The Revolutionary Potential of ChatGPT

Former NJCTE President Audrey Fisch recently published a piece in the Star Ledger about ChatGPT.

Drawing on her work with students at New Jersey City University and in the college access and success program, More Than Bootstraps, Fisch explores what she calls the “revolutionary potential” of ChatGPT to help first-generation college students navigate the college application process and advocate for themselves in the alien and often baffling world of higher education. She also reminds us that new literacy technologies, from the pencil eraser to ChatGPT, have always posed challenges to writing instruction and ponders the kind of social change this new technology may or may not engender.

The Revolutionary Potential of ChatGPT

Notes from NCTE Business Meeting

printprogramcover-235x300by Audrey Fisch

As part of my responsibilities as President of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, I attended NCTE in Baltimore, and the Annual Business Meeting of NCTE on Friday evening of the convention. Below, find some of my notes from the meeting, which I offer in the hope of keeping NJCTE members informed about NCTE.

Our own NJCTE Board Member Joe Pizzo, NCTE Historian, offered a moment in NCTE history, a signature feature of the NCTE Annual Business Meeting. We hope to publish his comments shortly on the NJCTE blog.

President’s Report, Franki Sibberson

  • 5 revised policy statements, 5 sunsetted
  • 2 new task forces to study mentoring and the convention
  • 2 new leadership awards – people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ award
  • Advocacy and Leadership Event in DC – 22 travel awards offered by NCTE to participants
  • The 2020 convention will feature scholarships – folks can donate
  • Funding from NCTE this year paid for placards highlighting LGBTQ+ and anti-racist statements posted throughout the convention center
  • Funding will continue for at least another two years for the early career educator of color leadership award

Emily Kirkpatrick, Executive Director Report

  • First year of positive membership growth in 18 years
  • 9% growth in books program revenue
  • Financial audit – highest possible ranking
  • Convention – 3163 presenters, 8600 attendance, 86% K-12, 48% first-time (overall high-water mark)
  • Increase in proposal submissions
  • NCTE Reads – 2019: 805 participants, summer book study, Workshopping the Canon
  • Summer Institute – Continuing the Journey, attendance grew by 21%, veteran and mid-career teacher focus
  • TYCA first national convention – 327 attendees
  • Leadership and advocacy – record attendance, meetings with legislative offices, keynote Laura Wides-Munoz
  • James Squire Center – policy research moving to Notre Dame under Ernest Morrell
  • Registration now open for the 2020 Leadership and Advocacy Summit – April 6-7, 2020
  • Partnerships with Library of Congress – releasing artifacts from Walt Whitman collection, largest attendance for any LOC event for educators
  • Teaching with primary sources, grant-funded $273,442
  • Affiliate leadership meeting Summer 2019 – 31 states (NJCTE was there!)
  • 2020 affiliate leadership meeting – July 17-19, Omaha, NE, to recognize affiliates in rural states and west of the Mississippi (NJCTE hopes to be there!)
  • 2019-2020 new ambassadors – 2-year term, elementary to community college
  • Webinar on Little Women
  • Partnered with Nimbus, a multicultural agency, worked on 2019 National Day of Writing, design for 2020 convention
  • Emily Kirkpatrick – attended Harvard Kennedy School program on leading diverse organizations

NCTE Convention 2020 – Nov 19-22, Denver, CO, Theme: ¡Confluencia! Songs of Ourselves. Call for proposals now open. Submit at by January 15, 2020.

And congratulations to the NJCTE Board and membership on recognition by NCTE for four 2019 affiliate awards: 2019 Website of Excellence Award, 2019 Newsletter of Excellence Award, 2019 Kent D. Williamson Affiliate Membership Award, 2019 Affiliate of Excellence Award!

Thanks also to Michelle Haiken (@teachingfactor) for hosting NJCTE for our second annual NCTE/NJCTE Convention Breakfast. We enjoyed yummy treats at the Bun Shop in Baltimore. And we were particularly grateful to see our own NJDOE representative, Erika Leak, at the meetup as well as NJCTE Spring 2020 Conference co-chair, Valerie Mattessich.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone enjoys a few days of family, food, and reading over the Thanksgiving break.

