Stephanie J. West-Puckett

writing, teaching, studying digital writing and rhetorics

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NC English Teachers Association Fall Conference

North Carolina English Teachers Association


Common Ground is the place where theory meets application, where local needs are balanced with national agendas, where teachers and students connect with each other and the world, where teachers join with their colleagues to bear witness to and celebrate the practical and intellectual work of teaching and the transformative power of language, literacy, and learning.

Welcome from the Conference Director, Stephanie West-Puckett

Last year’s conference, The Diversity of 21st Century Teaching and Learning, highlighted the challenges that exist and opportunities that present themselves when we work to adapt our teaching practices to the needs of both individual students and our connected world.   There’s no doubt that as educators, we are being asked more and more frequently to serve a multiplicity of interests, originating on the local, regional and national levels, interests that sometimes conflict or diverge.

Considering the current landscape of uncertainty that we teach in, we invite you join us in thinking about convergences, the places where we, as educators, achieve traction and arrive at Common Ground–the shared intellectual, physical, and virtual spaces that empower us to overcome social and bureaucratic obstacles to realize the transformative power of language, literacy, and learning.

Call for Proposals

This year, we are pleased to offer a variety of session formats, including Thursday Pre-conference Workshops, Friday and Saturday Sessions, Friday Poster Sessions, and Friday Book Talks.  We invite proposals that broadly connect with the theme of convergence and will help us map the territory of Common Ground–guiding each other in finding our footing as we unpack new curricula, new technologies, and new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in the English Language Arts classroom.


Session Strands

  • Common Core ELA Update & DPI Debriefing
  • Content-Area Literacies
  • North Carolina Writing Projects
  • Reading, Writing, and Teaching in Digital Environments
  • Mentoring and Supporting New Teachers
  • The New Teacher Evaluation Instrument: Leadership, Establishing Respectful Environments for Diverse Students, Content-Knowledge, Effective Pedagogy, and Cultivating a Reflective Stance
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Teaching Young Adult Literature
  • Community-based Partnerships & Service-learning in ELA

To submit a proposal, please fill out the form below.


Contact Conference Director at or 252.737.1089 with questions.


Proposal Submission deadline is June 19, 2011.

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An Embodied Writing Process

My son’s 6th grade English teacher reports that he has a tough time staying on task and producing the required amount of journal writing in the classroom. She must, she says, constantly refocus and redirect him, and even then, he can only produce a couple of sentences in twenty minutes, she laments.
Curious to see what was happening, I gave Rylan the same journal prompt that he was given in class, set the video camera up in a quiet room, and left him to work out his own process. At exactly 15 minutes, he shot out of the room and presented me with two full paragraphs (10-12 sentences) of on-topic writing, which meets the teacher’s assignment criteria.
The video revealed quite a bit about Rylan’s writing process and about his ability to self-monitor and re-focus. As a social and hyper-aware student, he stops writing to listen to every noise made beyond the door of the room. When quiet is restored, however, he quickly picks up where he left off. An active child who is seemingly tortured by periods of stillness, he is able to sustain attention by taking a micro-reset after each sentence–breathing deeply, bouncing his pencil on the desk, readjusting in his seat, and stretching his arms. He is constantly checking the clock to gauge precisely the amount he needs to produce the required number of sentences in the given time– a skill he says he learned to help him achieve on standardized tests.
Even though this writing assignment is a journal prompt and he understands sheer production is valued over quality, he re-reads after every three or four sentences, erasing and revising so it “reads right”, thinking early (too early?) in the drafting process about audience.
What I like most, though, is the jaw-popping cheek drumming technique featured in this video that Rylan uses to re-focus in the home stretch and write through the last two-minutes of this assignment.
These behaviors, strange as they may seem to adults, are essential parts of Rylan’s embodied writing process, and I wonder if these “strange” behaviors might be the very targets of the teacher’s redirection and refocusing efforts, thus stripping him of the essential strategies that he uses to produce and perform. I am reminded here of Elbow and the ways we, as well-meaning writing teachers, disrupt students’ writing processes, standing in the way of a healthy, emerging poesis.

