Our Shells – Or What Happened When the Octopus Left Its Shell

By Jonathon Medeiros

I can already hear the responses: Be more engaging. Control your students. You can’t let them act that way. Work on your classroom management!

Sure, but let me think about my school day, one single day. I welcome each student out in the hall, hello, aloha, good morning, yes I’m well, you? The students enter a calm and uncluttered space, the rainbow on the whiteboard declaring that “if you are kind, your day will be like a bright rainbow,” courtesy of my 9 year old. They see the ever present note that “being understood feels like love” and they know exactly how class will go. 

We will talk, share our kind attention, we will read, and write, and listen, and have time to quietly reflect, time to take a public academic risk, if we are ready. They always know I am there pushing them to think, to change, to struggle with difficult ideas that matter but that I am always there with them as a partner in the learning. This is not to imply that other classes do not do this, only that this classroom, the one I share with my students, is purpose built to be engaging, challenging, safe, and honest.

And who walks into this class each morning? Five students buried deep beneath hats, hoodies, and shades, earbuds in, screens in palms. Some others without the hoodies but still the devices. Some with no ability to talk on a given day. Some in surf shorts and cowboy boots. Some on time, many five, ten, twenty minutes late, but consistently so that one might say they are punctual. Some show up with smiles, some genuine, some in defense against the world of school, or the world in general. Some arrive at 8:05 with a full plate of fried chicken.

We aren’t reading irrelevant, dead pieces of the canon and completing worksheets or meaningless essays. We investigate our places, the stories that are here, the ones erased and the reasons for the erasure of those stories. We learn about people’s beliefs and investigate our own; we think about and talk about how people in power try to keep that power. We grapple with the unkindess of the world and our kuleana, our reciprocal responsibility, in the face of that. And when one student is talking about how they feel marginalzed because they are queer, or because they have an accent, or they are from the Marshall Islands, another is numbing themselves with the videos on their phone. 

And my “please stop watching videos” is met with “f– you fag bitch!” And “please join the circle and learn with us” is met with lying across three chairs or hiding on the floor under a desk.

And I think about how the octopus used to have a shell. 

Adults sometimes use this metaphor to talk about hard to reach students, asking questions about getting them out of their shells. Early in its evolution, the shelled mollusk that became the octopus let its shell go, abandoning its most effective safety mechanism. Naked, the world became dangerous. 

Without a shell, the octopus heightened its attention to danger, sending its nervous development into overdrive, creating a creature that has more neurons in its limbs and body and skin than it has in its entire relatively large brain. The octopus is now a master of disguise, able to taste and see danger with its skin, a shapeshifting living movie screen that projects all the colors we can and can’t imagine. All of these adaptations are defenses; its speed, its disguise, its jets, its sensing seeing skin, its clouds of ink, all of it developed to be the shell it abandoned. 

Now, hyper aware of danger, this being that puts so much energy, so much of its intelligence and creative ability, into defense spends it all in a blur and is dead by the time two years is up. 

And when I look across my school day, I do not think these students are building walls or hiding inside of shells. As they enter the classroom, they are on high alert, everything is potentially dangerous, sus. I think about the shells that the students have abandoned or have had stolen from them and the defenses they have developed to cope. 

I am the teacher in my classroom; I am a swimmer in the ocean, an interloper, and I am trying to be still so that the shell-less among us can somehow find a way to not see every moment at school as a potential danger or threat.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for sixteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes poetry, memoir, and essays about education. He is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com.

Editors’ Note: Jonathon’s post beautifully exemplifies the earnest reflection and relational teaching that characterize effective implementation of the ERWC curriculum. For more information on the ERWC and its theoretical foundations, please visit the ERWC Online Community.

Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: Part 2

By Robby Ching

Note: This is the second post in a series on ERWC’s rhetorical approach to language learning. For the first post, click here. Please see the teaching resource “Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC: A User’s Guide” in the ERWC Online Community for the full text from which the excerpt below was taken.


ERWC is designed to cultivate linguistic dexterity so students can read texts written for a variety of purposes critically and write texts tailored for their rhetorical situation. As educators charged with teaching our students how English works (California ELD Standards), we have to be mindful of the many languages and varieties of English that students bring to our classrooms.

