Remembering Toni Morrison

Toni Morrisonby Susan Reese

The National Council of Teachers of English brought me face to face with Toni Morrison.

NCTE had partnered with the Norman Mailer Foundation and Larry Schiller, Norman Mailer’s friend, to set in place a national writing contest for teachers and students. I was involved in curating the community college submissions. The genre was creative non-fiction. Mailer had been a pioneer in this genre writing about the execution of Gary Gilmore in the Executioner’s SongThe project culminated with an event filled with literary “Who’s Who.” These celebrities came together to honor the powerful influence of language in the lives of all of us.

When I saw Toni Morrison sitting by herself at one of the round tables for eight, I approached her. “Good evening, we are so excited to have you here.” I greeted her.

She looked at me somewhat puzzled. She was swathed in shades of gray with many wraps. Her gray hair in long twists around her head seemed to have provided the inspiration for the entire outfit. She was the eye of a hurricane.

“Oh, I am early, I know, but my feet are killing me. I just had to come in and sit down. I am not much for grand entrances.” She stopped speaking, rubbed her left foot with her right hand, and then coming back to the reality of the evening asked, “Did you know Norman well?”

Caught off guard, I stuttered, “Well, I have been to his house in Cape Cod, but…no, not well. I could not bring myself to tell her that I knew Norman about as well as I knew Stanley Kunitz; I had waved to both at their residences when I was in Provincetown studying poetry at The Fine Arts Center.

“He and I did not see eye to eye on many things, but there was something intriguing about the rascal. There was a soft spot in his heart, beyond all of the bravado. But, what about you? What are you working on? Don’t answer that. I hate when people ask me that question and want a one-word answer.”

“Well, actually, I am working on you,” I said in a word. “I just bought A Mercy on Amazon.”

“Oh, yes, I think that the book purveyors could ruin the publishing business. One ambitious scheme is offering all of the best sellers for only ten dollars. This may help them, but it will be disastrous for the writers. We’ll be getting $.67 a copy.”

I opened my purse to show her the book. “I was reading A Mercy on the train here and thinking of my friend Peggy. She is in the hospital with a very serious illness.”

“Is she a fighter? We need fighters in this world.”

I nodded in the affirmative. “I’ll be giving her this book when I next see her,” I said.

“May I sign that for her? I hope that it will be a message to her and to you of the good in the world.” With that, she took the book, produced her own pen and wrote.

“I am sure that she will be thrilled,” I said. “You are an inspiration.”

“What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it? Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, re-visitation, a little ambiguity.” Later, I found this sentiment expressed in an interview in a different context, but in this time and space, her words were for me and for Peggy.

You must be wondering about my tenacious embrace of the bliss of ignorance in not initially putting a name to multiple myeloma, Peggy Morgan’s serious illness. You must also be wondering about Peggy. What message did Toni Morrison send her? Did this message provide solace? Although it could have, more likely it was the team of doctors and the determination of Peggy herself that made her continue on her journey opening doors and leaving the endings open for interpretation, re-visitation, and a little ambiguity in this story of imagined realism.

However, the story would not be complete without a word from Peggy more than ten years after the event.

“Toni wrote ‘Blessings’ in my book—so much in one word. Now I know that she was actually encouraging us all to recognize, deal with, survive, triumph over evil.”

I cannot help thinking that Toni Morrison was also sending a message to NJCTE, asking members to consider her approach to difficulty and conflict: Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, re-visitation, a little ambiguity.

Thus, it seems strangely fitting that I should end my remembrance of Toni Morrison with the words of Norman Mailer in his observations about the key traits of a writer:

The writer can grow as a person or he can shrink. … His curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavor, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.”

Remembering Toni Morrison

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

NJCTE Recognizes Susan Reese and Millie Davis as Emeritus Members

The NJCTE Board is proud to announce our recognition of our latest emeritus members, Susan Reese and Millie Davis.

Susan Reese served as president of NJCTE from April 2015 until April 2018. Under her guidance, we revised our constitution, welcomed many new members to the board, and continued to run wonderful fall and spring conferences. She has overseen our high school writing contest and helped launch a new middle school writing contest. She leaves the organization in good standing, with recent awards for New Jersey English Journal and e-Focus (our newsletter, which she co-authored). We also won the NCTE Affiliate of Excellence Award.

