Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I’ve been a fan of Colson Whitehead since The Intuitionist. (And if you want a really smart zombie book, Zone One is brilliant.) But The Underground Railroad is, in my opinion, Whitehead’s best work to date. He takes the metaphor for the Underground Railroad and makes it real, which gives the book the flavor of magical realism. His writing is flawless and precise, and the story gripped me from the beginning, partially because I just loved Cora’s character so much. Cora is, above all, practical. At one point she thinks: “Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

When we first  encounter Cora, we come to understand on a plantation, “Every dream was a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Her attempt to farm a small plot of land left by her mother shows us this, to a certain extent.  Even the small celebrations were a form of rebellion because it allowed a type of escape: “They could face the morning toil and the following mornings and the long days with their spirits replenished however meagerly, but a fond night to look back on and the next birthday feast to look forward to. By making a circle of themselves that separated the human spirits within from the degradation without.”

The writing precision as well as the fully original metaphors struck me again and again as I read. Seemingly simple sentences and ideas, when examined more closely, show the craft at work in Whitehead’s writing:

  • “Made the rounds of the slave villages in search of anything amiss, a smile or a book.”
  • The neck collar “gave her the posture of a beggar or a praying mantis.”
  • “From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots.”
  • “The idea was like a hunk of wood, Caesar thought, requiring human craft and ingenuity to reveal the new shape within.”

The writing, while phenomenal, is backed with an authentically interesting story, with a character we care about from the beginning. This book (along with Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing) is in the running for my favorite book of the year so far. And I’m not alone, Oprah has chosen Underground Railroad for her bookclub. So if you want a page turner, or a great example of precise writing, or a talented author with many books to savor, check out Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. You can win a free copy at our fall conference in State College, PA on October 14 & 15.

urlPosted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Up Late With The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Book Review: Up Late with Book by Robert Grudin

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Have you ever happened upon a book that you’d never heard of, but ended up enjoying it more just because you had no expectations? Book by Robert Grudin is one of those books for me. I found it at a Goodwill and it sounded like an interesting read. It was more than that–it was full of English teacher/student jokes and wry commentary about literary criticism, academia, and books.

Professor Adam Snell disappears from University of Washagon, and people are in an uproar. It becomes a fun romp with tongue-in-cheek jokes and quirky characters. I particularly enjoyed some of the definitions like this one: “New historicist: specialist who analyzes literature in terms of the theory that literary art and art in general are not independent but rather functions of cultural patterning as seen in terms of power, patronage, class, publically promoted myths, etc.” Or maybe this one: “deconstructionist: a literary theorist who believes a work of literature has no fixed meaning and can therefore be re-created in a new form with each reading.”

One of my favorite passages posits this question: “Isn’t an artist’s life honestly lived a kind of slow recuperation, a recovery of lost spirit, a knitting of broken time?”

Throughout the book, Snell’s character Sorrana Sostrata is quoted and makes some profound observations“From time to time over the years, bands of philosophic pirates and their yea-sayers, probably for sheer love of power or gain, have advanced the argument that language does not describe but rather “creates” reality, and that there is no reality beyond language. But a speaker’s ability to feel emotion and, via language, conceive that same emotion in listeners, gives their flimsy slander the lie. Experience is not created by language; rather it descends into language and is reborn from it.”

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with Book by Robert Grudin

Friday Five: Back to School Edition

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So we find ourselves back at the beginning of a new year. Again. Those butterflies and weak knees are plaguing me again as I arrange my classroom library, scour the internet for a REALLY COOL first-day activity, and daydream about what my students’ first impressions of me will be.

Is it strange that the first day of school still sweeps me up the way it did when I was still a student? There is so much excitement during that first week of in-service days. Why can’t that enthusiasm thread its way through the entire year?

One of our fellow Pennsylvania teachers posted on the Tiny Buddha blog yesterday, and his words really spoke to me.  He titled the post “5 Ways to Find Peace: Life Lessons from an 8th Grade Teacher.” I know each of our professional stories would fill a book. An anthology even. But his succinct, funny account of lessons learned is just the right thing to read today as we prepare for another new year!

Link to Allyn Bacchus’ post on Tiny Buddha HERE!! I highly recommend checking out Tiny Buddha at some point over the next few weeks. The woman who manages the site is a friend to education and has a great eye for posting poignant stories. Or you could link directly to Allyn’s personal blog HERE in order to read his other musings.

His five lessons learned in the classroom include:

1. Be Yourself

2. Don’t Hold too Tightly to Plans

3. Don’t Get Stuck on the Negative

4. Each Day is New

5. It’s Ok to Laugh

I hope you all get off to a good start this year! And please don’t forget that PCTELA is here for you as mentors, colleagues, collaborators, and sounding-boards for all you do in education! Please don’t hesitate to contact us, ever, if you feel we could support you in some way!