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Dragon’s Den: A Reality TV Simulation for Research Writing

Both my Advanced Composition and First-Year Writing students need to produce better proposals to guide their research over the course of the semester.  To that end, I designed a scaffolding activity using the television show Dragon’s Den as a framework for pitching research ideas and used live audience polling as a simple peer-review mechanism to decide which students moved to “The Library” to conduct their research.

If you aren’t familiar with the BBC show Dragon’s Den, it is a reality tv show in which “Budding entrepreneurs get three minutes to pitch their business ideas to five multi-millionaires willing to invest their own cash”.   Based on the success of their pitch, winners move to “The Boardroom” to negotiate business plans and investment terms. Since few students were familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch or the Dragon’s Den show, we watched a two-minute YouTube clip at the beginning of class that provides a synopsis of both the show and the elevator pitch genre, highlighting the importance of marketing your ideas precisely and concisely.


Prior to class, students had been given a guide basic guide for producing a research proposal according to project guidelines and asked to bring a draft of their proposal to class for peer review.  When they arrived the next day, about half of them had drafts.  Have you ever wondered how to facilitate a peer review when the students have no products for review? Have them create micro-products like the elevator pitch on the fly.

Using their proposals, students were given ten minutes to excerpt and create a convincing two minute proposal for their research project that they would deliver to the class and have “peer reviewed” through live audience polling, which I had previously set up on Poll Everywhere.   Students who had completed the pre-assignment were, of course, better equipped to compose their pitch, but all students in attendance were required to pitch their ideas, despite being ill-prepared.   While I’m not a fan of on-demand writing as a summative assessment tool, this high-pressure rhetorical situation kick-started the thinking and composition processes of those students who were waffling and forced them to move beyond the chaos of topic selection and make some decisions, even though I stress that those ideas will naturally change and evolve.

Students were reminded that thoughtful and engaged participation in this activity constituted a “good grade”, not quality of the pitch.  After 10 minutes, students were called up to the front of the class in groups of five and each given two minutes to pitch their ideas.  Some were nervous, some were confident, some had fleshed-out their ideas, others were floundering; however, all students in attendance pitched something and listened intently to their classmates as they shared ideas and attempted to persuade the audience that their research projects were worthy of a time investment.   Using their mobile phones or computers, students in the audience texted or clicked the corresponding link on the Poll Everywhere site to vote their choice of best research project idea while the results showed immediately in the form of a bar graph chart that I was showed on the classroom projection screen.

While I prefer collaborative as opposed to competitive academic situations and with resist the urge to “rank, evalute and like”  in my writing response practices (Elbow 1993), the students, who largely appreciate the combative nature of reality-tv, were engaged by the simulation and quite comfortable judging and being judged.  Using the Dragon’s Den criteria for what makes a successful proposal, the student selections were in complete agreement with my own, which I, for the sake of a true peer-review, did not disclose.

This student-centered evaluation both normed our research-learning community and provided many solid examples of acceptable research projects for students struggling with idea generation.  For me, this informal assessment in the first stages of the research process made plain which students I should to follow more closely and which were ready to begin work with sources.  For the students, this mulit-sensory activity incorporating new and new new media (Levinson) allows those students who struggle to express ideas clearly in writing to use spoken word to captivate an audience and get immediate feedback on the quality of their ideas, not the surface features of their texts.

In Talking, Sketching, Moving, Patricia Dunn, in her defense of why multimodal and multisensory work in the composition classroom is necessary, quotes Gerald Washington’s (1996) assertion that “composition teachers can use this alternative manner of communication as a starting point for the teaching of writing skills” (18).  Too few composition teachers, she argues, use multisensory approaches to teaching writing, and because students will preference some learning styles over other,  multimedia/multisensory approaches to writing have the potential to make the written product more accessible and attainable for more students.

At the end of the class episode, all students were assigned to revise their research proposals for clarity, concision, and voice to engage their audience and “sell” their ideas.  The next drafts of the proposals were, as a whole, more fiercely written and showed an evolution of both thinking about the research project and persuasive writing skills.  And instead of being escorted out of the academic building, they were all (eventually) given access to “The Library”.

Dunn, P. 2001. Talking Sketching Moving. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Elbow, P. 1993.”Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement.” College English 55 (2) (February): 187-206.

