ReBlogged from NCTE: Pay It Forward This Year: A Reminder That Generosity Is Contagious

Today my writing is up over on the NCTE blog, but I’ve reposted it here:


“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959.

In recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we share this piece written by member Kate Walker.

This year, our school had a massive construction project happening, and we would be moving mid-year across the street to our new building. Moving a high school of 2,400 students would be no small feat, and administrators, teachers, and students were all aware this would be a big move. Our librarians were ready for the year, though. They decided to choose a particular book for our all-school read based on the stress they anticipated: Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

The book, inspired by a real incident the author experienced, focuses on Trevor McKinney, a twelve-year-old whose teacher asks his students to think of an idea that will change the world and put it into action. Trevor devises the concept of paying it forward—help three people and all they have to do is help three other people. While the plot is far more complex than that (they always are), that explains the basic premise. The idea is “you don’t need much to change the entire world for the better. You can start with the most ordinary ingredients. You can start with the world you’ve got.”


With a stressful year ahead of us and a good book to share, we began the school year. And it started slowly, but the generosity began to flow. People started finding gift cards in their mailboxes. Students were granted mysterious gift cards around the holidays. I started randomly taking people’s bus duty on Friday afternoons (often far more exciting than a gift of a cup of coffee). What happened for me, though, was that I experienced a mindset shift. In parking lots, away from my school, I began to seek out people who were taking carts to their cars, and I’d park near them and then take their cart back to the store. (Moms with kids were probably the most grateful for this action.)

Then came the NCTE Annual Convention—where English teachers from every level, grade, state, and country gather to celebrate our students, our field, and our favorite authors. And I saw the same thing happen at NCTE that I did at my high school—generosity is contagious. After seeing Grace Lin, author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (and whose TED talk “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” I use in class) was signing books, I fangirled hard. I might have shrieked with joy a little, and I might have drawn a little crowd (after all, when someone fangirls hard at NCTE, there’s usually a Jason Reynolds or an Angie Thomas or an Andrew Smith around). So I bought some of Grace Lin’s books to be signed, and as I talked to a young teacher, she seemed interested, but when she realized the books were not free (as many are at the Convention), her face fell. “Don’t worry, I got you,” I told her, and shoved $5 at the woman at the booth. I gave the young teacher the book. “Here. Pay it forward some other year.”

Kate Walker geeks out with Grace Lin in St. Louis at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention.

The same thing happened when I showed up at the Brandy Colbert signing. I just loved Little and Lion, and when I realized there was an advanced reader copy of her upcoming book Finding Yvonne available with purchase of a copy of Little & Lion, I definitely shrieked again. And drew a little crowd. Again. And bought a copy for a young teacher. Again. But this time, I saw a few other teachers take note. And another older teacher bought a book for a younger teacher. And that happened later that day, too (unprompted by my shrieks).

Kate Walker geeks out with Brandy Colbert in St. Louis at the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention.

I saw so many people at NCTE being generous, kind, and helpful. I know that’s our way of being—after all, we’re teachers. But after last year, when so many people were on edge, this year the feeling at the Convention was one of camaraderie. One of generosity. One of community.

One thing I’ve learned about communities—you’ve got to invest in yours. And whether that is by taking someone’s bus duty, filling up the water in the department Keurig, or buying a book for another teacher or for a student, then that’s what you should do. Pay it forward.

Kate Walker teaches in State College, PA, and edits the Pennsylvania State Affiliate (PCTELA) Blog. She was the 2014 NCTE Secondary Teacher of Excellence for Pennsylvania.

Still Life with a Book: A Favorite Lesson

Today my students participated in one of my favorite projects: the Still Life with a Book.  About eight years ago I invented (read: modified something else from someone not in the teaching field) the concept when looking at some random reader’s webpage. She had created little still lifes with the books she had been reading, and they really captured the tone of each. I wish I still knew the person/site I first saw it on, but if you’re out there, thank you!

Anyway, I thought that would be a great idea for sharing about choice novels in a fun way, and also to talk about tone, symbols, and themes. So I assigned students to make a still life when they finished their book. The requirements included: the book, a quote, and 5-6 objects representative of the novel. Many students used relevant backdrops, too. The results were spectacular, and students emailed me images and I placed them in a presentations and shared them with class.

This year, though, I asked students to do this collaboratively, and I think I’m going to continue this way in the future. Students just finished reading a book in a small group, and it was a book that should have provided them with a window or mirror (we viewed Grace Lin’s phenomenal “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” TED talk before taking home the books). So I decided instead of completing these individually, students would come together in groups and create the still life together.  This was magical for many reasons:

  1. more students = more perspectives & more ideas & more access to objects
  2. students curated their still lifes and then gave us a “tour” of it, so the students could present in a group and the audience could see the objects in front of them, rather than in the distance of a picture on a screen
  3. the tone of each still life demonstrated a powerful sense of the novel, and inspired conversations about why other students should pick up these books.

This worked well for me because I teach in a block schedule where I have 90 minute periods every other day. Essentially, students spent about 30 minutes setting up, 30 minutes giving “tours,” and 30 minutes completing a writing response (which was not necessarily related to the still lifes, although it could have been–I asked them to write a culminating reflection about their choice books, but more on that in a later blog).

Some troubleshooting ideas if you want to try this in your class: many students printed color images of what they wanted in their still life (like a beer bottle, or brass knuckles), which meant they didn’t have to bring in contraband to school, but could still depict important symbols in the book. I also brought in a few tablecloths and placemats for students to use as backdrops–but I also had colored construction paper for backdrops as well. Finally, doing this in a large space and treated each still life as a museum installment groups have curated provided a real sense of being with a tour guide in a museum.