Allison Irwin

Executive Director

Friday Five: Back to School Edition

Up Late with The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Up Late with The Whale: A Love Story

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, an imagining of Herman Melville’s romantic obsession with Nathaniel Hawthorne, since I heard it was coming out last year. My students were so curious about what they’d read about Melville’s bromance (their word) with Hawthorne. Since Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, the question of what their relationship was is still a little foggy. Beauregard used actual letters and journals from Melville and Hawthorne and Oliver Wendall Holmes in the text to explore the question of their relationship. It makes it hard to pull the fiction away from the fact, but I’m not sure it matters, really. This book captures the difficulty of being an author who is in debt, an author who desperately needs a muse, an author struggling with early copyright laws, and an author who feels isolated in a full house.

Beauregard also captures the zeitgeist of the time–this was a new America, with a literature that needed to reflect this new country. In this novel, Melville is a believable man with flaws. A man who has found an obsession, much like Ahab does, and pursues it, although it may lead to his undoing. At one point, he thinks: “destroying oneself, he thought ruefully, should always be done at a deliberate pace.”

The very process of writing is considered in the text as well as what it means to be human. At one point, Melville says to Hawthorne: “in your stories, you seem to understand that the dramatic moments come not when a character must choose between right and wrong but when he must choose between two wrongs.” As Melville delves deeper into his writing and his obsession with Hawthorne, he has a moment of clarity where “he suddenly saw the enterprise of literature as essentially mad.”

In addition to the glimpse into writers and writing, there are some funny parts. I admit, when the two men first interact and have a discussion about metaphysics, and they use cheese as an example, I just laughed aloud at this discussion of the metaphysics of cheese. It is an awkward social situation and speaks to how Melville so desperately wants to impress Hawthorne, and perhaps vice versa: “I have been considering the possibility that the facts that can be ascertained about this cheese fail to satisfy because the facts themselves mask a metaphysical truth that can be known only through the transcendent, poetic expression of the cheddar. That is, though the world itself can never truly be known, one might begin to know some truth about the world through a metaphysical cheese.” Of course, it also reminds me of me when I’m at parties, but that’s an entirely different post.

I don’t think you have to be a huge Melville/Hawthorne fan to like this book. You might enjoy historical fiction, or fiction that considers the lives of writers. I loved the way Beauregard wove in the actual journals into the text. It reminded me a little of The Secret of Lost Things, which considers what it might be like to find a lost Melville manuscript. 


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Up Late with The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Press Release: PCTELA receives Dream Affiliate Award from NCTE

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National Council of Teachers of English Fund Announces
2016 Teachers for the Dream Affiliate Award

The Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English Language Arts is one of five recipients of the 2016 Teachers for the Dream Affiliate Award given by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

The Pennsylvania Council, whose president is Jennifer Brown of Palmyra, Pennsylvania, will recruit English language arts teachers of color by selecting three teaching candidates or early career teachers of color to mentor extensively throughout this initiative and that they will be paired with a local PCTELA board member to mentor them through the process of completing their projects.

The NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Affiliate Award presents grants to affiliates of NCTE that initiate a program that will recruit teachers of color into the affiliate or the profession. Programs are judged for their thoroughness and their potential to recruit and retain teachers of color in the profession and the affiliate.

NCTE invites affiliates to implement initiatives aimed at recruiting English language arts teachers of color.  Several documented studies have demonstrated the need to develop recruitment strategies to meet the growing shortage of teachers of color in elementary and secondary American schools where the multiethnic student population continues to increase. In response to this need, the NCTE Fund offers grants of up to $750 each to selected affiliates that submit proposals to implement recruitment initiatives for teachers of color during the school year of the award.

The award winners will be announced at the 2016 NCTE Annual Convention in Atlanta, during the Affiliate Roundtable Breakfast on Sunday, November 20, 2016.

For more information about the NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Award, see http://www.ncte.org/affiliates/awards/teacherdream.     

Contact: Millie Davis, Senior Developer, Affiliates, 217-278-3634, mdavis @ ncte.org


The National Council of Teachers of English (http://www.ncte.org), with 25,000 individual and institutional members worldwide, is the nation’s oldest literacy organization. With the expertise of its members, NCTE has led the nation in its most important decisions and trajectories around preK–16+ literacy/writing/literature thinking. NCTE is dedicated to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

The PCTELA Board and Council are so excited and honored to receive this grant from NCTE. We can’t wait to get rolling with this new initiative. We are looking for someone who is interested in helping us organize this project. If you or ANYONE YOU KNOW might be a good fit for this role, please contact our Executive Director ASAP so we can begin a dialogue. We need someone willing to commit to the project from now until November 2017. This role includes helping with administrative tasks such as creating documents, maintaining records of contact between mentors and mentees, and ensuring that our selected mentees experience plenty of support from our organization.

