Iowa Council of Teachers of English We facilitate deep connections & professional learning for ELA teachers. Tue, 30 Jun 2020 18:56:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Encounters Tue, 30 Jun 2020 18:56:29 +0000 A Teacher’s Encounters with Difference


For teachers just like everyone else, there is a process to getting woke, especially when it comes to understanding the role of skin color in America.


Clip 1:

Growing up in a NW Iowa county that was 97% white, my perceptions of people of color came mostly from mission slides at church. People with darker skin were generally poor, from Mississippi or Africa, places where we whites would send missionaries to save them spiritually and economically. They were also the Tai Dam refugees who our church helped resettle in Sioux Center. They were all people in need.

Therefore, imagine my surprise when, while teaching vacation Bible school in Mississippi as a teenager, I was paired with a Black woman to lead the third-grade class–an educated, competent, mature, well-nourished Black woman.


Clip 2:

As an academic adviser of provisionally accepted students at Northwestern College, I worked with many students of color, often athletes. Some thrived on our majority white campus, and some didn’t.

Tyson came to meet me in my office during that killer week of football practice the week before classes started, in between three-a-days. This burly young man was an African American from Pahokee, Florida.

Tyson had been in Orange City for about a week, so I asked him, “How is it going for you here?” He was quiet for a few seconds, not looking me in the eye. Then he said, “Well, it’s real different here.”

I was scared to know more—afraid that he had experienced racist comments or worse. But I asked, “How is it different?”

Tyson replied quietly, “Here everyone gives you respect.”

I sighed with relief. For now.


Clip 3:

As a member of Northwestern’s Multi-Ethnic Resource Team, I considered myself highly aware of issues of race and culturally competent when working with students of color. But it takes only one mistake to humble you and remind you of what you don’t know.

I was telling a story to my first-year writing class and referenced the “white part of Minneapolis” . . . with an Asian American from a Twin Cities suburb in the room. Olivia’s face portrayed horror/disgust/astonishment(?), but once the words were out of my mouth, there was no return. After class I apologized to her, but these ignorant words from a professor were just one more microaggression added to the pile of presumptive comments.


Clip 4:

My senior student was eager to participate in the 2016 presidential election. As a Latino young man with immigrant relatives, the “BUILD THE WALL” rhetoric was/is extremely personal. So on a Saturday morning Jorge drove from campus to the Sioux County courthouse where he told the woman behind the Auditor’s desk that he was a Northwestern student and wanted to register to vote. He knew that college students have a choice to vote using either their home or college address.

The staffer asked to see Jorge’s college ID. This question confused him because in Iowa no ID is needed to register to vote, and none of his college friends had been asked for their IDs. The staffer insisted that the ID was necessary, so he showed her, registered, and left. Upon calling the Auditor the following week, he learned that he was right: an ID was not necessary, the staffer should not have asked the question, and she would be retrained.

Jorge went to the polls and submitted his ballot. November 8, 2016 concluded with the surprising news that Donald J. Trump had won. He and many other students of color were devasted. Jorge wondered if his relatives in Arizona would be safe—from deportment or from triumphant white supremacists. International students fielded calls from their parents overseas begging them to come home.

The next day Jorge crossed Highway 10 to return to his dorm after class, to change into his baseball scrimmage uniform. A pickup came roaring past him, and a voice screamed, “F*** Mexicans! Go Trump!”


Clip 5

In our historically Dutch small town, we held a Partnering for Justice Walk in the wake of George Floyd’s death and other evidence of racial targeting. We organizers hoped for 100, maybe 200 people, but 500 showed up, with signs—people of all ages, races, and political affiliations.

We walked from Northwestern’s campus to Orange City’s town square. But instead of crowning the Tulip Festival queen, we instead heard stories from our neighbors of color–stories of racist comments, racist actions, happening not in the past somewhere else, but occurring now and right in Sioux County.


We listen, we lament, we learn, we link. We pledge to live better.



