTE members.

Although more tributes can be ascribed to Patricia L. Schall, perhaps the most significant one is this – “She plays well with others.” Pat has always been a team player. She joined with Joe Pizzo to assume the leadership of NJCTE after the sudden death of the president. Joe notes, “She was a mentor to us all.” Her legacy will be her encouragement, enthusiasm, and kindness.

Pat herself selected these words in an email. They seem most appropriate in this time of loss.

“There is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action creates its courage; and courage is as contagious as fear.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

–Susan Reese

Susan Reese is a member of NJCTE and the last past president.

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



For Pat Schall: The Contagion of Courage

NJCTE Announces the Winners of Our NJCTE 2020 Teacher Awards!

The recipient of the 2020 NJCTE Educator of the Year award is Dr. Darlene Russell, who is a Fulbright Scholar and Full Professor at William Paterson University. She was nominated for this award by Dr. Kabba E. Colley, professor in the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education, who believed Dr. Russell was a worthy candidate due to her “enterprising work in the profession, indelible work as a servant leader, distinguished record of research and scholarship, teaching performance, and vision for the future of education.”  In addition, Tonya Perry, Executive Director of Secondary English Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has worked extensively with Dr. Russell, says, “Her ability to create space for collaborative, critical dialogue and work is unparalleled, especially for marginalized peoples.” Because of the cancellation of the NJCTE Spring 2020 Conference, we hope Dr. Russell will receive her award at the NJCTE Fall Conference on October 24, 2020, at Lawrenceville Township High School.

Ms. Angela Lengner, an undergraduate at The College of New Jersey, is the recipient of the 2020 Marcia Holtzman Preservice Teacher Scholarship Award. Dr. Emily Meixner, Coordinator of the English Secondary Education program at TCNJ, nominated Angela, describing her as “an intuitive, talented, hard-working novice teacher.” What makes Angela a particularly worthy candidate is her desire to pursue professional learning as an undergraduate. At the 2018 conference, Angela participated in a session on independent reading with educators from the School District of the Chathams. She regularly attends professional workshops to inform her preservice instruction. Because of the cancellation of the NJCTE Spring 2020 Conference, we hope Ms. Lengner will receive her award at the NJCTE Fall Conference on October 24, 2020, at Lawrenceville Township High School.

We encourage English educators in New Jersey to nominate their colleagues for the Educator of the Year, the M. Jerry Weiss Early Career Teacher Award, and the Marcia Holtzman Pre-Service Teacher Award. (Click on the award name to see the Google nomination form and information.) Help us honor the excellent work of our colleagues in the field! Nominations are typically due December 31 each year.

NJCTE Announces the Winners of Our NJCTE 2020 Teacher Awards!

NJCTE Cocktails in Crisis!

Calling all ELA educators, K-16! Let’s come together virtually, with your favorite cocktail or mocktail.

Join us on April 2 and/or April 22 from 4-5pm on Zoom for a teacher social hour. We’ll share ideas, frustrations, and triumphs and be there for each other.

Time: Apr 2, 2020 04:00 PM Eastern Time

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 545 112 779

Dial by your location
+1 646 876 9923 US (New York)
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Meeting ID: 545 112 779

Time: Apr 22, 2020 04:00 PM Eastern Time

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 545 112 779

Dial by your location
+1 646 876 9923 US (New York)
+1 253 215 8782 US
Meeting ID: 545 112 779

NJCTE Cocktails in Crisis!