Back to School Again

Today marks the first day of the new semester, so of course this song has been taking up space in my head.

You’re welcome.

Unlike in the movie, however, there is no unmasked, group-dancing in early-September sunshine to celebrate the occasion. It is February 2021, and we’re still learning from home in our Covid-quarantine bubbles almost a year later. If that’s not enough to make one go all “Jack Torrance” on the world, we’re bracing for an imminent snow storm here in the northeast.

Despite Covid restrictions, distance learning, and inclement weather, I am excited to get back to school. Only five classes separate me and a master’s degree in Literacy Education, Birth-12th grade. I returned to school in January 2017 as a 39-year-old nontraditional student and have spent the last four years growing emotionally and intellectually. Choosing to return to school was one of the best decisions I made. I am privileged to have had the opportunity and thankful for the tremendous support I have received from friends, family, and professors alike.

I hope you will stick around for the long-haul as I grow into my role as an educator and literacy specialist.

Be well.

Melissa with back-to-school essentials: hot tea and blue-light filtering glasses

Are You Your Favorite Author?

This tweet has been circulating social media; it originated on Twitter, but I saw it on Facebook. Since January 15th, it’s received 162.8K likes and has been shared 14.1K times. Obviously, it struck a chord with many people. Some of the responses include:

“I would like to hire her as a life coach”

“It’s a shame more girls aren’t encouraged to feel like that. I wanted to be a writer from the age of 7, and was told by my mum and grandma that I sounded conceited and mad if I said things like ‘When I’m a writer.’ To this day I wonder if I’m kidding myself.”

“YES, age 9 she’s got this.”

(Of course, there was no shortage of replies touting the indisputable fact that Judy Blume is one amazing and influential author.)

I’ve always enjoyed writing. Although I prefer writing fiction and continue to hold fast to my dream of one day being a traditionally published author, I’m not totally inept at academic writing. The words simply don’t flow as freely. Academic writing requires a different sort of thinking. To illustrate, I can write an 80K word YA or romance novel without batting an eye but cringe at the thought of writing a 500-word critical analysis. A 5-page paper has me in a cold sweat. A 10-page paper gives me heart palpitations. Writing a PhD dissertation seems akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Major kudos to those who do (write a PhD dissertation and/or climb Mt. Everest). APA and MLA citations? *shudders* Pure tedium.

And yet here I am.

I earned an undergraduate degree in Inclusive Education with a concentration in Humanities. Ironically, the majority of my Humanities courses consisted of upper-level English/Lit classes. Reading and writing interests me. Needless to say, I wrote a lot of papers as an undergrad. Now halfway through earning a master’s degree in Literacy Education, I will attest that I have written a lot of papers and will likely write a lot more in the coming months. And even though I prefer to write fiction, I do receive a certain amount of satisfaction in tackling and taming difficult academic concepts. There is joy in synthesizing and distilling ideas, of crafting sentences, of choosing just the right word or phrase to accurately convey my thoughts.

Here’s the thing, though. A sad thing, in fact. I have never considered myself one of my favorite authors. To do so has never even crossed my mind. What does that amount of self-confidence even feel like?

More importantly, if I have never considered myself one of my favorite authors–if YOU have never considered yourself one of your favorite authors–how can we possibly model and instill that self-confidence and self-efficacy in the students who need it most?

Are Kids Who Hate Reading Just Reading the Wrong Books?

I was scrolling through social media recently when I came across the above meme and quote. As a mother, certified teacher, and fulltime literacy education student, I have mixed feelings about this message.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly believe in the transformative power of books. They allow us a glimpse into other people’s lives, reflect our own experiences, and act as portals to different worlds. We learn from books, lose ourselves in books, and fall in love with books.

On the other hand, reading can be a real struggle for many kids for various reasons. Learning differences, social/emotional issues, comprehension problems, neurological impairments, and weak foundational literacy skills (to name a few) can make reading a less than enjoyable experience.

Is falling in love with reading really just a matter of finding the right book? Will the right book help turn struggling readers into successful readers?

I plan to expand this post in the future because I think it deserves more attention, but I’d like to know your thoughts. Please answer the poll and share your reflections in the comments section.

Vocabulary Instruction: Morphology

Freeman and Freeman discuss the importance of teaching content-related vocabulary and embedding vocabulary instruction in meaningful reading (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014). Vocabulary instruction is critical for improving students’ reading and comprehension of academic subjects, especially as the complexity and cognitive demands of academic material increases.