Notes from NCTE Business Meeting

Review: Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl

kidslikeuscoverby Audrey Fisch

At the NJCTE Fall 2019 conference, we inaugurated a new tradition – the authors’ breakfast. More than 10 local and regional authors gathered to socialize and share their work with NJCTE members and conference attendees. It was a wonderful new event, initiated by NJCTE Board Member and Fall Conference Co-chair Denise Weintraut.

At the event, I had the great privilege to speak with Hilary Reyl, author of Kids Like Us, published in 2017 by Square Fish/Macmillan. She gifted me a signed copy of her novel, which I had the great delight of finishing on a recent cold evening. I know that many NJCTE members share with me the feeling of wonder and delight of meeting an author and marveling at their ability to create a moving, compelling universe in the words of their text. Beyond the pleasures of the classroom and the work we do with our students, surely this is one of the great delights of our roles as teachers of English.

Let me recommend to you, then, the world of Kids Like Us, the brilliant and deeply satisfying work of Hilary Reyl. The novel revolves around Martin Dubois, a bilingual, autistic young teen who finds himself navigating a “general-ed” school and a constellation of neurotypical kids in France while his filmmaker mother does her work and his sister prepares for medical school and navigates a break-up. Martin is also processing the loss of his father to prison and navigating a long-distance friendship with Layla, his best friend from the Center, the special school for kids on the spectrum they attend together in Los Angeles.

Martin processes life through the angle of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; his friend Layla has an “affinity” to Downtown Abbey. They and their peers at the Center use affinities as a “portal into real life,” and so Search, as Martin calls it, functions as a kind of ur-text, the prism through which he makes sense out of everything and everyone.

It’s a marvelous conceit, and it functions perfectly well even for those who don’t know (or have forgotten, like me) their Proust. We watch as Martin falls for a girl who to him is Proust’s Gilberte, and we see him navigate how Alice (Gilberte) is and is not a magical Proustian character. Martin makes his way in this world, coming to recognize his strengths and weaknesses as an autistic person, and to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the people around him as they do and do not successfully navigate the complex social interactions of the world.

Along the way, Reyl gently raises some fundamental questions about whether the therapeutic model in relation to people on the autism spectrum needs to move away from cures and normalization. Martin, at one point, asks his mother if she would be okay if he were gay and then spells out the analogy for her: “I think the point is that we don’t need to be cured, like gay people don’t need to be cured.” This thoughtful, provocative moment in the novel, however, is in no way strident or pedantic. Instead, what makes the novel so charming and moving is how it allows the reader to journey alongside Martin, and in so doing celebrate his growth and success at making friends and finding love at his general-ed school.

Kids Like Us will, of course, be compared with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Reyl’s novel, however, unlike Mark Haddon’s, is young adult literature at its finest. The novel is first and foremost focused on the young man at the center of the novel. Reyl needs no greater drama than the struggle of a young man working to find his voice and place in the world. Martin, like the protagonists of many great YA texts, comes to understand and appreciate what makes him unique and to connect with and empathize with his peers.

Along the way, of course, readers do the same: We come to understand and appreciate what makes Martin and Layla unique and special, but also what they have in common with their neurotypical peers, also struggling with anger, emotion, and a complicated world of class, adults, beer, and kissing.

Thanks, Hilary Reyl, for bringing me into that world for the space of the novel (and beyond). Thanks to all the wonderful authors who so generously came to the Fall 2019 NJCTE conference and shared their work with us. And thanks, Denise Weintraut and NJCTE, for making all of this happen and bringing me together with more great authors and books.

Review: Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl

Summer Reading Recommendation: A Glimmer of Hope

Glimmer of Hope coverby Audrey Fisch

For many of us, teachers and students alike, it’s summer reading time. And, for many of us who are teachers, we worry because we know those summer reading books can be just one more miserable chore to be neglected or ignored by our students. Alas.