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Mr. K Thu, 11 Jun 2020 19:55:52 +0000

Mr. K

The morning after your funeral,
I walked past your classroom
and stood in the doorway
to take in how much of you
filled every corner.

Photos of your wife
your infant daughter

Cubs memorabilia
Lambeau souvenirs
fantasy brackets
still pinned to a bulletin board

Five years worth
of student projects

collected dust in the quiet
Saturday sun.

Less than 24 hours before,
I sat in a pew
while the Catholics kneeled

and hoped you knew
how much the world of your classroom
spilled over into our stories

our heavy hearts
made lighter
by how much of you is still here.

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Meltdown in Aisle Three Fri, 22 May 2020 18:15:30 +0000 In Aisle Three

At  Hy-Vee

I have a meltdown

Shelves literally wiped clean

No juice, no milk, no sardines

There’s barely any meat

Except where the butchers work

I ask about an advertised sale on New York strips

I thought they had

They do, they’re just not marked

I ask for four

The butcher looks relieved

Which makes sense later when

I discover from a friend someone had just come in and ordered

200 pounds of hamburger

I’m here for just a few items

And now I freeze

In Aisle Three

Tears forming the question,

What’s yet to come?

My youngest son

was just married last week

Which never would have happened

This week

Knowing he works stocking stores

I fear he may get it

The thought of losing

One more child

Has me falling down

Gripping an empty shelf

So many plans are now on hold

The uncertainty of the future overwhelms me

As I pray for miracles

Amongst the cans of corn and beans


Barb Edler

31 March 2020

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Teacher Appreciation Week: I See You Sat, 09 May 2020 15:14:37 +0000 I see you.

I see you worrying about if your students’ basic needs are met. 

I see you creating brand new lessons and resources overnight to help students understand the curriculum. 

I see you calling and emailing students and parents to make connections, check-in. 

I see you adapting to the ever-changing policies enacted at the local, state, and national levels. 

I see you learning new technologies to better reach students and then sharing these new learnings with your colleagues.  

I see you stressing about the inconsistency of equitable circumstances for all students to thrive.  

I see you coming up with the most creative solutions to create a “classroom” environment at home.  

I see you juggling your own home life and personal worries with that of your students. 

I see you embracing seemingly silly projects and videos beyond your “expectations” just to make students smile.  

I see you going outside your comfort zone every day.  

I see you missing your students and grieving the moments you won’t have together. 

I see you attending Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting trying to figure out this new normal. 

I see you managing a new kind of paper load.  

I see you navigating all the unknowns — the known unknowns and unknown unknowns — with grace and professionalism.  

I see you.  

And I appreciate you.  

Distance learning is not what any of us had in mind when we went into teaching.  But, if there is any group who can handle it, I know teachers can.  We got this. And whatever comes next.  

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Lilies Sun, 03 May 2020 23:16:15 +0000 With a shake of the head she says neither of us

should be there.

Then we hear the world take a breath.

We answer with one of our own. 

One of our potentially toxic breaths.

And we accidentally touch our eyes and forget not to rub our noses.

Should I have touched the handle of the cart?

My purse was on the counter.

Snakes hiss as we leave with our nonessentials.

It’s a judgmental world.

People will shame you for buying a bouquet to be delivered to your

Eighty-year-old mother these days.

Necessity insists on protocol.

We keep each other in line with reprimands on Facebook,

Reminders on Twitter.

But no matter.  Grandma won’t get the virus from the delivery man

Because they closed all the florists just two days before her birthday

 Just in time to rescue her

From death by dusty yellow stamen and blue hyacinth petals.

That was a close one.

We almost got beauty to her.

But instead, there will be another safe day without lilies,

Essential or not.


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Update: ICTE Fall Conference 2020 is Canceled Thu, 30 Apr 2020 02:00:08 +0000

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The Late March Evening Thu, 23 Apr 2020 17:02:25 +0000 The Late March Evening


The man he plays is pensive,

regretting the grays of reflection

in the bathroom mirror.


The man he plays is penitent,

moving slowly today, aching in joints

from drink that made him wobble.