Palumbo et al. (2015) write about importance of teaching vocabulary and morphology in intermediate grades. They discuss the difference between Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 vocabulary words. Tier 1 vocabulary words are the most basic words that typically do not require direct instruction. They are the words that students acquire through conversation and social interaction. Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary words are associated with academic content and typically require direct instruction. Being familiar with Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary will aid students as they grapple with advanced academic content (Palumbo et al., 2015).

The authors offer suggestions for vocabulary instruction. Teachers can begin by helping students segment words to aid correct pronunciation. For example, students can break words into syllables, look for words within words, or identify affixes. According to Palumbo et al. (2015), “Morphological knowledge helps struggling students unlock the pronunciation and meaning of words while learning the structure of English” (p. 3). Identifying word parts also bolsters students’ decoding skills and spelling. Later, teachers can introduce students to common word stems that are rooted in Latin and Greek and conduct brainstorming activities to discover related words. To scaffold students’ vocabulary knowledge, teachers can introduce cloze activities in which students choose the correct vocabulary term to complete the sentence. One of the most important aspects of academic vocabulary instruction, however, is giving students frequent opportunities to use the language during classroom discussion (Palumbo et al., 2015).

I believe vocabulary instruction is a crucial component of students’ academic learning. When I was a young student several decades ago, vocabulary instruction consisted of defining boldfaced terms. We were not encouraged to study the morphology of words or use academic vocabulary in class discussions. If we want to deepen students’ understanding of challenging subject matter, we must help them learn and use the relevant language.


Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Palumbo, A., Kramer-Vida, L., & Hunt, C.V. (2015). Teaching vocabulary and morphology in intermediate grades. Preventing School Failure, 59(2), 109-115.

The Chanel Sisters

Do you like stories that transport you to another time and place? Do you enjoy reading about bold women who challenge societal norms? If the answer is yes, then settle in for a tale of self-discovery, perseverance, and redemption.  

Orphaned at a young age and left in the care of convent nuns, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and her younger sister Antoinette yearn for something more, something better than the simple lives for which they are destined. With nothing more than a needle and thread and their own ingenuity, the sisters painstakingly “sew” the beginnings of what would later become a fashion empire and household name.

“There’s a fearlessness in not letting the world tell you no. In putting yourself in front of those inclined to dismiss you. It’s difficult, convincing others to appreciate something so close to your heart that might be new or different for them. It takes determination, persistence, verve” (p. 265).

Spanning nearly three decades, the story chronicles Gabrielle’s and Antoinette’s many struggles, heartbreaks, and triumphs, both in business and in love. But always, throughout, they have each other.  

Whether or not you give much thought to clothing labels, you’ve undoubtedly heard the name “Coco Chanel,” and although The Chanel Sisters is a work of fiction, it is stitched together with facts and anecdotes from the sisters’ early years. Readers learn about the fashion icon, not through her own voice, but her lesser-known sister Antoinette’s. Theirs is a story about the bonds of family and friendship, of bucking tradition, of discovering joy and purpose.

Of creating something better.

The Chanel Sisters is written by Judithe Little.

Applying Grice’s Cooperative Principle to Online Discussions

Philosopher of language H. P. Grice (1989) developed a set of rules used to determine the efficacy of conversation between speakers and listeners. Termed Grice’s cooperative principle, these rules center around the Quality, Quantity, Relation, and Manner of an exchange. Quality refers to the extent to which a statement is true and supported by evidence. Quantity refers to the amount of information conveyed—neither too much nor too little. Relation refers to the relevance of the information, while Manner refers to the message’s clarity. These are the pragmatics of conversation, or what “constitute the underlying assumptions we make as we converse with others” (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014, p. 89). A violation of these rules results in a breakdown of communication.

A case study conducted by Ho and Swan (2007) sought to find correlations between graduate students’ discussion posts in an asynchronous online course and their final grades. They coded 512 discussion responses gathered during the course using a rubric based on Grice’s cooperative principle. They wanted to determine which posts generated the most conversational threads. Not surprisingly, the posts that led to more responses and rated higher on the rubric correlated with students receiving an overall higher final grade in the course. Quality and Relation contributed most to the students’ high scores on the rubric. In other words, posts that were both relevant to the discussion thread and contained evidence to support a statement or opinion spawned a greater number of responses that helped sustain the conversation. Quantity was also significant, with concise posts generating more follow-up responses than longer posts. Ho and Swan hypothesized that in an online environment, readers lose patience with reading lengthy text. Manner had the least influence. Spelling and mechanics mattered, but only if the meaning of the text itself was otherwise unintelligible.