I want to call out one title that is being used in at least one university in the U.S. as its summer reading selection: Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked Movement, written by the founders of March for Our Lives.

It’s a book of essays, with some poetry, lots of pictures, excerpts from speeches, and so many vibrant student voices. Reading the volume, we hear from the students themselves about their experiences and responses to the event, their work in the aftermath, and their navigation of the media and politicians.

We hear, not just from survivors, but others touched by the moment, including, for example, Naomi Wadler, who, as a fifth grader in Alexandria, Virginia, responded to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting by organizing the walkout at her elementary school on the day of the national school walkout. As Wadler writes, “I think it’s important to inspire other black girls and to reach out to other black girls and to encourage them, and for them to know that they have worth” (143). Her response to being told by her principal that the walkout wasn’t appropriate for young people her age: “I politely enlightened him to the fact that students don’t have parental supervision when they are being shot in their own classrooms” (142).

The volume constantly reflects that push-and-pull: students trying to seize the moment and instead being put in their place. Delaney Tarr, in “Our First Trip to DC:” February 25,” for example, contrasts her optimism – a “feeling of possibility” – and the reality of meeting a California politician who, hearing that the students were there to advocate about gun reform, “immediately started to treat us like kids and was rude to us . . . . [leaving her] feeling a bit hopeless and disenfranchised” (95).

But it’s hard to sustain hopelessness and that feeling of disenfranchisement as you read the stories of these young people – of their vision, their energy, their resilience, and their collaboration.

Most of us, it’s inspiring to hear them raise their voices. Jammal Lemy writes, “I know it’s our duty as the youth of America to never stay quiet. And we won’t” (198).

Indeed, along the lines of the youth of America seizing their voices and refusing to stay quiet, one particular moment in the text stands out to me in terms of why I think this would make such a powerful summer reading selection. In the essay, “Creating a Social media Movement: Mid to Late February,” John Barnitt, Sarah Chadwick, and Sofie Whitney write: “Our generation is so much more aware of what’s going on around us than people may give us credit for” (41). So often, in school, students are told how little they know, how inadequate their skills are, and how they aren’t ready to do “real” work. They are told to follow the rules, maintain order, and conform to expectations.

This volume of essays is about a group of young people who seized the horrific moment and showed the nation that they were knowledgeable, skilled, and ready to work. Want to stop summer slide? Let the students of America learn from their powerful peers. What could be more inspiring and educational to other students, regardless of politics?

I hope more districts and universities adopt this daring and important text as summer reading – sending a clear and powerful message that they expect their students to seize their voices and exert their power.

Summer Reading Recommendation: A Glimmer of Hope

Finding purpose and politics in Gatsby at PCTELA18

by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle

(Originally posted at the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature blog.)

