June 2020 ELAOK newsletter

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English Language Arts

June 2020

In this issue:

EngageOK in the Cloud

The Oklahoma State Department of Education’s annual summer education conference, EngageOK on the Road, has been transformed into EngageOK in the Cloud!  

Engage OK in the Cloud

Mark your calendars for July 14-17 to join us for free online professional development, which will include topics such as meeting the needs of at-risk students, grading for equity, teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre, and using the OKMath Framework to increase student engagement. Other topics include dyslexia frameworks, the new Oklahoma Academic Standards for Science, literacy in early childhood, and trauma-informed instruction.

Deb Wade, the Director of Elementary English Language Arts, and I will be presenting a session together: "Providing Feedback on the Oklahoma Academic Standards for English Language Arts."

  • Session Description: The Oklahoma Academic Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) are under review this year. Learn about the revision process, provide feedback on the current standards, and have your questions about the standards answered by the Elementary & Secondary ELA Directors at OSDE.
  • Thursday, July 16, 1:00–2:30 p.m.
  • For this meeting, please have  copy of the Oklahoma Academic Standards for English Language Arts already downloaded to your computer. Also, when you enter the Zoom meeting, we ask that your rename yourself to identify your grade band as either middle school (MS) or high school (HS). For example, Sam Farrand who teaches at a high school would become HS Sam.

Register at www.engage.ok.gov now to claim your spot. Registering allows you to network with each other within the Whova app, connect with speakers, and receive communication from us before, during, and after the event. 

June Virtual Meeting

Our weekly virtual meetings during the pandemic will continue as monthly meetings this summer. This month, we secondary English teachers will check in on one another and compare how our school districts are preparing for the fall. We will also talk about how we are learning this summer in any professional or personal reading. This Zoom meeting will require a password, which is listed below.

  • Thursday, June 4
  • 9:00-10:00 a.m.
  • Zoom Link
  • Zoom Meeting ID: 975 7719 1787
  • Password: 954107

Word Challenge

With the ongoing pandemic, many organizations have created 30-day challenges related to various hobbies to help people pass the time. Merriam-Webster created the following word challenge and shared it on their social media, both on Twitter and Instagram.

30 day word challenge

Here are a handful of my words inspired by this list:

  • huzzah
  • serendipity
  • book
  • cerulean
  • curriculum

Try to guess their matching days. I'll put my answers at the end of this newsletter.

Stilwell Student Podcast Selected as NPR Finalist


National Public Radio received more than 2,000 podcasts from 46 states and the District of Columbia in this year's Student Podcast Challenge.

On May 27, they announced their 25 finalists, 15 high school and 10 middle school. One of the high school finalists is from the senior class of Stilwell High School who investigated The Washington Post article that their town was not only the Strawberry Capital of the World but also the early death capital of the United States.

Their teacher, Faith Phillips, empowered her students to research by raising money for them to get a class set of Chromebooks with a fundraiser she called #chromedreams. Once the laptops were secured, the students began their research into their town's status with interviews of local officials and various experts.

"We were all amazed when these elected officials from local government, to the Cherokee Nation, to Washington, D.C., started replying and asking to come speak to the students in person!," says Phillips. "The students started realizing that when they engage in a civil and informed manner, and especially as a coalition, they are very powerful. They found their voice!"

"NPR announces the [two] Grand Prize winners on June 3, and we do hope to win. But the students never did this to win an award. They were motivated by a genuine desire to unify their community and bring positive change. I think it is clear that they accomplished what they set out to do," Phillips concludes.

Listen to the Stilwell senior class's podcast "Strawberries in the Death Capital."

Poetry of Home

As America confronts coronavirus, four U.S. poets laureate explore the theme of home. In this original series from The Washington Post and the Library of Congress, Joy Harjo, Robert Pinsky, Juane Felipe Herrera, and Natasha Trethewey each provide an introduction to a poem they wrote related to the concept of home. Then they read their poems, whose text appears on the screen. These short videos are calming and soothing.

Joy Harjo: 'What joins us together is poetry'

  • Harjo reflects on her childhood, the way the kitchen table unites us, and the renewed connections she hopes will emerge out of this difficult time.

Robert Pinsky: 'Heavy with longing, in my mind, is preferable to hollow'

  • Pinsky explains the neighborhood memories that spurred him to write “House Hour” and how he is using walks to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Juan Felipe Herrera: ‘We live in a different home now’

  • The former U.S. poet laureate reflects on how his mother used stories to build a home for his migrant farmworker family and how such love can gather us together.

Natasha Trethewey: 'I find myself longing for slower ways of connection'

  • The former U.S. poet laureate discusses the pleasures of anticipating letters from friends and shares the poetry she is turning to during the coronavirus crisis.

Documenting COVID-19

OHS logo

Since 1893, the Oklahoma Historical Society has worked to preserve the history and culture of our state. Now, they are asking for your help as they begin to document how COVID-19 has affected Oklahomans. They want to know how you, your family, and your community have been impacted. By sharing your experiences, you can help future generations understand how this pandemic changed the way we work, play, learn, and interact with others. These stories may be included in future exhibits, shared online, and preserved for researchers.

