Spotlight Writer-Cathie English

Cathie English

Personal Information:

I am the fifth of twelve children, raised in Silver Creek, Nebraska. For most of my adult life, friends and family have been encouraging me to write the stories of my family. I come from a family of storytellers, but none as larger than life than my late father, John F. Cave. Growing up in a village of 480 residents shaped who I became as a writer and scholar. Small town life in the 1960s and 1970s was safe and secure and wide open. Television was still a pretty new phenomenon at our house, so we spent much more time outside or making our own entertainment. We pursued our curiosities with abandon. I am the mother of two children, John and Anna, born fourteen years apart on the same day. John is married to Amanda Lampe and is employed by Boys Town High School as a history teacher. Anna is a freshman at Aurora High School.

Teaching Credentials:
I have taught high school English for eighteen years, one year in Shenandoah, IA and the past seventeen at Aurora High School. I have a BA in education from Peru State College, an MA in English from UNL, and I'm a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition at UNL.

Career Highlights:
I didn't want to become a teacher. I went back to college at age 27 to become a writer. I have always loved writing, and I suppose I went back with every writer's dream: to write a great American novel. That dream quickly died. The reality set in that I needed an income, so thus began my somewhat arduous journey of teaching. Of course I emphasized writing in my curriculum right from the get-go, because I wanted to be writing as much as possible, and I wanted my students to write, too. I was fortunate to connect with Carol McDaniels in 1991 as a senior in college, because six years later when I really didn't think I could teach another year, she invited me to attend the first NeWP rural institute. It was then that I found a place to be both teacher and writer, and the rest is history.

NEWP Involvement:
I have been involved in the Nebraska Writing Project and the National Writing Project in many ways, including NeWP tech liaison, summer institute community liaison, summer institute facilitator, technology mini-institute facilitator, advisory board member, technology board member, and web editorial board member. At the national level, I served on the technology design team (co-director), E-anthology team member, New Site Leadership Retreat leader, and Writing and Technology Writing Retreat co-coordinator. I have also attended the annual meeting and facilitated many, many sessions over the years.

Thoughts on Teaching:
In 1998 I decided to return to school to acquire my master's degree. But I had a dilemma-I couldn't decide if I wanted to earn my degree in instructional technology, curriculum and instruction, or English. I did what many teachers do when they have a dilemma-I spoke with one of my colleagues. When I asked Dick Schanou, my mentor, what I should do, he never told me which way I should go. Instead, he replied: "Take Joseph Campbell's advice: 'Follow your bliss.'" It was the best advice I ever received. It didn't take me long to make the decision. Following my bliss meant continuing on the path of two of my greatest loves, reading and writing. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, writes, "'Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.' And don't worry about security. You will eventually have a deep security when you begin to do what you want." My deep security has been in the classroom with my students for the past seventeen years. It is there that I feel that trusting in my love for reading and writing has spilled over into my students' lives. At least I hope so. I think it would be hard for them not to see how passionate I am about reading a book, completely immersed in the plot and the message it may convey, or writing with passion about my life so they, too, can feel at ease writing about theirs. It is important to write our lives to discover something about ourselves in deep and meaningful ways. I believe writing can be seen as a search for identity and each of us can know, through writing, that our lives are important. In closing, I would like to quote Ms. Goldberg who writes about the power of our lives in her book Writing Down the Bones:

Our lives are at once extraordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on this earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and the details are worthy to be recorded.

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Digital Storytelling:
Connecting School and Community

Anna's experience is deeper than mine. She has learned to be observant. She has had great teachers show and tell her about the wildlife and their habitat on the Platte River. She can name things. She speaks of killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) (they have a ring around their necks), catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), (they're called catbirds because they're gray and their chirp sounds like a meow) and Red Shiner (Charadrius vociferus) fish (they're really beautiful because their tail is red and they're a shiny silver). ~Cathie English, "Endless Sand" from Flatwater Reflection blog about my daughter's local experience in Summer Orientation about Rivers (SOAR).


Goals: The goal of this EQUIP is to introduce storytelling as a means to connect one's classroom to the local community. It addresses the issue of how students in schools might connect to their community through committed interaction or a problem-based inquiry. It also displays how storytelling can be constructed through digital mediums.

Rationale: Although many schools often advocate for a school-community connection, very few actually make long-lasting or deeply integrated connections. I have often sought ways in which students could learn more intimately about their local place whether it be the history, culture, or geography of the community in which they live. This project asked students to learn more about some of the most important people of their community, i.e. local farmers, and the impact agriculture has on our local geography, history, culture and economy. I have also been a long-time advocate for integrating technology into the writing curriculum and asked students to explore thinking about writing or constructing stories in more than one medium. Students could use text, voice, music, video, and digital images to construct a story about their local farmer.


