By Karla Hilliard

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of new teachers about active reading strategies and building a culture of literacy. In our afternoon breakout session, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn toward the enduring, unanswerable question that haunts new and experienced teachers alike: How will we ever get through everything we’re supposed to cover?

And really, is this question only reserved for our classrooms? How do we, in our lives, get through everything we’re supposed to do? How do we fold the laundry, rock the babies, cut the grass, clean the bathrooms, and pay the bills?

How do we cover it all? It’s no secret that we don’t. Not all the time anyway. We do what we can and what is necessary when it is necessary. What I’m saying is our teaching, like our living, is not an item to tick off a list to mark as Done.

As I prepare for the clean page of another new school year, I remember the most important mantra I’ve ever learned as a teacher: We make time for what we value.

As I ready my syllabus and my classroom for another year of learning, I am not focusing on standards; I am focusing on values. Ultimately, it is these values that inform my teaching or what I “cover” in my classroom instruction, and I want to make sure that the time we spend matters.

So today I’m thinking about what I value in my classroom — the ways I’ve screwed up, how I’ve righted some wrongs, and the work I’ve still got to do.

I value relationships and being intentional about them.

Like any teacher, I have had my share of success stories. I have students who still write or call a decade or so later, students who have become friends—the kind you watch flourish into adults and people you genuinely want to be around, and students I admire and connect with so much I think, man, how do I get my own kids to grow into a person like this?

Two students from the Class of 2016 and I catching up before they head back to Duquesne and WVU.

And luckily, I have had classes that felt like family, ones I’ve wanted to teach until I retire.

There is no greater joy as a teacher than building genuine connections with students. It is the single thing that keeps me coming back to my classroom year after year after year.

But you know what? I’ve screwed up a lot, too. I’ve let kids get in and out of my door without knowing little more than their name and who they like to sit with. I’ve allowed students to remain closed off. This is despite my best lessons and most meaningful attempts at relationship. I’m not proud of this admission, but most teachers, if they’re being honest will tell you it happens.

Building relationships with students is work, and sometimes I need a reminder that it takes time, effort, energy, and consistency to build one that’s meaningful.

Recently I heard Dave Stuart Jr. on Brian Sztanik’s Talks With Teachers podcast, and Dave talked about a really simple tool he uses to track what he calls “moments of genuine connection.” It is simple and awesome, and it’s the push I need to be intentional about connecting with every kid.

Check out Dave’s post on his blog where he outlines what it means for a connection to be genuine and how you can keep track of them.

This year, I will make time for moments of genuine connection.

I value student choice and getting books into kids’ hands.

Last year, I threw the baby out with the bath water.

I had planned what I thought was my best year yet. I had essential questions and themes mapped out, anchor texts selected, and major assessments sketched out. After an incredibly rough go of To Kill a Mockingbird (more on that in a minute) and a mid-term student reflection where I learned that, essentially, my group of 80-some incredibly bright, high achieving students “hated,” “dreaded,” and “had no time for” reading, my heart broke for their former reader selves and for the teacher who’d diligently and naively overplanned for her students.

Although choice reading—or a “bookringer” as we called it, had long been part of my classroom, it didn’t have legs. What once served as a novel, no-strings-attached opportunity to read what you want devolved into a compulsory, obligatory routine that lacked the joy of real reading.

In short, I looked at my delicately planned curriculum and was like screw it.

With the help of our librarian extraordinaire, we began Semester 2 by speed dating books in our school’s media center. I fashioned a project called My Reading Life and leaned heavily on Penny Kittle’s Book Love philosophy and her workshop materials.

Students selected their own texts, kept page number charts, recorded Flipgrids, gave book talks, wrote papers, completed a project or two, and importantly, recommended books to one another. Some of the hits? The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.

Other titles in the My Reading Life project included Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Karen Russell, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and even Othello, read by a young woman who is passionate about acting and theatre.

Speed dating in our media center

I can say with certainty that there is no way my students would have read the volume or complexity of texts they did had I not given them the choice and freedom to read.

This year, I will make time for real reading and student choice.

I value disrupting the canon.

I like to think that I’ve always had an awareness of the scope of voices I offer students in my classes. Diversity and inclusion were tenets of my university teacher program, and I was trained to “be aware” of balancing the syllabus with minority voices.