Susan has stepped down from the presidency, but not from the board. She continues to contribute actively to the organization’s mission: to serve teachers of English. We are thrilled to affirm her status as an emeritus member of NJCTE.

In recognition of her work for the National Council of Teachers of English, for NJCTE, and her roots in New Jersey, the NJCTE board also voted to recognize Millie Davis as an honorary emeritus member of NJCTE.

Millie Davis is Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). She works with leaders in NCTE’s affiliates and assemblies, with the NCTE Research Foundation with educators experiencing challenges to texts, and with other organizations that espouse intellectual freedom. Davis is a lover of writing and reading, a smart phone photographer, and a former high school English teacher and adviser of an award-winning literary magazine. A teacher consultant from the Capital Writing Project in Richmond, Virginia, she has taught writing at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, at the Danville, Illinois, Correctional Center, and the Osher Livelong Learning Institute of the University of Illinois.

Millie grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, where she was taught by at least two NJCTE past presidents: Marcia Holtzman as her English teacher and Teresa Snyder as her modern dance club coach.

We are lucky, in New Jersey, to have benefitted from the contributions of these two outstanding educators and to welcome them to the esteemed ranks of our NJCTE Members Emeriti.

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

NJCTE Recognizes Susan Reese and Millie Davis as Emeritus Members

WHY ENTER THE NJCTE MIDDLE SCHOOL PILOT WRITING CONTEST?

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

WHY ENTER THE NJCTE MIDDLE SCHOOL PILOT WRITING CONTEST?

Notes from the 2017 NCTE Affiliate Breakfast

Yesterday, I wrote about attending the NCTE 2017 Annual Business Meeting. I also had the honor to represent the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English at the NCTE Affiliate Roundtable Breakfast.

Affiliate BreakfastNJCTE was among the many affiliates to be honored in a number of categories: Affiliate Membership Recruitment Award (for affiliates whose membership grew by 5% or more in 2016-2017); Affiliate Newsletter of Excellence Award (for NJCTE e-Focus, edited by Patricia Schall  and Susan Reese), Affiliate Journal of Excellence Award (for New Jersey English Journal, edited by Liz deBeer), and NCTE Affiliate Excellence Awards (for NCTE affiliates that meet high standards of performance).

Journal of Excellence Award
NJCTE Board Member Audrey Fisch accepts the 2017 NCTE Journal of Excellence Award on Behalf of New Jersey English Journal

We won the latter award for the 6th year!

We have done some good work together. But there is more work to be done!

NJCTE is beginning an examination of our website, which may need an update. Are you interesting in participating in this task? If yes, please reach out to NJCTE Board Member Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone), who is spearheading this initiative. We are also planning to submit an application to the NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Award, which is a grant intended to support initiatives aimed at recruiting English language arts teachers of color. Reach out to NJCTE Board Member Audrey Fisch (@audreyfisch) about helping with this initiative.

Finally, I want to add that the most inspiring and impressive element of the Affiliate Breakfast was hearing from the winners of the NCTE Student Affiliate of Excellence award winners. These are the amazing teachers and NCTE leaders of our future, and they were a phenomenal group of young people. NJCTE needs to develop a student affiliate (or more than one). Do we have a teacher educator who might help with this initiative? Reach out to NJCTE President Susan Reese (@mrsreese) if you are interested. Or reach out to us through the comments section of this blog or the NJCTE website. We welcome your interest!

Meanwhile, congratulations to all who have worked to make NJCTE a success. Let’s continue to build on that success!

Written by Audrey Fisch, Board Member, NJCTE, Professor of English, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, 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

Notes from the 2017 NCTE Affiliate Breakfast

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”: What Do You Think?

We are happy to say right up front that we know the value of branding.  We see that NCTE has moved from stodgy blue and gold to vibrant lime green that makes all stop and look twice.  This new look is akin to seeing Queen Elizabeth II, the bastion of propriety, don a Lady Gaga meat dress and strut her stuff.  Lady Gaga has millions of followers.  Branding works for her.  So why not use this same approach for the teaching profession?