The ERWC teaching resource “Essential Pedagogies for Integrated and Designated English Language Development in ERWC” advocates “teaching about the relationship between language and power” and “supporting the development of academic English while promoting pride in students’ home languages.” At the sentence level, a rhetorical approach to teaching English grammar invites us to take an assets-based approach as we value these languages and varieties of English while inviting students to further develop their ability to enter disciplinary conversations about topics that matter to them.

Encouraging students to use all the language—as well as other multimodal resources—available to them means keeping the focus on meaningful communication rather than correctness for its own sake. We can invite students to incorporate words, phrases, or entire sentences in their language or variety of English into their own writing while at the same time asking them to be clear about their rhetorical purpose for doing so. We can let them know that they are welcome to use translation apps and bilingual dictionaries and take notes or write early drafts in their home language. We can select texts that include other languages, such as The Distance Between Us, and consider Reyna Grande’s rhetorical purpose for using Spanish in a memoir intended for an audience of mainly English speakers.

We can introduce uncomfortable questions about whether the use of academic English is a way of performing “Whiteness,” an issue raised by Vershawn Ashanti Young in “Prelude: the Barbershop” in the 12th grade Language, Gender, and Culture module. We can draw on multilingual students’ own experiences moving among languages and identities tied to language and acknowledge their remarkable accomplishments. Approaching grammar from the rhetorical perspective rather than the traditional rules-based prescriptive approach is, Micciche asserts, “emancipatory teaching” (717).

ERWC encourages students to ask not what makes a sentence correct, but what makes it work and why.

The language of ERWC texts provide rich opportunities to explore the information-dense complex sentences that are typical of disciplinary English (Schleppegrell). ERWC encourages students to ask not what makes a sentence correct, but what makes it work and why. As students observe how skilled writers make use of these language resources—or choose to use simpler language—they can develop their capacity to better understand the arguments embedded in the language of the texts they are reading.

At the same time, they can observe how and why writers use more familiar language, other dialects, and other languages for rhetorical purposes. When students turn to their own writing, they can apply what they have learned to create varied sentences that are effective for their purposes. Most students who are learning to create complex texts will only be able to do this if we help them develop the tools of the craft.

Our job is to guide their inquiry into how English works and help them transfer what they have learned to their own writing with the questions “What did you observe? And how can you apply it to your own writing?”


ERWC teachers can find activities and strategies for teaching language rhetorically, including 2.0 modules with rhetorical grammar lessons, by visiting the Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC section in the online community.

Click on “Modules 3.0” and select “Overview Documents.”

Then click on “Rhetorical Grammar in ERWC.”

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Using Antiracist Reading Practices to Help Writers Engage in Meaningful Revision

By Dutch Henry

In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.

I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader. 

In  Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.

Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.

It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.

Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.

What Does It Mean to Value the Languages Students Bring with Them?

By Robby Ching

As teachers, we know in theory that we should value the languages that students use at home and in their communities, but what does that look like when we know that our task is to teach them to become proficient users of English? It turns out there are a number of ways to incorporate linguistically sustaining practices into ERWC classes, but teachers may not always realize what these practices are.  

Using Texts that Incorporate Other Languages

Perhaps most obviously, we can select texts for our students to read that reflect their experiences as users of other languages. Even better, some texts also incorporate those languages into the texts. Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance between Us, and the poetry of Diana Garcia in “On Leaving” and “On Staying Behind” both exemplify ERWC module texts where the use of Spanish is integral to the craft of the texts. 

However, we should not simply assume students will get the message that Spanish is a valuable resource that skilled writers use; in the spirit of an inquiry-based curriculum, we need to ask students to think about why Grande and Garcia used Spanish when their audience would include many English-only readers. What was their rhetorical purpose? How did they go about doing it so that English speakers were not excluded at the same time Spanish speakers were privileged (for a change!). And then the most important question–what can students learn from these examples about ways and reasons to incorporate their own languages and varieties of English (for example, African-American vernacular or Hawaiian Pidgin) into writing they do for school and beyond. 