It wasn’t until I began teaching AP Literature that my awareness shifted to intentionality. In a course like AP Lit, it is easy to fall into the trap of “old dead white dude” literature and lean on the excuse of “canonical works.” I realized that it was up to me to shift our thinking and belief system of what is considered works of merit and literature worthy of study in our classroom. Because as my brilliant friend and #DisruptTexts co-founder Tricia Ebarvia said, “If literature introduces students to new worlds, whose worlds have we been ignoring?”

Some of #APLit18 with new contemporary poetry collections funded through a Donors Choose project.

By now, you’ve probably heard of #DisruptTexts. If you haven’t come across this hashtag it is some of the most critical and necessary work being done in education today. The mission of the Disrupt Texts movement “a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve…[and] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.”

I value this disruption, and I will make time for it. I like to think my syllabus has been inclusive and that I’ve had “an awareness” of the scope of voices I offer students, but the truth is, my awareness did not challenge the status quo, it maintained it. This year, I will make time to lean into, to listen, and to learn how I can create and help grow equitable, anti-racist/anti-bias classroom practices.

Go to the Disrupt Texts site here, read about the founders here and get involved in the Twitter slow chat #DisruptTexts beginning on Monday mornings. I know I’ll certainly be making time for it.

I value students finding their voice.

If there’s one thing I learned during the historic West Virginia teacher and public employee strike last winter, it’s that your voice is your own and it is powerful.

Helping our students learn that words have value and power is a lesson that will last them well beyond any standardized test. What I’m learning is — if students are going to discover their voices, they have to have time to find them. And that takes practice.

It takes lots of low-stakes opportunities to write. It takes mentor texts and exemplars. It takes freedom and risk taking. It takes feedback and some fatigue. And it takes passion. I have long been a fan of Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti, and every time I see one of them talk about passionately engaged student writers, like in their last book Beyond Literary Analysis,  I am inspired anew. It’s true that kids need be able to play the standards — the literary analysis essay, the research paper, the SAT essay, but as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle point out in 180 Days, the narrative is undervalued in the classroom.

Some of my favorite ways my students have practiced writing and honing their voices include poetry blogs, food memory narratives, and daily notebook time.

Ashton’s poetry blog tag line

This year, I will make time for my students to tell their stories, to learn and grow from them, and to find their voices along the way.

I value being fully present.

Self care is an important topic among educators, and it should be. In order to be our best selves in the classroom, we need to experience our lives outside of it.

If you’re like me, your job isn’t just your job, but your passion, your hobby, and your life’s work. I love that about teaching, and most of the time, the lines between life and work blur. Most of the time, I’m OK with that. I enjoy writing, reflecting, running organizations like this one, organizing conferences, creating exciting experiences for my students, attending conferences, and connecting with fellow educators. I find value in these things. But sometimes I’ve got to pump the breaks and intentionally reconnect with other interests that bring me joy.

I’m a mom to two young daughters, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a church member, a person who has passions and curiosities that are both an extension of my classroom and unrelated to education at all. With each passing year, I realize more and more how precious time is and how vital it is that we teachers remember to be present in the lives we’re living. It is essential that we do so.

Author of Essentialism And McKeown asks, “What if…we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”

When the papers pile too high, or my calendar becomes too full, I remind myself of this question.

I will make time for the person I am beyond my classroom.

My two girls. Photo cred Sam Dodson, baby sitter extraordinaire

WVCTE is wondering…What do you value? What will you make time for this year?

We’d love it if you left us a comment, tweeted us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connected with us on Facebook. We love hearing from you! 

Here’s to a meaningful school year. – Karla 


Conferring with Readers and Writers: Building Intentional Relationships & Teaching Responsively – West Virginia Council of Teachers of English · January 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

[…] get to know who they are as learners, and as people. As Karla pointed out earlier in the year, we make time for what we value. If being intentional about building and sustaining relationships with your students matters to […]

Conferring with Readers and Writers: Teaching Responsively & Cultivating Relationships – West Virginia Council of Teachers of English · January 30, 2019 at 2:34 pm

[…] know who they are as readers and writers, and as people. As Karla pointed out earlier in the year, we make time for what we value. If being intentional about building and sustaining relationships with your students matters to […]

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