Posted in Fantasy, Reading

Slaying the Dragons: Why Fantasy is Vital to the 2020 Reader

Open any social media platform and you will certainly be bombarded with a mixture of dangerous rhetoric and dismal reality. As an instructional coach, I’ve been straddling the conversational line, privy to the experiences of students, teachers, administrators as well as parents, community stakeholders, and people who just shout as loud as they can so that they can be a part of the conversation too. With all of the negativity and the noise, we all are trying to take care of ourselves to make it to another day and still have something to give our families, our students, our community. Full disclosure: I am the worst at self care. However, I realized today that it’s been over FOUR MONTHS since we began incorporating stay-at-home habits and changing our entire way of life. I wondered, “How on earth am I okay? What self-care habits have I been employing accidentally that have gotten me to this point without losing my sanity?”

At first, I couldn’t really think of anything that had changed. I’m still working crazy hours, still randomly shoving shame-snacks away in my pantry like a gremlin…then it occurred to me to check my Goodreads account. Normally, I read approximately 30-40 books a year. However, it’s July and I’m currently sitting at 44…having read over 20 since March. This is craziness! When taking a closer look at my readerly choices, I found that most of what I’ve been reading falls into the category of fantasy.

I grew up a huge fan of fantasy, and have continued that love into my adulthood. However, it’s something that I rarely make time for as I have professional development books to read or YA realistic fiction to read and vet for teachers. Yet, in a time of crisis, I unknowingly returned to the world of fantasy. Wait…that’s not accurate. I’ve devoured fantasy. I’ve read four of the Harry Potter books aloud to my daughter. I’ve read two entire series by Sarah J. Maas, some days consuming multiple books. But why?

I reached out to a Facebook group I belong to full of people that love and discuss all things fantasy, and through their responses have put together a few points that I believe fully reinforce why both our students and ourselves need fantasy now more than ever.

Sense of Belonging and Community

Fantasy stories have a shelf life that far outlasts the publication of the last book in a series. Many fantasy stories such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and many others have drawn together readers who are bonded in their common love for the texts. These groups, or “fandoms,” as it were, continue to give these stories life and momentum through the collection of shared reader experiences. Podcasts such as Binge Mode, Cast of Kings, and others dig deep into these stories and have a fan base that can compare in size to any professional sport. As a proud Harry Potter fan, I love the common language that we share. When I see a stranger wearing a Gryffindor shirt, I have 100 percent certainty that, when I exclaim excitedly, “I’m a Ravenclaw!” that I will not be looked at with fear or annoyance but will have instantly made a new friend.

My students always knew that I was a speaker of many “common languages” of fantasy.

Consider gatherings such as Comic Con, or even online forums such as fan fiction sites or the aforementioned Binge Mode Facebook group. These are places where we can go, share our love of these stories, and instantly find belonging. In a world and culture in which we are experiencing isolation in multiple areas, multiplied by the various effects of being at home 24/7, belonging and community are necessary to our survival.

The Need to Escape

As a little girl, things weren’t always lovely for me. I struggled a lot through understanding divorce, faith, perfectionism, anxiety, and guilt. I struggled to fit in, to find my footing in the popular social circles of elementary, then middle, then high school, never quite mastering the concept of “fitting in.” As early as 7-8 years old, I was drawn to fantasy stories. I remember laying face-down on a tire swing, reading The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis over and over, until the pages were yellowed and torn. In middle school, I was entranced by Harry Potter, captured in essence as he transitioned from the boy living in a cupboard under the stairs, penniless and loveless, into a boy with friends, talent, purpose, and love. When escaping into these stories, I was able to simultaneously take a break from my own experiences, yet deal with them through the safety and distance of a fantasy story. J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a talk at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland many years ago, titled “On Fairy Stories.” In explaining the need for escapism, he states: “We should look at green again, and be startled anew…by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves” (p. 19). By escaping to a new world of fantasy, we begin to understand how to deal with our own issues.

Caring for Social Emotional Needs

Why does this resonate now? In my original Facebook thread, Kelly Ganzberger said it best when asserting that fantasy allows us to escape the “daily dystopian nightmare of 2020.” When your experiences and your worldview only extends to what you see in your home, school, community, and social media feeds, often the world can feel very small. Children and adults alike who experience mental health disorders like anxiety and depression can feel at times like the metaphorical (and physical) walls are closing in, that no one understands or knows their struggles. As a child who put crippling pressure on myself, fantasy stories offered me a reprieve from the bubbling panic in my chest while subtly showing me a light at the end of a tunnel. Dora Valencia, another member of the Binge Mode Facebook group, stated that she “needed to escape to a world that didn’t seem to end even if the books did. The moment my fears and anxieties were taking the most out of me, I had a place to go.”