It was very early and very dark when we began our journey to Harrisburg, PA, to present at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English annual conference, #PCTELA18. Audrey had been to the national affiliate meeting for NCTE, where leaders of all the affiliates gather and share ideas and resources, and met some of the dynamic PCTELA board members, and we were very excited to get to hear the amazing A.S. King speak, so we knew it would be worth the trip.
It sounded good at the time, but when we had to get up at 4am and drive through NJ and PA in the dark, we began to question why we were doing this! As always, we started to feel energized as we arrived at the conference and left feeling inspired and ready to take on the world (if a little tired). Isn’t that what’s so great about NCTE and the affiliates – how they harness and focus our energies and remind us of the amazing community of educators to which we belong.
We presented our latest incarnation of our work, entitled for this forum, Gatsby: 1925 or 2018?
We opened our presentation with our newest favorite tech tool, Mentimeter. We asked our audience the following: When you think of Gatsby, what words come to mind? Mentimeter did the rest, in real time; how awesome!
We chuckled over “overrated,” bemoaned the “green light” (Audrey’s bugaboo), and noted the presence of “economic inequality,” “privilege,” and “wealth.”
From there, and invoking the conference theme, “The Stories of Our Lives,” we launched into our discussion of how The Great Gatsby, a text written and set in the 1920s and taught regularly in many, many English classrooms, can be taught as a topical, relevant text that interrogates fundamental issues — past, present, and future — about our culture and beliefs. We explored key issues in Gatsby – white supremacy and nationalism, the difficulties of economic mobility, economic inequality, anti-Semitism, and the social psychology of privilege and entitlement – and tried to unpack how to use this canonical text to create space for difficult, critical conversations.
For us, it was fascinating to talk pedagogy with PCTELA members who self-identified as people teaching in the big red state of PA. For both of us, teaching in urban Northern New Jersey, the politics are enormously different. The energy and engagement in the room was palpable; several people interjected mid-session with questions and comments (a presenter’s greatest delight!). 
We thought some of the concerns our audience raised and our views on them worth sharing, as we know that teachers across the country, particularly in the redder pockets of our nation, are grappling with how to navigate a tricky political landscape while still ensuring that our classrooms are spaces for:
1. critical thinking about big issues that matter (and not just the green light!);
2. students to think through and contextualize the drama of our particular moment through the context of literature;
3. difficult conversations.
For example, one person at PCTELA asked us whether we were worried about injecting politics into the classroom when, for example, we focus on the white nationalism and economic inequality in Gatsby. Another asked whether we include opposing viewpoints. Still another asked about whether we worried that students would just give us back what we want to hear. These are legitimate, challenging concerns that are worth careful consideration.
Our strategy is two-fold.
First, we try to think about our work as focused on extracting the politics out of the text(s), rather than injecting our politics. Of course, we focus on things we care about. And so our extraction, our focus, is of necessity going to change based on time and place. Trump, KavanaughRoseanne (some of the connections that have recently caught our attention) produce our interest in how the text navigates white nationalism, fear of non-white immigrants, white male privilege, and the anger and entitlement of those in positions of power.
Reading Gatsby in 2018 is and should be different from reading Gatsby in 1950. Isn’t that, after all, the beauty of literature? Audrey likes to think that if anything makes a text worthy of canonical status, it is that text’s capacity to generate conversation and merit scrutiny in different times and places. (But then again, that may be a function of the reader and an altogether different conversation.)
That said, no one in 2018 can underestimate the trepidation teachers (and students too) feel about these difficult conversations. Yet, as one of our PCTELA audience members asserted, based on his experience teaching at a wealthy, all-male private school with what he described as a mostly Republican student body, young people are eager to talk about these things. If we open the door and ground our discussion in Gatsby and companion texts like excerpts from Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, (inspiration for Fitzgerald’s Goddard), or social psychologist Paul Piff’s “Does Money Make You Mean,” an engaging TED Talk about behavioral experiments involving games of monopoly, driving habits, and more, we create space for dialogue in our classroom.
We don’t have to be explicit in discussing Trump or Kavanaugh; for a variety of reasons, we may not be comfortable doing so. But we can frame our discussions of Gatsby and extract the politics from Fitzgerald’s text, so that students have the space and language to think and talk about the big issues that they are seeing all around them. That’s our hope based on our experience, albeit in a very different environment.
After our talk, we had the amazing privilege to hear contemporary young adult author A.S. King address PCTELA.Wow! Her remarks about the importance of young adult literature resonated so strongly with us. King talked about how she couldn’t connect with the four novels (!) she was assigned in the entirety of her high school experience. The Scarlett Letter, she noted, seemed to contain all sorts of issues that should have been meaningful to her, but the Puritans, she admitted, “were a real buzz-kill.” And so she skipped Hawthorne.
S.E. Hinton was another story, for King. (And later, unaccountably, The Satanic Verses.)
Her broader point was that contemporary young adult literature has such an important place in our curriculum, particularly as it keeps young readers reading. King noted sardonically those gatekeepers who say that they don’t believe in contemporary young adult literature and retorted, “it’s not like fairies; it exists.” Indeed. And the passion that so many young readers have for this literature only serves to underscore the importance of our finding ways to make ALL the texts we teach meaningful, relevant, and purposeful for our students. 
Our work is cut out for us, especially for those who teach in schools where the curriculum is still dominated by mostly canonical and somewhat inaccessible texts, like GatsbyBut as we tried to show in our presentation, it is precisely Gatsby’s staid canonicity that makes it so full of insurgent and subversive possibilities. This is the work we love, and that so many English teachers do so creatively, ambitiously, and thoughtfully.

