Letters from the Field: BLTN Reading and Teaching

Jan 16th, 2018 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Featured, Winter 2018

In December, we asked the 2017 BLTN fellows to weigh in on recent reads and texts they are reading and teaching with students. We include a selection of their letters here. 


I just started teaching seniors this year and decided that it was time for students to engage in some horizontal accountability to help prepare them to read literature independently in preparation for college.  After dragging my heels, I set up reading communities where each group chooses a different memoir about someone struggling with mental illness. The students are reading Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Lucky by Alice Sebold, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, Girl, Interrupted by Susana Kaysen, and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison.

I organized the students into homogeneous groups according to their reading levels. Each reading community chose the book that was best for them. Students wrote their own syllabi and picked activities that would help them best understand the book. We come together in Socratic seminars and cocktail parties so that we still feel like one class. I am pleasantly surprised that both the students and I love this new structure. Students are pushing each other and supporting each other like the future college students that they are.


Adam King
Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School
New York, NY
Lit for Life Scholar

Dear Tom,

This is my first year teaching at Menaul Independent. I teach in a not-for-profit independent school serving grades 6-12 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are 32 students in 10th grade. Eight are foreign/boarding students (4 from China). There are 40 students in 11th grade with 19 foreign/boarding (12 from China).

Teaching, more so than writing, is such solitary work that sometimes we forget to share. There are no awards for good parenting or good teaching (far and few), and those numerous revisions for a creative writer mean nothing without that finished draft that is published!

I wouldn’t have shared anything yet again but a “Christmas miracle” took place yesterday. The writing workshop for my sophomores (I also teach juniors) was executed so successfully that I had to reach for the school iPad to videotape their conversations. This wouldn’t be as big a deal except many of my students are foreign language students, who are usually afraid to speak in class.

We have had to do a lot of unlearning to finally approach writing as something that happens in the real world and not just an assignment to be turned in. I have utilized my mentor (well, many educators’ mentor!) Kelly Gallagher and his In The Best Interests of Students: Stay True to What Works in the ELA Classroom. I took a workshop with him in 2015 in the middle-of-nowhere California when I was working in a very rural area, and it transformed how I approached writing. Most celebrity author-educators don’t come to the middle of nowhere, but he is not an average educator in any way.

Students have time to revise. Mini-lessons are demonstrated for the students to apply to their own writing with time for student reflection in between drafts for the students to assess and articulate what they need. Assignment deadlines are stretched based on class needs, not on my “finishing a unit.” There is lots of one-on-one time with me, and we track the moves being made in mentor texts individually and as a class.

Something else, which is just an extra bit, something I didn’t even think would be a big deal but has turned into one around here, is that this year I discovered a program called Global One to One, and my sophomores participated in an actual pen pal exchange program. They were shocked to see the originality, penmanship, and grammar skills of students in a remote village near the Himalayas in Nepal. They had never written handwritten letters before, and many chose to practice multiple drafts to make their writing legible! They are waiting for their “peace pals” letters from Nepal to arrive any day now. Here is a piece my school posted about it: http://www.menaulschool.org/paws-on-the-news-november-2017/

With gratitude,
Annie Syed
Menaul Independent School
Albuquerque, NM
Lit for Life Scholar

My students have been interrogating representations of femininity and madness in American literature. They’ve studied The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Trifles by Susan Glaspell, “Much Madness is divinest Sense” by Emily Dickinson, clips from Gaslight (1944), and excerpts from literature about the ideal Victorian woman. Throughout the unit, they’ve studied literary concepts (unreliable narrators, symbolism, theme) as well as social issues (feminism, mental health, gender roles). Students have really enjoyed making these connections. In addition to writing to analyze how Glaspell developed her theme, students created a visual quilt of symbols from Trifles. They additionally acted out scenes from the one-act play. Using text evidence, students wrote their own diagnosis of the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper before writing a letter to Weir Mitchell to challenge the gender stereotypes inherent in this work. They spent some time writing creatively with their own unreliable narrators. We finally tied this all together in a Socratic seminar on the connections between femininity, madness, and power.
Ashlynn Wittchow
Hand Middle School
Columbia, SC
Otway Fellow

Hello Bread Loafers,

I teach Special Ed 11th and 12th inclusion students. The 11th grade is reading Mona Golabek’s Holocaust memoir, The Children of Willesden Lane, and my 12th grade kids are reading James McBride’s The Color of Water. Our 12th graders read excerpts of Junot Diaz’s Drown, and they just adored his work!

I am also teaching AP Lang, which at our school is a 12th grade course. The students are finishing up Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (the book was 503 pages), and it’s taken my students since September to finish it. My AP students have not had much exposure to long works of literature, and Lethem’s work, for many of them, is the first full-length novel read by them. After Lethem, they will read The Color of Water as a whole group, and then I am going to attempt student choice by having groups of four or five pick limited memoirs that we have available: Profiles in Courage, Angela’s Ashes, Down These Mean Streets, and This Boy’s Life.

Our school is experiencing many challenges that urban environments are going through—gentrification, lack of parental involvement, neglect, and physical and mental abuse. Some kids have had been assaulted and are experiencing unimaginable horrors that many of us do not experience in our daily lives. There is the rumor that we might be shutting down due to a drop in student enrollment and test scores. We were one of New York City’s focus schools, and we are still trying very hard to catch up, staying afloat, keeping the kids safe, and making do with what little materials we have. I have to appreciate that, given so little, the kids I teach are enjoying literature a little bit.