G.K. Chesterton once said that “fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” How many of our students walk around battling “dragons” every day? How many of us do the same? When Aslan defeats the White Witch, when Harry Potter emerges from the Battle of Hogwarts victorious, it gives us all hope that we too can do the same.

Building Global Citizenship and an Activist Mindset

One look at someone’s Twitter post comments or seeing your great-great-aunt’s latest post on Facebook is living proof that many former students grew into adults who do not know how to engage in civil discourse, how to empathize with others, and how to understand multiple perspectives and beliefs. Tolkien refers to this as “morbid delusion,” saying that if this sort of behavior were to happen in a fantasy story, there’s no way that the story would end without the behavior being cured (“On Fairy Stories,” p. 18).

If you’re an English teacher, you’ve probably heard of (and taught) “The Hero’s Journey.” The hero, usually a naive, inexperienced youth, embarks on some type of quest. They encounter obstacles, and eventually gain something from their quest, most of the time that something being different than what they originally sought. Sound familiar? Not only do most fantasy stories follow this outline, but our lives often embody this parallel, over and over again.

Kellen Korinek said it best in her Facebook contribution: “Fantasy stories teach us lessons about the real world. They show us that Harry Potter, or Frodo, or Percy Jackson’s real powers aren’t that they can do magic and fight monsters, but that they have friends and families that help them be better and get better.I teach my students that the Hero’s Journey can be applied to real life as well as fiction. Some problem causes us to leave our ordinary world and be faced with challenges and villains (physical or mental) and learning how to deal with them makes us a better person. Then, once we’re back, the ordinary world is better or different and so are we.”

I mean, mic drop.

We can use the distance of fantasy to have safe yet difficult conversations about the things our students live with each day. We can address social injustice, bigotry, bias, prejudice, etc. through the lens of fantasy, and gain the proper language, structures and confidence to carry over those conversations into our lives. When we see Harry or Frodo or Luke Skywalker—though weak, inexperienced, unqualified and terrified—do the right thing, not because they are ready or equipped to win, but because it is the right thing…maybe we can go into our own homes, circles, and communities and do the same.

One of my FAVORITE HP quotes (found on

It is July 2020, and sometimes, I just need to turn off CNN and fill my head with fairies and wizards just to breathe. Students are coming back to school either virtually or in person, carrying with them the weight of a global pandemic among with several other inequities and injustices that they’ve worn long before now. It’s essential that we do our very best to give them, and ourselves, what they need. I believe at my core that fantasy stories should be counted as essential in classrooms and in our own lives, both now and in years to come. Fantasy isn’t an aversion to reality; rather, fantasy helps us live the fullest and richest reality possible.

What is your “reader origin story”? How do you feel about the genre of fantasy? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like more information on how to better implement fantasy texts in the coming school year, please find me on Twitter and send me a message; I’d love to help you brainstorm some ideas!

Posted in Personal, Reading, Texas, writing

#TCTELA20 – Top Five Takeaways

A little over a week ago, I was settling into a hotel room in Frisco, TX prepping for a weekend of being “on.” The Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts hosted their annual conference at the Frisco Convention Center, and I have the privilege of being a part of leadership this year (I am the Teacher Development Section Chair). This was my third TCTELA conference to attend, but my first to attend as a “leader” of sorts. I joined the board in September, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Before I start reflecting on this year’s experiences, I’d like to take a second and talk about what TCTELA has done for me as a whole, in both my career and my person. About 4 years ago, I began to gain a sense of restlessness in my work. I was a high school teacher who LOVED students but wanted an opportunity to stretch my legs and grow. I’d seen TCTELA mentioned in a tweet or two, and saw a link for proposals. I took a shot in the dark and submitted a proposal for a session on digital writing tools, and was approved for a roundtable. My principal paid for my registration to attend the conference that year (Galveston 2018) as long as I paid for my travel, food and hotel. My family came with me and we got an Air BNB to make a weekend of it. I knew approximately ZERO people there. However, the overall electric buzz that filled the halls, rooms, and sessions gave me the sense that I was not just Caty Dearing, English teacher, one of many within my district. It was my first sense of the larger community of ELAR professionals across the state and even the nation, and that my school district was but a small cog in the larger wheel of this work. I started following the organizational leadership on Twitter and came back to my classroom inspired and re-energized to teach and teach well.