Levinson, P. 2009. New New Media. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Everyday Writing

To celebrate National Day on Writing yesterday (10.20.10), I compiled my texts, emails, blog revisions, Foursquare Check-ins, Facebook posts, Tweets, and handwritten notes to create this Wordle.  This is a celebration of the ways that writing is woven into the fabric of my everyday personal and professional life and an acknowledgment of the importance of digital writing and new new media in constructing myself as a writer.

Wordle: Everyday Writing

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Grading Contracts for Process-Centered Classrooms: You like this

Grading– it’s my Achilles heel, the most vulnerable area of my teaching practice.  While I am quite skilled at responding to student writing, situating myself most often as real reader, prompting dialoguer, and involved co-creator, quantifying the complex and nuanced ways that students perform texts makes me terribly uncomfortable.

Nearly four years ago, I plunged myself into the Tar River Writing Project, an intensive professional learning community that prompted me to deeply reflect on the ways I think about teaching, writing and the practice of teaching writing.  As I bathed in the experience of shared reading, discussion, research, and best practice with K-12 teachers from eastern NC, I braved a Stygian transformation.   Through the process, I came to understand the mythic importance of my work, and emerged as a teacher-hero.

With the support of my fellow Writing Project teacher-heroes, both near and far,  I sought to develop more accomplished writers and learners–in my classroom and in my region.  Using fierce pedagogies, I strategically designed my writing courses to defeat complacency, disengagement, and indifference.  I valiantly stepped away from the lectern, implemented a  Writer’s Workshop model, sought authentic writing situations for my students, and pledged my alliance to writing processes, as opposed to writing products.  In and outside of the classroom, students were deeply engaged with their writing, forging the tools they needed to say something important–to real audiences and for real reasons.

As a valiant new writing facilitator, I went mulimodal–slaughtering the five paragraph essay model and slaying the rubrics that preferenced correctness and polish over voice and substance.  I embraced the non-authoritative writing response roles that were most closely aligned with my previous experiences as a writing consultant and worked to create a collaborative classroom community that supported literacy achievement for all.

Then, at the end of the semester, the reality of teaching at a university that calculates grade point averages materialized. The registrar’s office mandated that I reduce all of this learning to a simple letter, and I only had five to choose from.  The gods must be have been bored.

Without a set of numbers, derived from objective rubrics, my already-fragile assessment practices were completely exposed.  In cowardly desperation, I became the hostile reader, the omnipotent evaluator, and the judicious lawgiver who penalized those writers who didn’t act on my coaching comments, devaluing the work of those students who didn’t do what I’d suggested.

Still, despite the summative assessment conundrum, I was proud of my teaching and my students’ learning that semester.  So when student survey responses came back early the next semester, indicating that their course experience was not the epitome of composition excellence, I was floored.  While they had exhibited behaviors of confidence, most making real gains in rhetorical thinking, developing voice and strategy, they had, as a whole, harbored deep dissatisfaction and fear about their performance in the class.  They reported that they were perpetually in the dark about their class standing, unclear how they were assessed, and much to my surprise, had receive little useful feedback from their instructor.  Surely they must have forgotten all those probing questions, coaching comments, and in-class mini-conferences, spanning multiple drafts and multiple projects.

As I considered the stark differences between my perceptions of my classroom and those of my students, I began to interpret this phenomenon as a conflict in values.  While I was primarily focused on improving their ability to compose and communicate effectively, they were concerned with the measure of their achievement– the grade.  In a university where first-year students are typically enrolled in lecture-based survey courses which employ web-based course management systems that calculate quiz and test scores on-demand, my students have become accustomed to referencing course grades daily, knowing how many 10ths of a percent they need to propel them into a higher grade range–or how badly they can bomb a test and still pull a B.  That context, coupled with a history of product-based English classes and standard assessments, led to a great degree of ambiguity and dissatisfaction with a student-centered, process-oriented writing course.

As I was pondering this disconnect, lamenting over students’ obsession with grades as opposed to meaningful learning, a wise college (who happens to also be one of our Writing Project co-directors) said to me, “Well, you know, it is possible to negotiate those differences.  A skillful teacher can meet the students’ need to feel comfortable in academic standing and challenge them to growth their thinking and writing through a process approach.”