So, all in all, an inspiring and impressive PCTELA conference. We left invigorated, and on the way home stopped in Hershey for a tour of Chocolate World (Susan’s first time). Sweet!


Finding purpose and politics in Gatsby at PCTELA18

Reflection on The National Day on Writing

by Audrey Fisch

The National Day on Writing® (October 20), an initiative of the National Council of Teachers of English, was created “on the premise that writing is critical to literacy but needs greater attention and celebration.”


We at NJCTE, your New Jersey affiliate of NCTE, agree. Writing isn’t just, as NCTE notes, “pencil-and-paper assignments”; “writing is part of your life . . . . how you work, how you learn, how you remember, and how you communicate. It gives voice to who you are and enables you to give voice to the things that matter to you.”

This year, we asked our NJCTE members to share their responses to #WhyIWrite. Here are a few of the responses people posted.


srcnwk tweetafisch tweet

As we struggle with hateful and incendiary language and murderous violence, our collective voices about the power of writing are more important than ever. Let’s continue to, as NCTE says, work at “raising the volume” on writing and use our skills at writing to create an environment for civility and positive change – on our screens, in our classrooms, and on our pages.

Reflection on The National Day on Writing

Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions

Are you planning to attend the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City? Share your experiences with us using #NJCTE18 and tag us @NJCTENews.

NJCTE is sponsoring two presentations at NJEA this year:

  • Joe Pizzo will present “Get a Grant the Write Way” on Thursday, November 8, 3:15-4:45 PM, in room 413.
  • Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle will present “Teaching Inequality to Encourage Students to Speak About Justice” on Friday, November 9, 9:45-11:15 AM, in room 402.

NJCTE board member Katie Nieves will also present two sessions: “Giving Into the Hyperdocs Hype” on Friday, November 9, 10:00-10:50 AM, in the Teacher to Teacher Learning Area, and “Google Tools to Help Struggling Learners” on Friday, November 9, 1:30-3:00 PM in room 317.

And NJCTE board members Pat Schall and Susan Reese will be onsite to meet with NJCTE members and prospective members. Come see us!
Continue reading “Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions”

Join NJCTE at NJEA, NCTE and CEL Conventions

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken

Personalized Reading coverby Audrey Fisch

As we enter into the final days of summer, I know I’m full of the usual feelings of aspiration and trepidation for the new school year. Weeks of course revision and planning are under my belt. Still, in these last few weeks, I’m still open to more inspiration and new ideas/tools to make my new school year more successful.

It was in this frame of mind that I turned to Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools to Support All Learners by Michele Haiken (with L. Robert Furman). I know Haiken and her excellent work on gamification (Gamify Literacy: Boost Comprehension, Collaboration, and Learning), so my expectations for Personalized Reading were high. Her newest work did not disappoint me.

Indeed, I must admit that I consumed (inhaled) her latest work nearly in one sitting. And indeed, I find the brevity, simplicity, and practicality of the volume to be its greatest achievement. Haiken has written a slim and eminently readable book on digital strategies and tools that combines references to a research base, a focus on different kinds of learners, and practical and easy-to-follow examples and suggestions. All of this is combined in Haiken’s refreshing, practical, authentic teacher voice. She is using these tools to help the young people in her world succeed and sometimes reflecting on her own journey as a reluctant reader whose own love of books and readings was not ignited until college. This book invites us to look over her shoulder, into her classroom, and learn from her. Who would turn down such an invitation?