Check out their online form. You yourself could contribute, or perhaps this could be a project you assign to your students in the fall.

A Life-Changing English Teacher

English teacher change life

At the end of April, a woman named Riley on Twitter asked this question: "[D]id EVERYONE have an English teacher that changed their life?" The tweet garnered over 56,000 retweets and 369,000 likes. Such a large reaction speaks to the power that we English teachers have to influence our students through our words, actions, lessons, and assignments.

I asked Riley to tell me more about her life-changing English teacher from Indiana who is pictured below.


"Her name was Katie Isch. She taught me life was a big game of improv, that I should say, 'Yes, and...' to everything presented to me. She got me out of negative mindsets and feeling like a victim of life.

On test days, she would leave peppermints on our desks to 'stimulate the brain' — she showed me that teachers were on our side and wanted us to succeed, not setting all the odds against us.

She gave me my first copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and she broke down the walls of bigotry that were quite prevalent in my small Indiana hometown.

She sat down beside me and talked me through the opportunities I could take hold of — a summer camp or internship or seminar.

All the things she helped me choose changed my life forever. She cared about what was good for my development, not what was easy for her. She was, and is, amazing."

Monthly Features

Writing Prompt

The viral tweet about life-changing English teachers from the previous section inspires this month's prompts. Choose one of the following:

  • Who was the most important English teacher you had in elementary, middle, or high school? Why?
  • Who was your most influential English professor in college? Why?
  • On which of your former students do you think you had the greatest impact? Why?

Reading Quote

taylor swift quote

Advice Column

How should I decide which whole-class novel I should add to my curriculum?

I have seen a version of this question pop up from time to time in the ELAOK Facebook group. There are a number of factors to consider when given the chance to add a novel to your curriculum. For me personally, I taught a number of books to my sophomores in my third year of teaching, which was my first year to teach a high school class. There was one novel that the majority of my students did not care for, and I understood their complaints. The novel also addressed similar topics and themes from a more-beloved class novel, so I decided it needed to be replaced with a fresh title with different themes. Here are the steps I followed, which could be useful in your own decision making:

  1. Read the book. This should go without saying, but you have to read the novel to know if it would be a good fit for your students and school district. If you want to add it, read it first. You might find a book because of its popularity, awards, or by word of mouth. Determine the book's quantitative and qualitative measure of text complexity to see if it is a good fit for your grade level.
  2. Confer with other teachers. Start with teachers on your team who teach the same grade. It is best to all be in agreement when moving a book in or out of your required curriculum. You can also check with your teacher friends on social media like Facebook and Twitter, but your loyalty should ultimately belong to your immediate colleagues. This means they should read the book as well. You would also need to check with your department chair once your team has reached a decision.
  3. Examine how the novel fits into your current curriculum. It's good practice to see how the novel complements the current curriculum. Perhaps all the novels from your grade are coming of age stories or are set in different countries. Once thematic concerns are addressed, you can also consider how current the book is. When was it published? Does it appeal to your students? You can also look up the author. Are they still alive? What is their gender and ethnicity? How do they compare to the other authors of the novels already in your curriculum? Sometimes certain voices are more privileged than others, so having some variety is important. You can also compare the book's protagonist to the other protagonists from your curriculum. Are all the protagonists the same gender and ethnicity? Again, a variety of voices is important.
  4. Follow your district's protocol. Your school probably has in place some sort of procedure to add a novel to the curriculum. You will probably need to fill out some sort of form, attesting to the novel's content and relevance to the curriculum and any objectionable content. You will also want to make sure that the novel is not being used at another grade level for vertical alignment purposes. Once administration has given their approval, you can start planning your novel unit.

The book I added to the sophomore curriculum at my former high school is still in use today, although the pandemic interrupted its teaching this school year. You might grow attached to the novel(s) you add to the curriculum, but be open in the future to their placement. They might need to be moved to another grade, or they themselves might need to be shelved, so another novel can take their place.

Have a question? Send it to askelaok@gmail.com or post it in the #ELAOK Facebook group.

Jason's Word Challenge Answers

  • huzzah: Day 18 (a word you love to say)
    • I say this word in person and through text messages...a lot.
  • serendipity: Day 4 (a word that reminds you of family)
    • My grandma uses this word to describe going on an unplanned adventure.
  • book: Day 27 (a word from an inside joke)
    • In old family video of my fourth or fifth birthday party, a friend of mine gives me a Little Golden Book I already had. I exclaim, "Well, Bwookie, I awready have a book like this." The adults laugh in shock, and then my dad says, "We can still use it, though." This scene always brings our family fits of laughter.
  • cerulean: Day 5 (a word for your favorite color)
    • This was the crayon color I always picked for the sky. When I helped write a comedy sketch in college, we pitted some crayons against each other, and the leader of the blue crayons was named Cerulean. Also, there's that famous scene from The Devil Wears Prada about the cerulean sweater.
  • curriculum: Day 3 (a word you always spell wrong on the first try)
    • I have a handle on this word now, but for many years I spelled it curicculum instead of curriculum. I knew one of the consonants was doubled, but I chose the c instead of the r.