With an increasing amount of learning taking place in a virtual, asynchronous environment, at all grade levels, the application of Grice’s cooperative principle in online discussion is more relevant today than ever. Literacy educators instruct students in reading, writing, listening, and oral communication. It stands to reason that the same principles we apply to in-person communication can also be applied to online discussion. Therefore, we must explicitly demonstrate what effective discussion looks like, whether in person or online. As Ho and Swan (2007) conclude, the results of their case study might help administrators and educators “examine important components in the non-traditional learning environment, namely the processes involved in productive online discussion” (p. 26). Learning to effectively communicate when face-to-face takes practice. We cannot assume that students have the knowledge or skills to effectively communicate in a virtual environment.

What are your thoughts?


Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Grice, H.P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.

Ho, C., & Swan, K. (2007). Evaluating online conversation in an asynchronous learning environment: An application of Grice’s cooperative principle. The Internet and Higher Education10(1), 3–14.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, J. (2016). Brown girl dreaming. Puffin Books.

Category: Autobiography or memoir

Summary: Written in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming captures author Jacqueline Woodson’s memories of growing up in the south and north, as well as her family and community.

Theme: The past shapes who we become.

Generalizations: family, community, self-identity, race, Black culture, growing up

Potential uses in the classroom: Brown Girl Dreaming can be used to discuss concepts such as family, self-identity, and growing up: How does the role of family shape the author’s early years? How did the author come to identify as a writer? What does being a writer mean? In what ways can the reader identify with the author? In what ways does the reader’s life differ from the author’s? How does self-identity influence how readers read and interpret a text? I would also use this book to discuss text structure: What is a verse novel? Why would an author write a novel in verse? How does a novel written in verse differ from a novel written in prose? 

Melissa’s note: I was initially attracted to the book’s cover, but I have been consciously trying to read more books written by and about people of color. I rarely read autobiographies or novels written in verse, so this was an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. This book is both magical and honest. The writing is exceptional and evoked memories of summers spent with my grandparents, with whom I have a close relationship. I could also relate to the author’s ingrained need to express herself through writing. Brown Girl Dreaming has won many awards and honors including a National Book award, a Newberry Honor Book award, and the Coretta Scott King award.

Language as a Functional Resource

Teachers must consider many factors when planning and teaching, but two are likely at the forefront. One is pedagogical content knowledge, which refers to teachers’ understanding of specific subject matter. The other is pedagogical language knowledge, which refers to teachers’ awareness of the language students need to master the content (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014). Pedagogical language knowledge, however, extends beyond simply teaching content-specific vocabulary or defining unfamiliar words. It means understanding the types of texts used within a subject area, the structure of those texts, and the language that is unique to them. For example, the language used when teaching third-grade students how to interpret various types of graphs is different than the language used when teaching those same students how to interpret symbols on a map.

Defining pedagogical language knowledge is a good place to start, but it shouldn’t end there. Teachers must also assess their beliefs about how students learn and then honestly evaluate their teaching methods. For example, do they favor whole-group lessons followed by independent work, or do they promote an environment in which “knowledge is interpreted within a community” (Gleeson, 2015, p. 111)? A study of teachers in New Zealand revealed that what they teach often determines how they teach. In one secondary school, teachers who taught subjects such as chemistry or statistics, where acquiring content is key, were less likely to include small-group activities and discussions than those who taught more conversation-based subjects such as economics or religion (Gleeson, 2015).

How teachers teach does matter in promoting language development. When teachers view language as a functional resource, an approach supported by linguist Michael Halliday, learning happens through language. In the classroom, the language as a functional resource approach is evident in hands-on, cooperative learning during which the teacher acts as a facilitator while students engage in small-group discussions and investigative activities (D. Freeman & Y. Freeman, 2014). Teachers who promote this type of learning scaffold language development. For example, they build background knowledge and model how to deconstruct text to better understand it. Learning becomes a social transaction between the teacher and the students, as well as between the students themselves.

Students learn best in a classroom where the teacher encourages discussion and teamwork. A collaborative approach supports the understanding of content, develops literacy skills, and increases access to social and academic language. With careful self-reflection of their beliefs about successful teaching methods, even teachers of more traditionally lecture-type subjects such as math can adopt the language as a functional resource approach to promote student learning.