I know this will come across as shameless, but I want to end this note with an appeal to the spirit of giving in case anyone wants to donate old books or supplies to us. We do not have a library in the building, so building our makeshift classroom library is the only way I can get my kids to read.

Our school’s address is

Mr. Marcos Namit
Transit Tech High
1 Wells Street
Brooklyn, NY 11208.

We are always grateful.

Marcos Namit
Lit for Life Scholar

Hi all,

It’s been a busy school year, but that’s typical. I have had a productive year, albeit time consuming in terms of data entry as my school is doing a wholesale shift to proficiency grading. We have just finished reading “The Allegory of the Cave”  and have spent significant time in extended discussions about truth and fiction in the world around us, particularly in media. My creative writing students have seen many successes as many of them have been published locally, had their pieces selected to be recorded on Vermont Public Radio, have had pieces selected for daily reads on youngwritersproject.org, and have had their works selected to be performed at Burlington’s Flynn Theater by professional actors as a part of The Flynn’s Winter Tales. Because of the interest in creative writing, we have revived a long dormant Creative Writers Club and are publishing poetry to be hung in our public restrooms. We call it Potty Talk.
I’ve also been busy with the Vermont Scholars Bowl. I have coached the team for three years and have seen our numbers grow from three participants in year one  to over 20 this year. The team just finished 8th in a field of 56 teams at the most recent competition. I’m also loving the work that I am doing with What’s The Story? This year I am mentoring a group of students studying animal cruelty on Vermont farms. It is a great mix of WTS veterans and newcomers, and the energy for the project is very strong. I’m currently organizing our school competition of the national Poetry Out Loud competition. This year we will bring the competition to 15 classrooms and will have approximately 225 students learning and reciting poetry. Our school-wide competition will be February 8th. Finally, as student council advisor, I am overseeing a group of young leaders as they work to build a tradition around an after- holidays food drive for local shelters. Through their research, the students have decided that a post-holidays drive is one that will benefit the community most and are excited to make an impact on our community and the world. Not bad for a rural school with declining numbers!
I hope everyone had a restful and invigorating holiday season.
Nate Archambault
Bellows Free Academy
St. Albans, VT
Vermont BLTN Fellow

Hello everyone,

I’ve enjoyed reading the responses so far, and it’s encouraging to read such interesting activities going on in your respective classrooms.

I’ve had an interesting first half of the school year, punctuated by two deployments with the Coast Guard due to Hurricane Harvey and then Irma/Maria. Due to this, my work with the students has been disjointed. We began reading A Raisin in the Sun, and then my absence, together with a scourge of testing when I returned, put that play on hold. We’re just now finishing it, so the unit I hoped to build from it never got off the ground.
We’re in the process of responding to our exchange partners in Rajwinder Kaur’s class in Louisville, Kentucky. The theme is names and what they mean to us. Do we like our name? Who gave us our name and why? What about any nicknames and how we got them? This is a particularly relevant topic for my students because many of them go through their day with people mispronouncing their names, making fun of their names, or otherwise avoiding addressing them by name. Several of my students chose at some point to give themselves an American name to avoid the issue altogether. An interesting outcome from our conversations is that two of my students have decided to start going by their given names, embracing their identities in a way they previously were not comfortable with.
Take care everyone,
Paul Dragin
Briggs High School
Columbus, OH
Bickimer (POLI) Fellow

Good Morning, Folks,

I’m teaching 8th grade this year and have decided to minimize the number of whole-class texts we read. Instead, I’ve been bolstering the culture of independent reading and, inspired by Nancie Atwell’s talk in Ripton this summer, have begun to build a bigger classroom library to help fuel it. Many of the titles on my shelves are from Atwell’s list.

We began the year with a unit on investigative journalism. Most students chose to write about school-related topics that directly affect them, like the then-notorious rule that barred them from taking backpacks to their end-of-the-day study hall. So many students wrote so persuasively about the issue that it caught the attention of administrators, who allowed the rule to be changed. While it might seem trivial to adults, it allowed the kids to see that their writing can truly influence their community, and, in turn, their own lives.

We’ve since moved on to a fiction writing unit, which students kicked off with an analysis of a chosen short story. The stories they selected included those by Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, O. Henry, Langston Hughes, and Sandra Cisneros.

It’s been a great year so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest!


Bob Uhl
Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School
S. Burlington, VT
Vermont BLTN Fellow


In my senior English class this semester, we worked through a unit on the ways that language can be used to obfuscate reality and/or conceal identity. For this unit, we worked with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” excerpts from 1984, “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and excerpts from Pygmalion.
AP Literature students focused on short fiction before moving on to their first two major works. They read stories by Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kafka, and various and sundry others.
Both classes read Hamlet, particularly focusing on definitions of madness. AP Lit students also read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
My English IV class leaves at the end of the semester, but I have AP through the end of the year. Next semester students will read BelovedAs I Lay Dying, FrankensteinMedea, and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
Kyle Dennan
Eleanor McCain Secondary School
New Orleans, LA
Audacity Fellow

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