Consider a recent article in the New York Times about Kayla Delzer, a third-grade teacher from Mapleton, North Dakota. She is characterized as a new kind of teacher who “is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology.”

These teachers influencers attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks” and “are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.”

Natasha Singer, author of the Times article, states that teachers like Delzer have grown in number “as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.”

Delzer and other teachers like her serve as “brand ambassadors,” and through their work in the classroom and as trainers of other teachers, “promote the products and services” of many companies and receive as rewards for their efforts, gifts like t-shirts, gift cards, and some more costly items such as travel expenses to conferences.

Singer goes on to say that these brand ambassador teachers continue to use and promote products and services despite the fact that “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.”

This article has generated some fervent reactions in the education blogosphere. Check out these links to the responses of a few noted educators:

Douglas Hesse, former President of NCTE, Executive Director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver and Professor of English, responded to the article on NCTE’s Connected Community. (If you are not already a member of this digital community, we encourage you to join.)

connected community

Meanwhile, we quote his entry here for those readers who are not yet members:

Original Message:
Sent: 09-04-2017 11:37
From: Douglas Hesse
Subject: Teachers as Brand Ambassadors –NY Times Story

I’m still pondering a story I read in yesterday’s New York Times (9/2/17) about teachers establishing themselves as brand ambassadors, primarily for technology companies who provide both classroom/school and personal benefits for promoting devices and/or applications. A certain chunk of the teacher’s time and efforts is to make visible, primarily through social media, themselves and their classrooms: to promote themselves as brands, famous for being famous teachers, “emulatable,” as it were.  Now, there’s certainly nothing entirely new about this.  There have long been famous teachers, famous at least within the profession, whose teaching practices and ideas get noticed and circulated, some of them even achieving status as “The Smith or the Lujan Method.”  But those fame-garnering accomplishments have large occurred, historically, through professional organizations: presenting at conferences at various levels, publishing journal articles, occasionally authoring books.

Historically, there has been some sense of an implicit disciplinary vetting that occurred within knowledge communities; sometimes ideas and practices passed through levels of peer review (as in conference selections or publishing), but not always.  And of course there’s been a version of “brand ambassadors” when the “apps” being promoted were textbooks, not software; publishers sponsored professional development led by one of their authors.  The relationship within English studies between not-for-profit professional expertise and for-profit circulation of materials has always been a complex one.  (As a textbook author myself, I’ve tried to resist what have felt to me the crassest requests for promotion.) What strikes me as different in the NYT article is the more overtly entrepreneurial cast.  The tools of social media allow folks largely to bypass the professional associations and channels–organizations like NCTE–that traditionally provided authorizing (or sanctioning) functions.  Instead, there’s more or less direct marketing, with the teacher him or herself being the brand.

The NYT article raises questions about ethics, noting that teachers treading roads that other professionals (especially physicians) have trod: the possible tension between obligations to one’s students through professional standards and enticements to one’s self-interests through business opportunities on the side.  As the story points out (and as I concede), the nature of both school funding and teacher salaries–not to mention, the erosion of teacher status–makes the enticements pretty reasonable and understandable.

Now, as I said at the outset, I’m still pondering this all.  I have concerns, but I want to be thoughtful before pounding my shoe indignantly on a desk.  I am struck, however, by the consequences of these practices for what it means (or doesn’t, really) to be a professional whose professionalism is both signaled and sanctioned by membership in professional associations.

Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, former social studies teacher, and extensive researcher on education history and school reform responds on his blog

Steven Singer, a middle school language arts teacher and on-fire blogger comments on the role teachers play as pawns in the technology industry money machine and the problems it can create for the profession and kids.  While he is not addressing the Times article in particular, it is clear that he has strong opinions on seductive forces of the technology industry.

What do you think? We invite you to share your thoughts on this article on NJCTE Blog, or if you prefer, you may email responses to us at njctefocus@gmail.com.

Written by Susan Reese, NJCTE President, and Patricia Schall, NJCTE Board Member

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

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

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”: What Do You Think?