That summer I left teaching to serve at one of the 20 regional service centers in Texas as a secondary literacy content coach/consultant. Talk about a huge leap—and feeling like a fish out of water! I shifted my Twitter account to be mostly educational (goodbye, Bachelor recap posts!) and started gaining the confidence to dialogue with the literacy leaders I so admired. By the time TCTELA 2019 arrived, I’d been accepted to another roundtable and had developed Twitter relationships with several of the attendees and board members. I had the courage to introduce myself to several of these people, and ask to get plugged in. Again, each session felt like chugging a Gatorade in the desert; I returned to my cubicle with a sense of purpose and a few new connections in the work.

In September, I had the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes work of TCTELA. As a section chair, I have the privilege to facilitate discussions across the state with coordinators, coaches, principals, professors, all seeking ways to support other teacher developers. I knew it would be a great opportunity to develop more leadership skills, but after reflecting on TCTELA 2020, it has become so much more than that…which leads me to my top five takeaways from this weekend.

5. Getting my professional cup filled by incredible, dynamic speakers.

Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a break from the edu-conversations. I’m extremely passionate about a lot of things, things that are hard, things that hurt, things that feel big and heavy and immovable. Sometimes (and this speaks to my privilege) it just feels like too much, and I have to step back. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about rape culture and consent with such boldness, and Clint Smith talked about the single story narrative of history we often experience, and how to challenge and question this. By the end of the weekend, I really felt more energized and focused to dive back into those difficult conversations as an active participant, not a bystander.

4. An invigorated sense of purpose and interest in the Teacher Development section

All of our section hangout work!

Coming on in September, the few active members of the section and I decided to start from scratch. We consistently had about 5-6 people that would show up on our monthly Zooms, contribute ideas, and share their expertise. I remember the feeling of pride we felt when we released that first newsletter in December!

At the conference, we each had tables for our sections. Every time I passed our table, I saw a section member talking to others and handing out buttons. We had a full table at our Sunday “Coffee and Conversations,” everyone excitedly talking about all of the ways we can address leader burnout and other heavy issues. I’m pumped to take that enthusiasm into the new year, and I think that by TCTELA 2021 our section will have created/shared a wealth of new resources! It was truly so much fun and warmed my heart to share space with so many COOL people.

3. Rebekah O’Dell’s session on teachers as writers

This session gets its own bullet point, because it tapped into a part of myself that’s been dormant for a really long time. In my last post, I talked a lot about the crippling fear I’ve been experiencing every time I try to write. Rebekah approached this idea of teacher-writers from a different angle, providing ideas and options to just start the process. I found myself excited about several ideas, where before I’d found myself drowning in a sea of “I have nothing new to offer here.” I’ve been able to set aside time to write/journal in small chunks. Hey, this blog post is proof of that! I’m excited to see what I’ve written by 2021, even if it’s all writing that’s just for me.

2. Friendships, friendships, friendships

As I said at the beginning of this post, my entrance into the TCTELA world was one of a stranger in a sea of strangers that had developed into professional connections, mostly via Twitter. This weekend I was able to spend actual face-to-face time with the teachers, coaches, coordinators, and professors that I’ve only ever Zoomed and tweeted with. We spend each night down in the lobby, laughing and brainstorming over wine and hummus. It’s amazing how this conference brings people together, and I’m entering the 2020 year with a cadre of people who care very deeply about this work, and about me, and that feels pretty cool.

  1. A newfound sense of confidence in myself as a literacy leader (bye bye imposter syndrome)

Something unlocked in me this weekend. I’ve lived most of my adult life fearing the concept of leadership, and considered myself more of a follower. Every time I encountered a promotion or an opportunity to lead, I chalked it up to “right place right time” or a really great interview. Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling a sense of pride in the work that I’m doing at the service center and a desire for MORE. I’m fairly certain that the other four takeaways listed contributed to this, but I truly had a “come-to-Jesus” moment with myself. I am a literacy leader, and that has nothing to do with a board position or a job.

I have contributions to make to this work.

I can confidently introduce myself to people in the field that I look up to without worrying if I’m good enough, smart enough, etc.

I can write things that might help other people.

I can confidently volunteer my thoughts, ideas, and concerns without apologizing first.

What I hope other conference attendees gained from this past weekend is a similar understanding. Cornelius Minor said in a presentation I attended last year (and this is paraphrased based on my memory), “If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to lead this work, you will always be waiting.”

Your voice matters. You have something to contribute to this community. You are valuable to the ELAR collective, not because of position or job, but because you dedicate your time and heart to students, and that is important, and people need to hear what you have to say. I’m dedicating myself to this mantra, and would love to support you as well!