  1. What do you know about your local place whether it is rural, suburban, or urban?
  2. What might your subject of inquiry be about your local place? Are there problem-based inquiries? Are there historical, cultural, economic, geographical, or ecological questions that need to be addressed in your local community?
  3. What kinds of questions do you think your students could ask of residents in your local community?
  4. In what ways might your students write about their local communities? What genres would be utilized?
  5. Why would you want your students to write about your local community?

Set up for Today's Activity:

Please free write for approximately ten minutes about your community. What connections do you feel to your community? How much do you know about the place's history? culture? geography? economy? How much do you think your students know?

Today's Activity:

Please work in your small group to generate some possible school-community connections that could generate writing experiences for your students. This is a brain-storming activity to help each of us think of ways in which we can more fully integrate our communities (and the people who are in our communities). How can we use the expertise of our local community members to help our students expand their knowledge? Please have one person record your brainstorming session on poster board paper. We will share out each group's brainstorming session in the last fifteen minutes.


Please take a moment to envision what genres could be used to create a local anthology or local record of school community connection. It doesn't have to be digital stories. What other mediums or genres could be used?

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Writing Sample:

Uncle Frank

Legend has it that Uncle Frank went off the deep end because he was rejected by a beautiful woman. I came to this knowledge because as the quirky kid I was, I spent hours entertaining myself at my Babcia's house looking through old photographs. I loved looking at old black and white photos. I'm surprised I never became a photographer for my obsession with photos, especially of people. I was the kid who would go off to Babcia's brooder house where she kept Life and Look magazines and sit for hours looking at the pictures. I would sit on the gunny sacks of chicken feed amidst the smell of straw bales, old paper, and chicken shit. So, as it were, one day, while sitting in my grandma's dining room, I discovered a photograph of a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman whom I thought was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and that's impressive considering my mother comes from a large family of stunningly beautiful women. I asked my grandma who this beautiful woman was. Was it a family member? This sensuous woman could have been, except for the dark skin and voluptuous black hair and piercing hematite eyes. Babcia mumbled something under her breath and said,'Oh, it's nobody you'd know.' For some reason, I just wouldn't let it go. I was always a curious child, but I'm sure Babcia thought I was a little pest. She finally gave in and told me it was someone Uncle Frank had met while he was in the Army. The other thing about the photo that startled me was that she was sitting by an open fire. I happen to love open fires out on the river, so this intrigued me even more. Had Uncle Frank built a fire just for the two of them? As I child I probably just thought that was a whole lot of fun but as an adult, I think "how romantic."

Uncle Frank was definitely a mental case. But he was as gentle as a dove. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he usually mumbled something in Polish to Babcia. I think he mostly asked for some of his disability money so he could go and buy some wine. Rumor had it that, like our neighbor, Harvey, Uncle Frank was most fond of wine. Perhaps this explains my own obsession with it today. I think I have a genetic predisposition to my wino ways. Frank rarely went out, and if he did, he very rarely went out in the daylight. It's not that he didn't go outside, because he did. He just usually never went beyond the yard of Babcia's house. I often saw Frank working on something or other. I would always greet him the classic Polish greeting, "jak sie masz?" He would smile back at me, his sweet Polish eyes twinkling, but he wouldn't say anything. He was lost in his own little world. He was obsessed with tinkering. He built little motors and attached them to blocks of wood and put them under his twin bed in the boxcar room adjacent to the dining room. I know this because you had to go through Frank's room in order to go to the one bathroom at Babcia's house. My mother said Frank could fix anything. Babcia and Dziadek never hired a mechanic. Frank could take a part a car engine or a lawn mower engine and have it fixed in no time. Babcia had a wood burning cook stove in her kitchen, so Frank had the job of getting the wood and instead of chopping it, he built his own table saw where he just whizzed logs through, cut to the perfect size for Babcia's little white stove. He lost a couple of fingers in the process, of course, but I always imagined that he may have a few too many sips of wine before he began cutting logs.

This past year my first cousin, Elissia, became a widow. In the midst of her widowhood, she has begun sorting through a lifetime of collecting. At Christmas, she asked me a curious question. "Would you like Uncle Frank's typewriter? Your mom said she thought you might want it." I was stunned. I had forgotten about Uncle Frank's typewriter. It was always there, at his bedside, a very old manual typewriter. I couldn't tell you what he wrote on that typewriter, but I do believe that in all those years, while I observed him on the periphery of my life in a small town, he was probably also silently watching all that went on in our lives, and the writer in me has to believe, he was typing away at a good story that would have made Harper Lee proud. I look forward to receiving that typewriter from my cousin. It is an artifact that will help me travel to the past and the memories I have in the little white stucco house on the edge of town.

Author's Note: This is an excerpt of a larger piece I wrote titled "The Bachelor Men" in the 2007 Summer Institute. That summer, I was intrigued by my memories of the several bachelor men in my hometown and trying to make sense of why they had remained single.

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