The man he plays is charged,

driven by Doug and Lou, and the spirit 

of the trickster coyote.


The man he plays knows love,

and doles it awkwardly out, to 

his lady, his students, and fellow strangers.


The man he plays feels the heat

of the lights of the stage, and the ticking

of his remaining time.


The man he plays thinks of the curtain, 

that follows the cheers, before the darkness

and a going home, 

and the man he plays is pensive.

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The Oasis Thu, 16 Apr 2020 19:33:09 +0000 “The desert is dry and hot,” the woman in the suit proclaims at the front of the library. It is my first year of teaching at Callanan Middle School. I am all wide eyes and optimism; plus, my self-selected mentor teacher has helped me set the expectation that I can always take away one good thing from any professional development experience. I am at the point in my career when the learning is coming so fast and hard that I can barely notice it happening.

“That’s how I start all my PD in February in middle schools,” she continues. “Kids are crazy and ate too much Valentine’s candy? That gray ice/mush is everywhere, and everyone has a little too much pent-up energy? You feel like you can’t get anything done on a Friday–not even ten uninterrupted minutes of instruction? Some kids are coming to school angry and hungry, and they can’t focus on your classes?”

I’m starting to wonder where this is going.

“Everything I just described IS teaching middle school in Des Moines in February. There. The desert is dry and hot. Don’t get on a plane to Arizona and complain about the dry heat. Don’t walk in the doors to this place and be surprised at the drama, the chaos, and the kids who are trying on different parts of themselves and failing along the way.” 

The fact that she is so, so right, and somehow laughing in the trenches with us–keeps the cranky room of February teachers from throwing our pencils at her eyeballs. I don’t remember much of the rest of the message, but I do know that it became a mantra for me as an educator for a long time, and then faded into the memory bank along with the other platitudes. I wish I could give her credit, but I do not remember her name.

This month, though, the message resurfaced, fourteen years later, unexpectedly. In the interim, I’ve changed schools twice, borne witness to school cultures created and dismantled, taught students spanning seventh to twelfth grades, and contributed to the most and least functional of all the PLCs. I’ve tried to lead, in ways both appointed and rogue, and I’ve tried to follow, in ways both subversive and whole-hearted. Five years in, when I thought I wouldn’t make it another year, I finished my master’s research paper on teacher burn-out. I changed some things. Seven years in, after the birth of my first daughter, I changed some more. 

I have often been willing to see the hot, dry desert in many of my students’ issues. But I have struggled to show the same grace to adults—and the system—for most years of my career. I’m working on it. ”

I have often been willing to see the hot, dry desert in many of my students’ issues. But I have struggled to show the same grace to adults—and the system—for most years of my career. I’m working on it. 

So this February, I offer a gift of the knowledge of the desert being dry and hot. Yes, our school is having systemic attendance issues. Yes, colleagues are acting like the world is ending as a result, and administrators have to remind us to tell students who missed class, “I’m glad you’re here” instead of “Where have you been?” Yes, the papers will never quit(unless we decide to make them—and let’s not forget we have at least some of that power). Yes, the sky is gray and it seems some days like the sun will never come back. Yes, that one guy on faculty thinks he has all the answers even though he hasn’t attended professional learning by choice in fifteen years. Somehow he is the loudest. Yes, the students struggle with commas. Yes, yes, yes. The desert is dry and hot.

When we choose to solve what we can solve instead of what we can’t, we are using our gifts for good. ”

— Brenna Griffin

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to make things better for our students and our buildings. We should. But inviting radical acceptance of some parts of our work lives can help us put energy into the parts we can actually change: the sequence of a lesson, warmly greeting students at the door, building in time for writing conferences instead of taking a pile of papers home to leave illegible comments in the margins. When we choose to solve what we can solve instead of what we can’t, we are using our gifts for good. 

I saw a friend recently who left the English classroom to work as a special education teacher. He was a wonderful English teacher, but constantly felt hounded by the response load, plagued by the sense that he was always behind in the response cycle if he was simply living a normal life with his family. He said something to the effect of, “Without the guilt of the paper load, it’s much easier for me to go to work and feel like I’m just value-added. I can make a kid’s day better; I can help reteach something difficult for a kid to grasp. I’m not holding students back because they’re waiting for me to give them comments on their written work.” 