Freeman, D.E., & Freeman, Y.S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar, (2nd edition). Heinemann.

Gleeson, M. (2015). ‘It’s the nature of the subject’: Secondary teachers’ disciplinary beliefs and decisions about teaching academic language in their content classes. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 38(2), 104-114.

Book Binge

My nineteen-year-old son recently discovered the joy of reading. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy reading before, he just didn’t do much reading beyond what was required in school. Since deciding to take a gap year between high school and college (thanks Covid!), he has more time to read what he wants, when he wants. Within the past month, he has read the following: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, by Stephen King; Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, The Andromeda Strain, and Sphere, by Michael Crichton; and The Wandering Earth, by Cixin Liu. I offered to take him to the bookstore today to replenish his reading material (but also because I had ulterior motives). He chose Frank Herbert’s Dune and Stephen King’s The Stand. Those should keep him occupied for a few weeks. I hope!

Here are the ulterior motives I mentioned:

Concrete Rose, by Angie Thomas, follows a young Maverick Carter, whom fans of The Hate U Give will recognize as Starr Carter’s father. Children of Virtue and Vengeance, by Tomi Adeyemi, is the sequel to Children of Blood and Bone, which I read over the summer. And Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. Unsheltered was published in 2019, so it is one of her most recent books. If you have never read a Barbara Kingsolver novel, please do. I highly recommend The Poisonwood Bible. I first read it about 20 years ago, and it has stuck with me since.

Have you indulged in a book binge lately? What’s on your to-read list?  

Critical Literacy Theory

Subscribing to Critical Literacy Theory entails the careful examination and evaluation of text in order to “see” multiple versions of the same story. It requires deliberately questioning the voices of the majority perspective by bringing those of the oppressed to the forefront. It involves analyzing the structure and content of words and images to understand their impact on particular groups of people. It necessitates looking for hidden messages—comparing what’s being said to what’s not.

Being critical requires a healthy dose of skepticism. It also requires curiosity and a willingness to pursue ideas that diverge from the norm. As Luke (2019) writes, critical literacy focuses “on students’ engaging in forms of ideology critique: exposing and reconstructing misleading ideological versions of the world provided in media, literature, textbooks, and everyday texts” (p. 354). This perhaps goes against what some students of the not-so-distant past were taught: Teachers and textbooks are always right.

One pivotal assignment as an undergrad included an opportunity to deconstruct a series of elementary school lessons about Christopher Columbus. We students had to establish the dominant perspective, look for biases within the text and images, and determine whose story was being left out. It was an eye-opening experience because it forced us to, as Luke says, critique the ideological version of what had been, for years, our accepted truth. Or at least the accepted truth of the many white Americans of European decent. It is the type of lesson, however, that you do not forget. Once you learn to see other versions of the truth, you can’t unsee them. In fact, you begin to look for them.

Brooks (2019) echoes this sentiment in writing about intersectionality, or the idea that an individual’s “categories of differences” make up the whole person (p. 421). For example, I am more than just a graduate student. I am a woman. I am cisgender. I am a wife and mother. I am a white, middle-class Democrat unsure of her religious beliefs. To consider me through only one of those lenses would provide a very narrow view about who I am as a person. Much like Critical Literacy Theory, subscribing to the concept of intersectionality requires “unlearning (dominant) social imaginaries, attending to alternative world views, and centering the disremembered” in order to get the whole picture (Brooks, 2019, p. 427). To do otherwise is an injustice.

In school, we consider students’ intersectionality to determine their funds of knowledge, or the knowledge and skills they bring to the classroom from their home culture. When we strive to know the whole child and not just the student, we create an environment in which what is relevant and important to them matters and is a welcome addition to the curriculum. For example, one aspect of the edTPA certification process involved explaining how my focus learner’s family history, strengths, and interests shaped my teaching. This required seeing my focus learner as a whole child rather than simply a student or, even more impersonal, a subject to be studied and written about. Children do not come to school wearing only one hat. They are complex, multi-layered individuals. Similarly, they come from families with complex, multi-layered histories and experiences. It would be wrong to leave the potential of what they bring to the classroom unexplored.

I see Critical Literacy Theory, intersectionality, and funds of knowledge as being interconnected. They each require asking probing questions to get below the surface level. They require seeing many different sides. They require accepting many different truths.


Brooks, M.D. (2019). Untapped possibilities: Intersectionality through literacy research. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 419-429). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Luke, A. (2019). Regrounding critical literacy: Representation, facts and reality. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 349-361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.