So began my teacher-inquiry quest to find an assessment model that could accomplish both of these goals.  Some teachers, I found, do use negotiated rubrics this terrain, but that practice remains problematic for me because grades are still tied to subjective teacher evaluations quality.  While I have no problem pressing the “like” button on my students’ blogs when I find a post to be particularly engaging and well-written, I don’t want to saddle that “like” to a grade.

My search is ongoing, but the most useful assessment armament I’ve found, to date, is Danielewicz’s and Elbow’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.”   This grading contract model articulates the behaviors that strong writers engage in, linking behaviors, not products to specific grades.  Based on Danielewicz’s and Elbow, I created the following contract and have implemented its use in my first-year research writing class this semester.  The contract states:

You are guaranteed a B* in this class if  you:

1.    attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes;
2.    participate in all exercises and activities both in and out-side of class, including instructor conferences
3.    meet due dates and writing criteria for the formal and informal  writing assignments (e.g., exploratory, micro-blogging, blogging, etc.);
4.     engage in ambitious, thoughtful, mature projects that demonstrate  a complexity of thought and sustain effort and investment on each draft  of all assignments;
5.     locate, evaluate, and synthesize primary, print, and electronic  bibliographic sources that contribute significantly to those projects  and that demonstrate the writer’s ability to use research in different  ways and for different purposes;
6.     convey the results of writing and research to a particular  audience that will learn from and potentially act on those findings;
7.    make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending  or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching  up;
8.    copyedit final revisions of major projects until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English;
9.    give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops both face-to-face and virtually;
10.    submit your midterm and final e-portfolio on deadline.

The asterisk complicates the issue, though, as A grades are awarded for exemplary writing, a caveat that speaks to our collective inability, as writing teachers, to disassociate stellar products from stellar grades.  We are after all, only demi-gods.

After I introduced the grading contract this semester, students informally reported that they felt comfortable with the criteria, one saying that it was “like a safety net for bad writers”.  A few students expressed concern that it might be hard to make an A, an impression that I am ok with.  I believe it should be challenging, although certainly not impossible, to make an A.

During the first half of the semester, I’ ve found it liberating to provide authentic commentary.   I’ve been able to give more immediate feedback as I don’t wait to read all submissions, group writing in piles according to proficiency and couch comments in a way that indicates satisfaction or dissatisfaction with writing quality.

At midterm, I  sent out emails that indicated whether student performance was in the B range according to contract criteria and listed specific behaviors that were excluding performance from that range.  I noted that to remain in the honors range, substantial revision was necessary to all major assignments; however, student writers aren’t obligated to revise according to the feedback I’d provided.  I ask that they critically consider it, as they do with their peer feedback, and make informed revision decisions, articulating the reasons for those revision choices.  So far, I like this approach, because my students  retain sovereignty over their process and products, and I’m not using comments to march students toward the “perfect text” that I’ve conjured and employ as a baseline for evaluation.

I’m eager to continue collecting data to support this grading contract approach, and I’m very interested in how both my grade distributions and student opinions of instruction may change because of this approach; but for now, I am comfortable in the liminal space, oft inhabited by great heroes of antiquity, that characterizes a shift toward more critical pedagogy.

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From Alphie to Foursquare

Over this past Labor Day weekend, my 3880 students were asked to take the What 90’s Toy Are You? Quiz, a pre-writring activity to prompt thinking about their technological histories–a catalyst for constructing personal narratives that story experiences with old media, new, and new new media.

I took the quiz and got this result: Magic, The Gathering.  As a high school and college student during most of the 90’s, I wasn’t much into toys anymore, and I had never even heard of MTG.  So I wikipedia’ed it, thought it looked like the kind of role-playing fantasy crap I would never play and Googled a What 80’s Toy Are You? Quiz to get a more meaningful result.  And here it is.  Alphie–my first battery-operated smart friend.

To give you a little perspective, I am an only child and was the only grandchild in our family for nearly a decade.  My dad, aka Golden Arm, was a Local 45 welder & pipefitter who could, he quipped, close the crack of dawn or mend a broken heart. But seeing as North Carolina had (and has still) no love for the union, and he wasn’t about to scab locally on a non-union job, he was always working, as my mom would say, “up the road”.