This comment made me hold my breath. I’m glad he’s happier, but his articulation of finally feeling value-added made me sad. We don’t have to be perfect teachers to be value-added teachers for our students. The job is too much to do all of it well. We can still do so much of it well. I am convinced of this. So, until spring comes and we all actually feel better, let’s try a smaller and gentler approach of accepting what we cannot change–even celebrating it. The messiness of humanity is what makes our profession complicated and beautiful. In a hot, dry desert, we can still be water.

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Donations Tue, 24 Mar 2020 16:23:57 +0000 Marie Kondo has people around the world cleaning out closets and emptying bookshelves. As part of the purging process, cleaners ask themselves, “Does this item bring me joy?” I learned nearly fifty years ago about the ramifications for the giver and receiver when an item fails to meet this standard.

Mom lands a job as a Head Start assistant. It doesn’t pay as well as being an aide at the hospital but the hours work with raising four kids as a single mom. She worries about leaving the house before we leave for school but we learn how to set our alarms and make toast for breakfast. It doesn’t take long before we are set in a routine. 

As the holidays approach, Mom requests we go through our toys to donate to “her Head Start kids” for the Christmas celebration. I look through my limited options, select a few no longer loved, and promptly give them to Mom.

As a third-grader, I am in the hazy phase of Santa believing, but a gift is a gift.”

— Teresa Lawler

A perk of Mom’s job is we get to attend the Christmas show where the preschoolers will sing. Their artwork will be displayed, and “Santa” will show up with actual gifts. As a third-grader, I am in the hazy phase of Santa believing, but a gift is a gift.

I can hardly contain my energy and optimism (a word of the week in Miss Peterson’s third-grade class). This could be a really good gift. I mean I could get a really great one. One that I didn’t even know I needed kind of gift. Maybe a Spirograph or spinning art wheel or an Easy Bake Oven with lots of cake mixes tossed in, or wait …maybe, just maybe….a suntan Barbie. The real kind. Not the cheap, knock-off grocery store dolls.

Mom makes sure we have our Sunday best on when we leave for the Christmas celebration. Mom looks pretty in her mini skirt and her beehive teased to perfection, sprayed in place with plenty of Aqua Net.

My optimism continues. 

Upon arriving, Mom gets to work organizing her cherubs and talking to their parents. I sit in the bleachers of the small gym casing the joint. Typical decorations. Christmas trees, reindeer, lights, and a nativity scene. I make out the gifts hidden behind the trees. There aren’t very many of them. The true gifts must be hidden. They are that valuable.

The performance includes the songs of the season with children coming on and off the stage. No kids throw a fit, throw things, or throw up.

The end of the program brings the sound of bells, not church bells, but sleigh bells. The real kind. My attention (another word of the week in Miss Peterson’s class) focuses on the stage as a guy dressed up like Santa arrives with a “Ho Ho Ho.” 

He has the goods.

As the little kids squeal to get in line, I calmly case the area. I know if I stay quietly in line I will increase my odds of receiving the special gift. The guy in the Santa suit will be able to see I am one of the good kids – one of the kids who behaves – most of the time. After all, good kids get rewarded, or at least that’s what my catechism teacher tells me. 

I approach the guy in the Santa suit after many minutes of waiting. My heart is pounding. This is going to be a magical night.

I smile at the guy in the Santa suit.

The guy in the Santa suit smiles back.

He reaches into the sack and hands me a gift. It is a stuffed animal. A used tiger. An ugly tiger. It isn’t a loved donation. It is a “get this out of the house and dump it on some poor kid” donation.

I am crushed. There will be no Spirograph, no Spinning Art Wheel, no Easy Bake Oven with extra mixes, and absolutely, positively no suntan Barbie.

I am stuck with a second-hand stuffed tiger with matted fur. 