If selected for this role, you should expect to delegate about 5 hours per month to assigned tasks. Most of this work can be conducted at home via email, web, and phone; however, you can choose to get involved in this project as much or as little as you would like. That is something you can discuss with our Executive Director. Some months may require very few tasks completed, whereas other months, such as in the beginning of the project, might be a little more involved.

If you or anyone you know might be interested in working in this capacity, please chat with our Executive Director, Allison Irwin, as soon as you can. You’re welcome to inquire and ask any questions you have before making any sort of commitment to get involved.

Allison Irwin ae_irwin@hotmail.com

Press Release: PCTELA receives Dream Affiliate Award from NCTE

Advocacy Spotlight: Education and the Election

Advocacy Spotlight: Education and the Election

As we draw closer and closer to the 2016 presidential election, the country is buzzing with speculation about the future and what it will look like based on who is elected. Amidst the chaos of campaign season, we here at PCTELA want to provide an unbiased exploration into the one political platform that touches all of our hearts: education. This article will analyze the party platforms finalized at this summer’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions and unpack each party’s stance on relevant educational issues.

This month’s advocacy spotlight is on the official educational platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties with regards to the 2016 presidential election.

Basic Philosophy of Education

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “We believe a good education is a basic right of all Americans, no matter what zip code they live in. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline and build a cradle-to-college pipeline instead, where every child can live up to his or her God-given potential” (2).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a cultural identity” (33).

Education in regard to Science, Research, and Technology

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “We will invest in high-quality STEAM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand link learning models and career pathways” (33).
    “High-speed internet connectivity is not a luxury; it is a necessity for 21st century economic success, social mobility, education, health care, and public safety. […] Democrats will finish the job of connecting every household in America to high-speed broadband, increase internet adoption, and help hook up anchor institutions so they can offer free WiFi to the public” (9).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “The digital revolution has transformed how we work, learn, sell, shop, socialize — in short, how we live. Technological change drives our positions with regard to STEM education, business and corporate involvement with educational certifications, workforce issues, privacy, cyber and national security, energy development, regulation, and other elements of our campaign for growth and jobs” (5).
    “We urge school districts to make use of teaching talent in the business community, STEM fields, and the military, especially among our returning veterans” (33).

Education and Incarceration

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “Instead of investing in more jails and incarceration, we need to invest more in jobs and education, and end the school-to-prison pipeline. We will remove barriers to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully re-enter society by “banning the box,” expanding reentry programs, and restoring voting rights” (16).
    “We will end the school-to prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT. We will support the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment” (33).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “We encourage states to offer opportunities for literacy and vocational education to prepare prisoners for release to the community. Breaking the cycle of crime begins with the children of those who are prisoners. Deprived of a parent through no fault of their own, youngsters from these families should be a special concern of our schools, social services, and religious institutions” (40).


  • Democratic Standpoint
    “We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction. To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must be reliable and valid” (33).
    “We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing; the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools; and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers” (33).
    “We support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school” (33).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “It [rightful education reform] rejects excessive testing and “teaching to the test” and supports the need for strong assessments to serve as a tool so teachers can tailor teaching to meet student needs” (33).
    “We reject a onesize-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level” (33).

Academic Standards

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “Democrats believe all students should be taught to high academic standards. Schools should have adequate resources to provide programs and support to help meet the needs of every child. We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students—particularly low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities” (32).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments, encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to Common Core, and congratulate the states which have successfully repealed it” (33).

School Choice

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “We believe that a strong public education system is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy, and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams” (32).
    “We support democratically governed, great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators” (34).
    “We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools” (34).
    “Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources” (34).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “We support options for learning, including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools” (34).
    Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time” (34).
    Rightful education reform “recognizes the wisdom of local control of our schools and it wisely sees consumer rights in education — choice — as the most important driving force for renewing education” (33).

Educational Funding

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “The Democratic Party is committed to eliminating opportunity gaps […] It means supporting equitable and adequate state funding for public education, and expanding Title I funding for schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty” (33).
    “We oppose […] the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools” (33).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “Since 1965, the federal government, through more than 100 programs in the Department of Education, has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates. […] Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free. More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement” (33-34).
    “We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits” (34).
    “We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them” (34).