Let’s be bold, brave, and unapologetic together.

Posted in Leadership, Professional Learning, Reading, Workshop, writing

#TCRWP: A Week at Columbia University

I just got back home to Texas from the best professional development week of my career. I attended the Grades 6-8 Summer Writing Institute at the Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project, at Columbia University. TCRWP is manned by Lucy Calkins, the mother of workshop model and creator of the Units of Study. As a secondary literacy coach for 70+ districts, I have been doing my best to support teachers as they voice a need for more time, for help understanding how to give students choice, what “self-sustained reading” and “reflective writing” look like in their classrooms, and for ideas on how to build capacity in their below-level readers and writers. I have been a proponent of writing workshop for years, workshop being the single most joyful time I spent in my classroom, and the structure within which students saw the most growth. I arrived in New York on Sunday, eager to explore the city and learn as much as I possibly could.

The first morning, I arrived 20 minutes before registration to an already lengthy line. I was given a tote bag with a notebook, a binder of materials, a book on writing workshop, a book full of mentor texts, and other various goodies. We were ushered into Riverside Church, a beautiful architecture that took my breath away. Over 1,200 educators, grades 3-8, filed into the church, all eager for the first keynote, given by none other than Lucy Calkins herself.

Stood in line to get a photo with Lucy herself!

Though small in stature, Lucy’s words had large impact on myself and those around me. She challenged us to see the value of writing as it helps us cope with trauma, as it gives us voice and power, and as it helps us to access new information. She reminded us that this work, teaching writing, is ultimately about “I see you.” Writing is vulnerable…it is revelatory of the people we are, the people we pray we don’t become, and the people we want to be. “I want us to be brave rebels…dancing for a writing workshop that invites students to be open, vulnerable, passionate…let us dance for a writing workshop that helps us truly see our kids, where they truly see each other,” Lucy stated. I couldn’t write fast enough, my hands cramping from notetaking within an hour on Monday morning.

This feeling of finger fatigue was a common theme throughout the week. Each day, we would meet with a small group specific to 7th & 8th grade instructors. My group was led by Cheney Munson, who was an absolute delight. Have you ever been around a teacher who made you think to yourself, “I would have LOVED to have been in his class!” ? That is Cheney. The way in which he spoke to us constantly felt like a friendly invitation rather than a rigid command; as a result, I wrote more (as a student) in his small group than I have in years. Small group time consisted of the “nuts and bolts” of writing workshop. Cheney would teach us about a structure, then would model pieces in which we became students. We learned about mini lessons, gathering spaces, conferencing, small group instruction, sharing and celebrating, and gained specific tools to help students generate ideas and be intentional with talk. We learned about partnerships and strategic coaching. And we wrote. We wrote daily, and often. By the end of the week, we had developed a closely-knit writing community with our group.

I also went to a large group session each day for 6th-8th grade educators led by none other than Mary Ehrenworth! Mary was so clever and funny, and clearly so passionate about working with adolescents. Mary would approach the work we did each day in small group through a larger lens. She would give context to the theory behind the work and would provide other methods and ideas to help students gain access into the work. Each day, Mary would make fun “NYC” recommendations and would model various strategies for us, regaling us with stories from her adolescence that left us audibly reacting (ask me about the stapler story)!

After large group, we were dismissed for lunch, then returned for choice workshops. I gained more resources for offering representation in texts, went to a session on management and structure within workshop, and went to two graphic novel/cartoon workshops that were so enjoyable!

At the end of each day, we had a collective keynote. Two of my favorite keynotes were Gene Luen Yang and Cornelius Minor. Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator, used comics to tell his own story as well as giving insight into how comics bring stories to life. I had never known the history of Superman as an opposition to the Klan and am so excited for Yang’s issue of Superman coming out this October! Cornelius Minor had come to our literacy conference as a keynote speaker in July, and I really enjoyed chatting with him then. We’ve since become Twitter friends, and he truly inspired me to continue pursuing leadership and refusing to sit silently, waiting for others to make change happen in the world.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that there is an entire other level of PD happening online! I so enjoyed sharing my thoughts and hearing the thoughts of others during the week using the #tcrwp hashtag. I even recorded some Periscope recaps on the first 3 days!

Ultimately, this week was the best professional development I’ve ever attended, hands down! Being around likeminded educators in an environment that focuses on the heart of students and our belief in students definitely recharged my batteries. I can only imagine how incredible the reading institute will be next week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad to miss it.

Stay tuned for more blog posts focused on specific reading and writing topics, strategies, and tools! I can’t wait to share my learning with all of you!