The volume is usefully divided into chapters based on types of learners: struggling readers, reluctant readers, English language learners, and advanced readers. The final chapter, “Teaching All Our Readers at the Same Time,” reflects Haiken’s practicality and wisdom. As she notes, the “cacophony of students in our diverse classrooms benefits all student learners, because we learn from each other” (90). Classrooms are not made up of one narrowly defined group of readers, and the labels are useful only up to a point. As Haiken notes, “Bored students are at risk to become reluctant readers” (5). ELL readers can also be reluctant readers. You might select a particular idea in an attempt to support struggling readers in your classroom, for example, but Haiken reminds us that the other students may be just as intrigued and supported.

In each chapter, Haiken cites scholars in the field, but she doesn’t get bogged down in the research. She uses a choice quote or two from some of the major researchers to serve as a scholarly context for the strategies she discusses. For example, in her chapter on reluctant readers, Haiken focuses on the importance of visuals that can “serve as a bridge to print texts” (26). Here she discusses tips (from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey) for close reading and their application with visual texts, visual literacy resources like The Jacob Burns Film Center, practical tools for uploading videos and embedding questions and interactive activities, and more.

Among many ideas in this chapter, Haiken highlights her own use of Tara M. Martin’s #BookSnaps. #BookSnaps are created on Snapchat, with photos combined with annotations, reactions, decorations, which can then be shared on social media with classmates. Included is an example from a student, so we can see exactly what Haiken (following Martin) means.

And at the end of the chapter (and for every chapter), Haiken includes a simple, useful table, pairing the teaching strategy (here, using visual texts to teach reading strategies) with suggested technology tools (like #BookSnaps) and relevant links.

There’s so much information, but again, Haiken is both wonderfully inspiring and practical. Her discussion of her Twitter book clubs for her middle schoolers includes specific directions (designate a specific hashtag for students to follow) and critical templates (like a Twitter Permission Letter and Code of Conduct for parents and guardians). And again, there is a sample of the teaching tool in practice – here, a piece of a chat about Leland Melvin’s Chasing Space among Haiken’s students, herself, and her school’s Earth science teacher.

If I were a teacher educator hoping to get my pre-service teaches to think creatively about using technology to reach the widest range of readers, if I were a novice teacher looking for a few new tools to help me reach a few more students in my classes, or if I were a veteran teacher (I am!) looking for a new innovation to introduce in the new school year, I would find Personalized Reading everything I wanted and more. If you are enjoying a few more days of personal development, check out this wonderful text.

Don’t forget to register for the NJCTE 2018 Fall Conference: Approaches to Writing, K-12! Featuring keynote speaker NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, the conference will take place September 29 at Kenneth R. Olson Middle School in Tabernacle, NJ. Register today!

Book Review: Personalized Reading by Michele Haiken

In the Face of Brutality, the Power of Stories

by Audrey Fisch

What’s worse: waking up in the morning and reading yet another news story of the brutal separation of families and treatment of refugees in and by the United States or not reading one of those stories and wondering whether we are becoming inured to this issue? As the child of a refugee, I feel particularly devastated by the normalization of our current policy towards refugees. Moreover, I feel, I think like many, impotent.

But then I remember the power of stories and my unique position as a teacher of literature.

We know the power of stories. Information generally and stories in particular have a unique ability to reshape hearts and minds. If they weren’t so powerful, then so much energy would not have been and continue to be expended to silence stories.

Think, for example, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the ways in which Stowe’s novel, building on the genre of African-American slave narratives, brought slavery into the U.S. consciousness. The abolitionist movement is a complex story of social change, but there’s no question that Stowe capitalized on and in turn mobilized public opinion. Her story had immense cultural power. The prohibition of certain texts (like her novel) and of literacy for slaves in the American South make clear that people intent on maintaining the status quo knew well (and continue to recognize) the power of stories to change the world.