My mom was a house-wife, and while my political correctness wants to assert itself in that designation, it just wouldn’t be right.  Her primary responsibility was, and still is, I think, to my dad.  No matter how much she read to me, which she did– a lot– or how much she helped me learn my letters, numbers, colors, it was never enough.  I never got tired of learning new things and in the age of “media by appointment”, before VCRs and DVR’s, I couldn’t get my fill of Sesame Street and The Electric Company.  Then and now, movies and television don’t hold my attention unless they require active cognitive participation, and unless I am learning or figuring something out, I’m really not entertained.

So my affection for dear Alphie is not all that surprising.  As long as mom had batteries on hand (which she did and still does keep a plastic bin full of them in the kitchen under the bar), I had a constant companion who could teach me to count, add, subtract, and match.  While practicing those math skills was fun, even then I preferred the language cards and never tired of using my little robot to help me recognize and shuffle letters, listen to letter sounds, and enjoy computer-generated rhymes.

Fast forward to 1984–dad bought a little Apple IIe for me up the road.  I remember typing in intricate command line prompts to make the turtle cursor draw simple geometric shapes.  It was a solitary activity, and I soon bored of the repetitiveness and detail-oriented importance of each individual character, as I do now when I play around with html code.  I remember lots of unfinished rectangles and intersecting lines that should have had a point.

Sometime later, my mother picked up a disk for my computer that would allow me to do more with this machine, and if there was any doubt of my future career, The Grammar Examiner erased it.  Suddenly I could play as editor of a major newspaper, checking copy for errors in punctuation, capitalization, subject/verb agreement, and adverb and adjective usage (among other indiscretionary uses of language, I’m sure).  I was in 2nd grade, but according to the Grammar Examiner’s assessment, I had a college-level command of standard usage and grammar.

Soon, when we could afford it, other software followed that allowed me to create in addition to edit.  I produced family and neighborhood newsletters when I was in the 3rd and 4th grades and even used my computer to create propaganda for my anti-smoking campaign that threatened to relegate my Uncle Bill and his cigarettes to the patio during my mother’s annual Christmas Eve party.

Sometime in middle and high school, my computer dinosaur was moved into special collections, as my boom box and a whole host of Madonna tapes became the focus of my attention.  As a pharmacy technician at Mast Drug and Drugco in Roanoke Rapids and later Rocky Mount, I transferred doctors’ scrawl on the paper script to a digital form and printed out legible and informative labels and patient information leaflets to help our customers more knowingly manage their medications and their health.  It was just a way to make a dollar.

As an undergrad, I used my Brother Word Processor to type essays, usually the night before they were due, but I had no particular interest in computers until my boyfriend got an AOL disk in the mail.  Then there was that awful sound, you know the one the one I’m referring to, that dial-up modem cacophony that built in anticipation until the dialogue box flashed “You’re Connected!” and we were surfing the World Wide Web, at 56 kilobytes per second.

This new media was exciting.    We could email our professors and our cousins, we could throw out the phone book and the huge set of Encyclopedia Britanicas that my dad had also gotten “up the road”, and we coul play the dot com game until the wee hours of the morning, trying to stump the Internet by finding a dirty domain name that hadn’t yet been reserved.  The web was ever-present in our lives as a way to research, learn and reach-out, but since I wasn’t a coder, I couldn’t own it.

Until I got a Myspace Page.  And there I was– me, little old me, on the Internet.  Finding my real friends, making new friends, posting pictures, updating my blog, microblogging about the minutia of everyday life and posting very deliberate content to speed up a divorce that was sure to happen eventually anyway.  I soon migrated to Facebook, back when users had to have a network affiliation to join, and have since remade myself as a writer and a teacher with social media.  My MacBook Pro and my Droid go everywhere I do.  And you can find out exactly where I am when you see my Foursquare check-ins dump into Facebook or my Twitter, which feeds into my blog.  You may, though, like my teacher-friend Bartels, ask the important question, “But really, who cares where you are?”