Support for Teachers

  • Democratic Standpoint
    “We know that good teachers are essential to improving student learning and helping all students to meet high academic standards. Democrats will launch a national campaign to recruit and retain high quality teachers. We will ensure that teachers receive the tools and ongoing professional development they need to succeed in the classroom and provide our children with a world-class education” (33).
    “We oppose […] the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers” (33).
  • Republican Standpoint
    “We applaud America’s great teachers, who should be protected against frivolous lawsuits and should be able to take reasonable actions to maintain discipline and order in the classroom” (33).
    “We urge state education officials to promote the hiring  of qualified veterans as teachers in our public schools. Their proven abilities and life experiences will make them more successful instructors and role models for students than would any teaching certification” (45-46).
    “Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom” (33).

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Written by: Christie Stelljes

Advocacy Spotlight: Education and the Election

Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School

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Chances are you have heard of Stranger Things, the Netflix television show created by the Duffer Brothers that was released this past July. There is a chance that you may have already watched it, because I know for me, I didn’t need much convincing. Stranger Things crossed my path three times before I knew that I had to see it. The first was via an interview with the creators in which they discuss how they have always wanted to see a show with characters as compelling as those from “Freaks and Geeks,” but with some supernatural and scary elements to it. The second time the show came into my consciousness was through a magazine advertisement. It was a full page, hand painted poster that evokes the style of Drew Struzan, the artist who painted the posters for nearly every awesome 80’s movie. The third meeting between Stranger Things and myself was reading that two of my favorite fiction-makers, Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro, emphatically endorsed the show. That was all I needed. Perhaps Stranger Things has crossed your path this past month since its release, but you still haven’t been convinced that you need to visit the midwest in the early 1980’s. Or maybe you are averse to jumping on the pop-culture bandwagon when everyone tells you that you NEED to see this movie, listen to this album, or watch this show. Whatever the reasons that you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet, I am here to convince you that you should, and here are five reasons why:

  1. Because Stranger Things does not simply rely on nostalgia for viewership. Those of us of a certain age that can remember being an adolescent in the 1980’s will adore it. A television show has not encapsulated the 80’s this well since the short lived series, Freaks and Geeks. Although Stranger Things may be steeped in nostalgia, it is so much more than a Wayback Machine. I have talked with some millennials who do not remember phones with cords on them, ham radios, or walkie-talkies, and they still love the show…and so will you.
  2. Because everyone is referencing it! If you were to pass by my favorite pizza shop in NYC, and they had this special board outside, or this one, or this one, or this one, you wouldn’t understand the references having not seen the show. Watch the show, get a good chuckle, and get a slice of the Demogorgonzola! From a small pizza shop in Brooklyn, to the venerable New York Times calling Stranger Things the show of the summer and an eerie nostalgia fix, it seems as if everyone is watching, so shouldn’t you.
  3. Because the music is just as beautiful as the camera shots. I haven’t been this enamored with a soundtrack since Twin Peaks. The first installment of the soundtrack was released last Friday with the second volume to be released today. The official soundtrack(s) contain all of the gorgeous original synth music created by the band S U R V I V E, but for those wishing to explore the popular 80’s music featured in the show there are some mixes out there. One Youtube user has created a playlist showcasing some of the music, and a DJ from the UK, has mashed up the music and the dialogue of the show into a whimsical mix. When your students walk into your classroom in the morning while you are listening to the Stranger Things’ soundtrack, you will receive some major cool points, and I’m not sure that you want to earn those points by bonding over Pokémon Go.
  4. Because you don’t have the time to rewatch all the films that it is indebted to. The Goonies, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, Alien, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Stephen King’s It would be great to rewatch before school starts, but between last minute planning, and squeezing out every last drop of summer, you might not have a spare 14.5 hours to devote to rewatching all of those films. BUT…for a paltry 6.5 hours, you can watch a television show that embraces all that is good within those films, and uses those elements to create something just as unique and beautiful as the original source material.
  5. Because even the font of the title sequence is totally awesome! When was the last time people were so engrossed in the font of a television show’s title sequence? That’s right…even the font is being discussed, and rightly so. The title sequence is great overall, but there is something about the font that gently took my hand and brought me back to my childhood. I later found out that the reason for the font’s familiarity is because it has been in my hands countless times as a youth and an adult via the covers of Stephen King and Choose Your Own Adventure books! ITC Benguiat is the font’s name, and its creator is pleased with the way it is used in Stranger Things. There is even a web tool that will allow you to “strangify” text of your own!

Brian teaches Social Studies to 10th and 11th graders at State College Area High School. He is the father of two boys, married to an artist, and a history, film, music, and art enthusiast.

Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School