So, in my sometimes despair about the current refugee crisis, I have turned to stories for solace and inspiration. And I look forward to the opportunities I will have to bring these and other texts into the classroom to share with my students. Here are a few that I recommend to others who are gifted with the opportunity to bring stories to young readers.

marwanTwo picture books stand out for me (and remind me of how powerful picture books can be for readers of all ages). Marwan’s Journey, by Patricia de Arias, with evocative illustrations by Laura Borras, tells the story of Marwan, who walks from his home across the desert with a photograph of his mother, who comes to him only in his dreams. Marwan’s story is brutal in its lack of detail and richly suggestive in its language. Marwan is one of many; “Hundreds of people, thousands of feet” make this journey on foot. He is one in a “line of humans like ants crossing the desert.” One particularly dark and poignant illustration depicts tanks: the night “they came” and the “darkness grew colder, deeper, darker.”

birdsMy Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo who created the amazing illustrations in polymer clay and acrylic, tells the story of Sami from Syria. Like Marwan, Sami walks (all day and all night) from his home, “`Just like follow-the-leader,’ says Father.” Sami’s home has been destroyed, but his father insists that Sami’s pigeons, his beautiful birds, “escaped too.” In a refugee camp, Sami tries to paint his birds, but he struggles to do so, and Del Rizzo offers readers a picture of his work: a bird, covered in black paint, “black smears edge to edge, swallowing everything underneath.” Sami begins to find his birds, however, in the clouds and in his dreams. He builds new nests and paints birds on kites.

The balance between despair and hope is always tricky in these stories. It’s not just that these texts are written for young people. All writers want and need us to connect with their subjects, yet the brutality of the reality these people face is unfathomable, unspeakable, unable to be fully rendered. Always on the edges of these stories is the ugly unsaid: people are not ants, although the world is treating them that way; Sami’s birds no doubt failed to escape, like so many people in Syria.

longwaygoneGrappling with this issue of how to represent the unrepresentable horrors of war, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, published in 2007 about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, seems incredibly powerful. At the end of his book, Beah tells of his experience at a rehabilitation center where he struggles to reconcile his horrific experiences and actions in the war with the repeated line: “None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy.” At one point, Beah dreams of the violence, feeling the pain of his victims, and seeing himself covered in blood. In the dream, he then sees his family, “all smiling as if nothing had happened,” as if they “didn’t seem to notice that I was covered with blood.” Beah struggles to reconcile himself and his reality: Can he really be a faultless little boy, with a smiling family, given all that has happened, given all the blood?

And Beah’s reality refuses to stay in the past. War overtakes him again, and, this time, Beah decides he must flee, despairing that “I couldn’t return to my previous life. I didn’t think I could make it out alive this time.” Yet some of his friends from rehabilitation rejoin the army. Beah somehow seizes on a nearly hopeless attempt to find refuge; his peers, children who were manipulated into serving as the cruelest of killers, see no option but to return to war.

refugeeThe cycle of violence, and the recurring plight of the refugee, is the center of Alan Gratz’s 2017 and wildly popular Refugee, a text that is accessible to young readers, despite its sometimes graphic depictions of the experiences of his three refugee protagonists and their families: Josef, a Jewish boy from Nazi Germany whose family manages to find a temporary escape on board the St. Louis, bound for Cuba; Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to make its way by raft to the safety of Florida; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy whose family hopes to make its way across the Mediterranean and then to a future in Europe.

From different time periods, political contexts, and geographical areas, all of Gratz’s refugees find themselves in the water, landless humans, struggling to find safety. The brilliance and poignancy of the novel is how Gratz uses the sea to underscore the similarities of their journeys, while never erasing the differences of their plights. Moreover, in a closing that connects these three families (I won’t spoil it), Gratz reminds us of how linked we all are, across place, across history, across time.

insideoutThis connectedness resonated strongly for me in my favorite of the texts I read, Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. In magnificent free verse, Lai tells the story, inspired by her own experiences and memories, of Ha, whose family manages to flee Vietnam and ends up in Alabama. Ha is a feisty, furious girl, and her story is full of both brutality and kindness. Her tales of school in Alabama reminded me so much of my mother. Lai writes, “So this is what dumb feel like,” when Ha is placed in a class to learn the ABCs and numbers, “unable to explain I already learned fractions and how to purify river water.” Ha’s acquisition of English cruelly enables her to understand the taunts of her peers and to “wish I could go back to not understanding.”