The ugly stuffed tiger deserves a major pouting session. Forget about being on the good kid list! I pout all the way home. I am really good at pouting.

The rest of Christmas 1970 is uneventful (word on my weekly spelling list).

I find the ugly stuffed tiger in the back of my closet. I toss him into the pile of donations, relieved to get it out of my life”

— Teresa Lawler

Seasons and routines repeat themselves and in early December my mom once again asks for toy donations for the Head Start celebration. Digging through my limited stash, I find the ugly stuffed tiger in the back of my closet. I toss him into the pile of donations, relieved to get it out of my life.

I just know this year’s exchange is going to be better. It has to be. I have hope. I have faith. I have optimism.

We are back in our Sunday best when Mom leaves us in the bleachers to care for her Head Start kids. Casing the joint as a fourth-grader, I consider a different approach to increasing my odds with the guy in the Santa suit. Instead of patiently waiting in line this year, I get in the front, or as near to the front as I can, without decking a four-year-old. I move away from my brother and sisters to be closer to the action.

The performance starts.

The performance ends.

The guy in the red suit comes out to the bells.

The four and five-year-olds scream.

I take a deep breath and start moving in. I smile at the guy in the Santa suit.

He smiles at me, reaches into his sack and hands me a used stuffed animal. It is a tiger. It is ugly. It is not a loved donation.

It is my donation.

What I learned nearly fifty years ago echoes through to the COVID-19 crisis of today. With people hoarding toilet paper, rice, and hand sanitizer in a rush to take care of themselves, we cannot forget about others who do not have the privilege of building a stockpile. It’s vital to consider our donations – not just material – but emotional and spiritual as our offerings of hope. 


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A Glittering Pause Sat, 14 Mar 2020 16:44:03 +0000 It was the first stretch of quiet I’d had all Winter Break. I was relishing the alone time upstairs. The baby was napping. The oldest two were playing with friends outside. And Milo was quiet. Too quiet. The kind of quiet that spells disaster.

I wanted to savor the quiet, but I knew (as every parent does) that something was underway down there. Something messy, gross, destructive. 

Milo, Glitter Artist

I found Milo painting at the kitchen table. There was paint everywhere. But worse, he’d found glitter. He was not measured with it — Milo doesn’t do anything just a little bit. Someone once told me that glitter is a special gift from Satan. If I hadn’t intentionally told myself to pause, to take a breath, I might have been right there with them. 

Sometimes the pause is everything.

Milo looked at me with a twinkling face — his eyes, yes, but he also had glitter all over it, so he was a very mischievous-looking twinkling little elf. He’d poured four containers of glitter onto his wet paint. He put glitter in the water. He rubbed his hands all over it on the page. At some point, he went to the bathroom. I know because there were little glitter footprints and a special glitter fingerprint on the toilet handle. (At least he flushed.) There was glitter on the cupboards, refrigerator, wall, carpet, windows, light switches.

I could have lost it. Thank God for the pause.

“Look, Mommy! I made everything in our house beautiful and sparkly! I wanted to make it for you! Are you so, so proud of me for making our house so pretty? Look! Everything I touch becomes pretty!” His giant blue eyes were hopeful, proud, waiting.

And that was my moment. The pause gave me perspective to see the room through his eyes. In truth, it was more than pretty. He showed me his glitter water, wondering, “Have you ever seen such beautiful water?” No, buddy. I haven’t.

He beamed at his painting, “Do you like my universe? Don’t you think it’s so, so beautiful?”

“Oh, buddy. It is beautiful. I love it.”

He wrapped his arms around my neck, glitter working it’s way between the threads of my sweater (forever), then pressed glitter-covered palms onto my cheeks and planted a wet glitter-laced kiss. He pulled away, grin wide, “Now you’re even more beautiful than before, Mommy.”

I know we’ll find glitter in this house for years. To get rid of it all, we’d have to burn the place to the ground. But each time I see it, I’ll remember the pause. I’ll remember the joy. I’ll remember that this universe is indeed beautiful, if only we look for the sparkles.

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