It’s starting to a little bit of sense to me now, though.  I have a long history of using computers, primarily for two reasons:  to learn and to fill the void of loneliness.  In the past few years, in a zen-like convergence, I have blended these two pursuits and sought out or sought to create digital networks of people who, like Alphie, I can learn from and keep me company.   After dinner is done, the babies are asleep, and the essays are responded to and class activities planned for the next day, these professional networks are there for me, and I’m pretty satisfied with my computer-mediated life, digitally rendered out of the desire to know and to connect.

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Peering through the Cracks

“The point is,” said Anna, “as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.” –Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p.1

Every good narrative, I suppose, should begin with a crack, an ever-widdening fissure that exposes the discontinuity of our lives.  Today is the first teaching day of a new academic year– my 10th year teaching writing at this university.  And while you’d expect I’d be over the panic by now, I’m not.

This was not readily apparent to me this morning as I shook the wrinkles out of my skirt, packed a day’s worth of food into my son’s new Columbia lunch box (he doesn’t start school until tomorrow, so I’m giving it a test run), and inventoried the contents of my Medela Pump-in-Style and Macbook Pro bags,  making sure I had all the implements necessary to express myself multimodally.  I dropped my husband off at JH Rose High School to enjoy his last “lack-of-planning” day before the school-year starts, talked to my best teacher-friend in a neighboring county about our upcoming staff development workshop at her middle school, and cracked the door on the first day of school.

Students were already milling around the foyers, deciding on halls, and checking room numbers against schedule listings on their phones and papers.  The wax on the floor was blinding, and I stood in a group of folks waiting to board the elevator.  Like Percy Jackson, I thought, “Floor 600, please.”  The gods of the English Department await.

The mob filled the elevator, and I was the only one who didn’t get in.  With Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” soundtrack playing in my head, I impatiently pressed the button again–probably two or three times.  The second car appeared almost immediately (probably because I pushed the button so many times, right?) and I darted in it.   Then, in an act of supreme selfishness, I hit the “door close” button.   It was all mines.

White noise, dim yellow lighting, and stagnation.  Stillness.

After a week of intensive syllabi and schedule authoring–doing, doing, and doing–I had just a moment of pause.  English 1200 materials posted, check.  English 1200 Service-learning, check.  English 3810, check.  All good, right?  Well…yeah…they’re there.  But…

Are they clear?  Any glaring omissions?  Is the workload too heavy?  Too light?  Are the readings too academic?  Too folksy?  How will we manage all these interviews and site studies?  What can of worms am I opening with a course that has students researching the history of desegregation in our county schools when many fear that they are resegregating? What does it mean to teach with a printed text whose chapters are titled “Facebook”, “Twitter”, and “The Dark Side of New New Media”?  Is the textbook dead?  Am I even qualified to teach these classes?

At some point, gods know how many minutes later, the elevator doors slid open again, and I stepped out.  It wasn’t until I was about half way down the hall that I realized I was still on the first floor.  In my haste to have a personal chariot, I hadn’t even chosen a destination.

Now I was paralyzed with fear.  If I can’t get to the second floor today, how am I going to face scrutiny of sixty-five pair of eyes, staring me down and sizing me up?   A teacher-friend once told me she spent more time picking out her clothes than preparing her lessons and readings.  Another told me recently some chunky jewelry would really create a good student-teacher rapport. Maybe they’re right.   I’m not ready for this.   No matter how diligently I prepare, I never will be.

And neither are my colleages.  Numerous Facebook posts from my teaching friends, from public school teachers to tenured professors today have echoed the same sentiment.  In fact, you can read a great account of fellow Writing Project colleague and high school teacher Heather Holland’s back-to-school mini-panic narrative, “First Day of School Revisions and Decisions” on her blog.  I find it interesting that she, as do I with Lessing, alludes to the Big Brits at a time like this, employing Elliot’s “Love Song” to compare her own unease with the infamous Mr. Proofrock’s.  And then there’s Dr. Dre and Percy Jackson.

For my best teacher-friend today, it was Sesame Street and for my husband,  Iron Maiden.  So as we face the new faces this year–infinite possibility for success and failure– what do you see when you peer through the cracks?  What lenses do you try on to help you see?  What’s your teaching soundtrack?  What poems, books, films, shows, and characters do you invoke?