This was my mother’s experience in New York City. Rebellious, angry, and no doubt traumatized, my mother arrived in the United States and started a new life. She, like many Holocaust survivors, spoke little about her experiences. But she did tell me how she hated when the American children would call her stupid, a word she understood because of the year she spent as a refugee in Italy (the Italian word for stupid is stupido/a), as part of her journey out of Nazi Austria.

As all of us struggle to grapple with our complicity in the U.S. government’s systemic brutality towards refugees, I relish my role as an educator and my ability to transform my mother’s shame and silence by sharing the powerful stories and voices of other refugees.

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

In the Face of Brutality, the Power of Stories

NJCTE President reflects on the 2018 Student Writing Contest Awards

Audrey headshot
NJCTE President Audrey Fisch

by Audrey Fisch

Thanks in particular to the gracious hospitality of Sister Percylee Hart, Principal, and NJCTE former board member and teacher, Julius Gottilla, NJCTE was able to hold our annual Writing Context Awards Reception at Union Catholic High School on April 24, 2018. As in many years past, teachers, students, family, and friends gathered to celebrate the poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction prose of some of New Jersey’s finest young writers.

The writing contest is coordinated by NJCTE board member Michele Marotta, with the help of curators Kathy Webber (short story), Karen Davidson (poetry), and Kristen Angelo (personal essay). This year, NJCTE piloted our first middle school contest, coordinated by Gina Lorusso. Many, many judges volunteer their time and energy reading submissions, a task made pleasurable by the wonderful submissions we always receive. Indeed, the contest is the success that it is also because of the support of many teachers in classrooms across the state who guide and develop the young writers in their classrooms and schools.

NJCTE board and judges
Michele Marotta, NJCTE Writing Contest Director; Beth Ann Bates, Judge Liaison; Audrey Fisch, judge; Patricia Schall, judge, and Julius Gottilla, host.

See the list of winners and the sponsoring teachers and schools here.

The awards ceremony is a particular joy because of Julius’ work with Union Catholic HS’s Forensics Team. These young people, Molly Bonner, Cameron Guanlao, Audrey Davis, and Nick Mehno, took time out of their busy schedules to prepare and perform selections from the winning entries in each genre. Their spirited and entertaining renditions allowed the student writing to come alive for a grateful and rapt audience. (We will also be publishing, with permission, some of the winning entries from the contest, so stay tuned for those on this blog and on our NJCTE website.)

garcia 3The ceremony always includes an engaging and inspirational keynote speaker, and this year Roberto Carlos Garcia, was no exception. He spoke about his passion for writing, his journey as both a student and a professional writer, and his confidence about the difference writing makes in our world. I can think of no better message for the next generation of New Jersey’s writers of poetry and prose.

Garcia read to us from his collection of poetry, Melancolia. He also spoke to the young writers in the audience about his experience as the publisher and founder of Get Fresh Books. Perhaps one day Garcia will find himself publishing the work of one of the young people he inspired with his presentation. I know that everyone at the celebration was touched by Garcia’s investment in bringing new voices to the public and in using writing as a vehicle for bringing about positive change and social justice.

If you have never encouraged your students to submit work to the contest, please consider this opportunity to help your young writers find greater recognition for their voices. We typically announce our prompts in the late summer (check the website –, and submissions are usually due December 17. We hope to include at our fall conference a panel of teachers whose students have had success in the contest; they will share tips, tricks, suggestions, and activities. (If you are one of those teachers, please submit a response to our Call for Presentations —

Finally, if you want to support the writing contest as a judge, or wish to participate as curator or writing contest committee member, we welcome your contribution.  This year we are reaching for the writing stars in urban districts and are seeking an assistant writing contest director to help us make this ambitious expansion. Reach out to Michele Marotta at

Photos by Susan Reese

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

NJCTE President reflects on the 2018 Student Writing Contest Awards