I used to love giving presentations. I used to think I was smart and could relate my experience to others in a coherent manner. But when I was in third grade, I thought I was a good writer; now, I know that whatever I write will be fraught with not-good-enough-ness. Why? In both instances it has to do with a “teacher” — air quoted for the sarcasm dripping in my mind. I’m not sure why I can’t listen to those other voices who say they appreciate my presentation stye, and I do know what I’m talking about, and I have good ideas. But all that comes through are those mean old meanie voices who say, “You stink; don’t try.”

Tonight, it’s really bothering me because it’s 11:30 pm the night before I’m giving a presentation to the state English Teachers Conference, and I still am afraid that despite my knowledge of the topic and the fact that I presented it over the summer, I’m not prepared. I keep obsessing over minute details, and trying to anticipate all the negative reactions that people who attend will have, and worrying that I’m gonna get “that look” that says “You stink; don’t try.”

The one thing that I’d like to get across is that stories matter. Context matters. When I write test questions for the new English II test, and I look at the progression of the Common Core Language Arts standards, I don’t see context — only text. And there’s MORE than just the words on the page. This is what I’m trying to get my students to understand while they are writing their memoirs. Their voice needs to come through; their readers need to connect with them — find ways to say, “Yeah, I know how that feels.” If you don’t have a context for that story — a purpose — then you only have random words. Words that don’t really matter.

So here’s what I would say if I didn’t doubt myself:

The thing that’s missing, I found when writing test questions, is context. How can I only use this piece of paper to ask/answer questions? This author didn’t write this poem in isolation. He’s rferring to something. He’s making a comment about being human. This author didn’t write this news article  to just show a piece of news. She wants to tell a story — to show the inhumanity of human trafficking, so that her readers will be outraged — and rise up and do something about it.

If we let curriculum writers take out the context — that says a student doesn’t have to use those broad skills until 11th grade! — they won’t do what English teachers — readers — have tried to do for many years: show them how to have empathy and walk in someone else’s shoes and see that we really are more similar than different.

Social media does this in its most pure form. You create a persona — a story of yourself and your beliefs. And using Storify can help get to the root of making nonfiction meaningful to students –and English teachers. Our job is to help students make sense of the world. Traditionally, this has been achieved through fiction; the Common Core standards have taken care of that. “No fiction allowed”, these people say. “No one reads fiction when they leave school” they say. Well, I say, it’s OBVIOUS that THESE people don’t read fiction — or anything else, for that matter  — because there’s too much meanness in the world. If you read –fiction or nonfiction — you get to participate in imaginative rehearsal, learning how to put yourself in someone else’s place, if for just a minute. Would you make the same decisions? How would your path differ from the one the author presents? Is the author convincing? If so, how does she do it? If not, what should he have included? How can you use this information in your own life? Your own writing? What made you cry/scream/laugh/nod & and say ‘yes’?

These types of critical thinking skills are what we really want in an educated person, right? The ability to distinguish, choose, connect, and define?

Well, that’s what I’d say if I could. If my doubts didn’t say “You stink; don’t try.”

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