Author Archives: Bruce Penniman

About Bruce Penniman

Bruce M. Penniman taught English for 36 years at Amherst Regional High School, where he also held the positions of department chair and instructional director. In 1999, he was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. A past president of the New England Association of Teachers of English, he has also edited NEATE’s journal, The Leaflet, and the NCTE Assembly on American Literature newsletter, This Is Just to Say (now Notes on American Literature). A teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project since 1994, he served as the site’s co-director from 1994 to 2002 and director from 2003 to 2007. Currently semi-retired, he is still active in the National Writing Project, facilitating in-service workshops, co-coordinating the Massachusetts Writing Project network, serving on the State and Regional Networks Leadership Team, and assisting with National Reading Initiative projects. He serves on the NEATE Executive Board and is active in the Teacher Leadership Academy of Massachusetts. He also teaches courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is co-teaching an interdisciplinary African Studies course at ARHS.

African Studies

Including international literature in the English curriculum has been a passion of mine for many years, and I’ve been particularly interested in African studies, perhaps because Africa is the most underrepresented part of the world in the curriculum, in my opinion.

For the past five years I’ve been working with several colleagues (including one from Senegal and one from The Gambia) to establish an African Studies program at Amherst Regional High School. We’ve co-taught a pilot course a couple of times, and we have some additions to the curriculum in the works. Another goal is to establish a student exchange program with Senegal and The Gambia, and we’re about to take a step toward that goal.

Several of us are embarking on a trip to those countries to visit cultural sites and schools ans to meet families. We’ll be blogging the trip at Come along for the journey!

Hello English teachers!


Welcome to the Building the English Classroom blog, a supplement to my book of the same title, published by NCTE.  The site is a place for reflections, discussions, and resources on topics related to all aspects of English teaching.  Please scroll down to read my posts, add a comment,  and contact me with suggestions.  I look forward to exchanging ideas.  To see a description of the book, read a sample chapter, or order a copy, click here. To read a review on the National Writing Project website, click here.

Bruce Penniman

A Letter to President Obama

Mr. President, I don’t understand.

On March 2, you signed an extension of the Continuing Resolution to keep the government running for the next two weeks.  The bill included $4 billion in cuts of discretionary spending.  Among the “wasteful” programs eliminated by this bill were Reading is Fundamental, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Teach for America, and the National Writing Project.  The funding for these programs was not reduced; it was zeroed out. Continue reading

Collective Bargaining and Education

It’s more than a little ironic that at the same moment in history that people in a dozen Middle East countries are speaking out against repression and toppling autocratic leaders, conservative lawmakers in a dozen U.S. states are seeking to enact repressive measures against teachers and other public employees under the guise of balancing budgets.  The nation’s attention has been focused in particular on Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker can’t take yes for an answer.  Continue reading

Teacher Evaluation

Calls for new approaches to teacher evaluation have become a steady drumbeat lately, especially with the requirement in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program that evaluations be linked to student performance.  The worst-case scenario, of course, is that “student performance” will be defined as “high-stakes test scores,” creating even more pressure than already exists to focus on test preparation activities instead of rich learning opportunities.  Continue reading

Digging Deep in the Common Core

As a teacher-consultant in the National Writing Project, I’ve been involved over the past several months in a number of initiatives at the national and state levels related to implementation of the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 40 states.

The national initiative involves a partnership between NWP and the Gates Foundation, which has developed a coalition of partners to create rich curriculum related to the Common Core based on target tasks and backwards-designed instruction.  The Massachusetts Writing Project team, with representatives from all three sites in the state, is one of five teams from around the country.  The others are from California, Idaho, Kentucky, and Michigan.  Continue reading

Bowdlerizing Twain

I received a call from Millie Davis at NCTE this week asking me if I wanted to be interviewed about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which editor Alan  Gribben, a Twain scholar at Auburn University, has replaced the word “nigger” with slave.  I couldn’t make the interview, but I would like to comment.  Continue reading

Common Core Standards

In case you haven’t yet heard, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) released in March a draft of Common Core K-12 State Standards in Language Arts and Math on behalf of 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia.  If/when these standards are adopted by the states, they will replace existing standards, though each state has the option of adding to them.  Continue reading

Sneak Teaching

Last summer and fall, I was co-facilitator of a Western Massachusetts Writing Project institute sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The institute, entitled Reading and Teaching American Literary Nonfiction, drew talented teachers from several high-needs districts in Massachusetts and generated many thoughtful discussions of the challenges of teaching reading and writing.

One of the challenges faced by several teachers in the group is their districts’ requirement that they follow scripted daily lesson plans.  Not curriculum maps or course objectives, but down-to-the-minute sequences of class activities, leaving little room for teacher creativity or student interests. These teachers were frustrated by these requirements, and some admitted to engaing in “sneak teaching,” including unsanctioned content when no one was looking.  Continue reading