Encouraging the Use of Other Languages in Class

Another strategy is to encourage students to use their dominant language as a tool in class. Although the days when students were physically disciplined for using their home languages in school are over, many teachers still believe students should leave their other languages at the door of their English classroom because how can they learn English if they spend time speaking and writing in Korean or Cambodian or Russian or whatever their primary language might be? But we now know that encouraging students to use that language strategically can actually facilitate their acquisition of academic English and not only because it strengthens their own sense of agency. 

Capitalizing on Multilingual Student Expertise

A recent document published by the California Department of Education, Educating Multilingual and English Learners: Research to Practice (Improving Education Publication – Resources (CA Department of Education)) makes this shift clear:

(Pamela Spycher, María González-Howard, and Diane August. “Chapter 6: Content and Language Instruction in Middle and High School: Promoting Educational Equity and Achievement Through Access and Meaningful Engagement,” 354)

Our multilingual students move among varieties of English and from one language to another constantly. Making them aware of this amazing capacity benefits them while using them as experts when questions of language and translanguaging emerge works to the benefit of every student in the class, whatever the varieties of English and other languages they have at the tips of their tongues. 

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Not My Power, Our Power: A Teacher’s Response to Matthew Kay’s Webinar “How to Talk About Race in Your Classroom”

“It is hard for a student to unlearn empathy, to forget discernment, to dismiss the importance of solid evidence once they’ve grown used to demanding it… if we are training the next generation of teachers, entertainers, lawyers, and politicians; if we are molding thoughtful citizens, wise counselors, and people of righteous passion; then our classrooms must be deliberate in their approach to conversations about race. The next generation needs to be far better at this stuff than we have been. They are coming of age in a world of artfully disguised injustices, most of which will stay both invisible and vicious if people never learn to learn to meaningfully discuss them.”

–Matthew Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Conversations about Race in the Classroom

By Frank Mata

It is clear that Matthew Kay is aware of the barriers that block educators from broaching race with both colleagues and students–fear of backlash, defensiveness, the potential re-traumatizing effect, “not knowing enough to foster discussion,” or ultimately, a potential loss of professional standing. (There are so many ☹.)

In an hour-long professional development session recorded in 2016 (“How to Talk about Race in Your Classroom”), Kay first challenges listeners to identify exactly what it is that “gets in the way.” Immediately, he spotlights participants’ humility when asked of their fears. At that moment, I found this approach as defying conventional classroom power dynamics. Through a teacher’s admission of humility, to not be the expert on race, this approach invites students’ voices to be an added and authentic means of “teaching the teachers.” It showcases what “assets-based teaching” looks like. In the autonomy of our four walls, dare we welcome this while resisting the presumed duty of measuring students’ responses?

The question then surfaces–are we, as teachers, ready to detach ourselves from the professional authority we hold in the classroom, the very entity that we often base our professional identity, our academic pride, or sense of intellectual security, in the manner that equalizes us with our students? Clearly, the culture of education does not promote such vulnerabilities, as evidenced in the presumptions of merit as associated with years taught, letters after our full name in our email signatures, or even our ability to cold-read aloud a poem with that academic accent juxtaposed to youth language.

The onus is within our position as facilitators, not teachers, when it comes to conversations about race. Matthew Kay introduces and implies to fellow facilitators, in the same inviting way we ought to embrace students’ voices, experiences, and knowledge for all of us to learn from.

In order for the safe space environment to allow for this to happen, Kay highlights his three listening norms of the classroom: 1) to listen patiently, 2) to listen actively, and 3) to police [our teacher] voice. He concludes that through this purposeful structure of how to listen, “it creates a built-in reflection space,” which exposes to us how these norms create the culture of invitation for all of our vulnerabilities.

Hearing this specific tip creates a tangible skill-set for us not as teachers, but as fellow race-discourse participants, to authentically engage with each other. However, to do so, we teachers must be ready, willing, open, and secure enough to set free our conditioned, even mythical, sense of power when engaging in meaningful conversations about race. Though we might spend our own dollars, energy, or efforts in creating the literal learning environment to our tastes or liking, this same space is not exclusive or limited to our own platform. As teachers, our presence is not paramount.

Frank Mata has been in the classroom for seventeen plus years. His current project is developing an ELA 12th grade course focusing on social justice and equity. He teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA.

Work Cited

Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.