Please, feel free to use this idea, and let me know how it goes for you! It works at all ages and all levels.

Peace, Love, and Books…Posted by Kate


On Writing Poems and Being Vulnerable: in other words, doing what I ask my students to do daily

So today I met with my poetry writing buddy (you should get one, they’re very helpful for meeting and brainstorming and freewriting and venting and caffeinating). I’ll be submitting to the Pennsylvania Poetry Society’s Annual Poetry Contest for the fourth time in five years, and this is the first year I’ve not been scrambling to pull together poems on the day before I need to mail them. There’s a few reasons for that:

  1. I have a writing buddy (see above).
  2. I have a bunch of old poems I can tinker with and submit.
  3. I’m feeling braver than I used to feel.

The thing is, I’m probably never going to be a published poet. I know that. But I don’t write poetry with the goal of holding poetry readings in front of strangers in cities I’m not familiar with and then signing lots of books and making small talk while I worry whether people think my signature is too messy (honestly, that sounds really scary and unappealing to me).

I write poetry for other reasons. One, I can write a poem, or a draft of a poem in one sitting. I’m an English teacher–I don’t have a lot of brain space for writing novels or books or long treatises (if you do, I bow down to you. I’m always convinced those teachers who publish books while still teaching just must not sleep (I’m looking at you, Andrew Smith)). Two, I can use poetry to process my thoughts and feelings. Recently I’ve discovered I have lots of those (amazing what a little talk therapy can do for you). So I like poetry because I can struggle with my thoughts, ideas, and identity–I can write a metaphor that helps me understand how I feel. Three, I write to understand what I ask my students to do ON A DAILY BASIS. I teach high school juniors and seniors, and I have them write almost daily. And many of those prompts I ask them to respond to are personal, or can be personal if they so choose. And I am astounded by the vulnerability, the honesty, the raw power of the writing of all my students. So if they can do it, well, I sure can, too. And writing poetry gives me a kind of ethos, too (not sure if that counts as part of #3 or as a #4, but maybe I’m including too many lists here). I can say to my students, here’s the part I find difficult, or here’s where I struggle in revision, or here’s something I want to celebrate. They know I’m participating in the world as a writer, and that is perhaps the most valuable element in my classroom.

The first few times I mailed out my poems it was… like ripping off some of my skin and packaging it up and sending it to a stranger … like downloading portions of my brain to a robot that would tell me I wasn’t human enough … let’s just say it was awkward and difficult to do. But that first year I earned an honorable mention in a category. It was a magical feeling of approval and acceptance. In following years, I’ve even earned a first place for a poem (and actual money!) and more honorable mentions. And, I’ve begun to enter other poetry contests. (But it’s NOT about the money, money, money…)

I now realize submitting poetry to contests for me has nothing to do with winning (not that it isn’t a nice feeling). I do it to BE VULNERABLE. I submit a piece of myself to the world to remind myself that I have something worth writing, worth sharing. We all do. It doesn’t matter if we win accolades, it matters that we open ourselves up to the world. Change comes from taking risks and pushing yourself outside the safe space we usually occupy. Taking risks isn’t inherent in human nature–that’s not how we’re hard wired. That’s why making ourselves vulnerable is so hard–if you exposed your stomach in the days of the hunters and gatherers, you’d be likely to get stabbed by something pointy. Today, me submitting my poetry is the equivalent of exposing my belly without having to blind you all with my paleness and squishy-ness (and honestly, exposing my pale round belly would take a hell of a lot more bravery than sharing a few of my poems, but that’s a story for another blog).

Thanks for coming along for today’s blog. And think about doing something that makes you vulnerable–whether that’s writing a poem, singing at karaoke, or asking that person out. I doubt anyone will stab you with anything pointy.


Written by Kate

Reminders, Not Resolutions

I don’t make resolutions anymore. I used to, when I was in my 20s and my 30s (even in my teens, I think, but I have no clue what I wanted to improve back then). Now, I just start the new year off with reminders.  That way, I can’t fail, I can just gently remind myself again. And again.

You may notice the first item on the list is about not seeking perfection. I would never have called myself a perfectionist, but other people sure have.  But I’m not someone who is detail-oriented, I just want to get things done. I imagined perfectionists were meticulous people who tinkered with things longer than they should. But then I had a conversation with a student this fall who asked me a few things, like, “do you want to complete things to a certain ideal in your head?” And of course, yes, I do. She asked a few more telling questions which made me realize maybe I was, in fact, a perfectionist in some ways (even if I’m sloppy in others). I think trying not to seek perfection is another reminder to myself that I need to be brave, share my writing, share my art, and share my self.

The items on this list are all related in some way–I want to write more, share more of my writing, and carve out time for me to do that. That involves saying NO to things I’ve said yes to in the past two decades. No conferences for me this year. No presentations. No extra duties, no clubs to supervise, no board memberships. It also means saying no to social events, things I don’t really want to do, and owning my introvert self.  I rarely want to leave the house. This is not because I’m shy, but because my house has all the things that make me happy: my husband, my cats, my books. Social events drain me, and sometimes even coffee with people I love drains my social battery. That isn’t easy to say, and it is even harder to explain if you’re not an introvert. (The worst is that I’m not shy, so people don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert. The truth is, though, people drain me.) And being a teacher, it is hard to convince people I’m actually an introvert, and any socialization outside the school day is difficult. I have to pick one day per week. And if we’ve had after school meetings that week, forget it.

Anyway, this blog is the first of many I hope to do this year. I’ve been blogging over at PCTELA for four years now, and I think I have the hang of it, so now it is time to do it for myself.

Posted by Kate Walker