From the Classroom: Notes from PCTELA
By Tricia Ebarvia
“What conference is it again?”
“Pic TELL ah,” I said more slowly.
“Really? That’s not a real conference,” my colleague teased.
All I could do was smile.
To the uninitiated, PCTELA―short for the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English Language Arts―might sound like something you would make up. Or, at the very least, just another one of the many educational acronyms in our lives: SAT, ACT, PVAAS, IEP, GIEP, RTI. I have to admit that until a few years ago, I had never heard of PCTELA either. In fact, when I first started teaching in 2001, I don’t think I had heard of many professional teacher organizations, if any. Or, if I did, they didn’t register with me. I was probably too busy just trying to stay afloat in the happy chaos of teaching.
Soon enough—and thankfully—other acronyms became part of my teaching life. NCTE, NWP, PAWLP—these were the acronyms that mattered. And now, of course, I can add PCTELA to that list.
The annual PCTELA conference brings together outstanding educators from around the state of Pennsylvania to discuss best practices in the English Language Arts. This year’s conference theme was “Embracing Diversity” and it included, as keynote speakers, professors Bernard Hall and Toby Emert, as well as Newbery Honor and Award winning authors, Cynthia Lord and Kwame Alexander. Session topics spanned all levels, K through college, and covered topics from supporting the literacy skills of students on the spectrum to using performance activities to support literacy, from using technology to diversity instructional design to teaching research skills through writing historical fiction.
This was my first time attending a PCTELA conference, and it did not disappoint. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend larger conferences—NCTE last November and ISTE last July—and as wonderful as those conferences were, I found that I really appreciated the quiet, more intimate feel of last weekend’s PCTELA gathering. In place of harried running from one side of a convention center to another were, instead, unhurried conversations over lunch and friendly roundtable talks with old friends and new. I had a chance to talk books with Nerdy Book Club blogger Cindy Minnich and even take a selfie with Newbery author Kwame Alexander.
In addition to the people I met at PCTELA, I also enjoyed the conference itself, from the sessions, roundtables, and keynotes. In no particular order, some takeaways:
In a session titled, “Using Book Clubs in the Classroom: How to Break Free from the Class Novel Structure,” Allison Irwin shared ways to rethink teaching novels in the classroom through innovative uses of book clubs. Allison, a middle school teacher, defined book clubs in its broadest―and perhaps its most inviting―terms: book clubs are opportunities for students to read the same book and then talk about it together. Conceived in this way, a whole class could be a book club, or just a few students, as in the more familiar literature circle format.
While I’ve used literature circles as “book clubs” in class before, I’ve never tried a “paired reading” experience, which was one idea shared during the session. The idea is to allow students to decide, in pairs, on a title to read together. This shared reading experience feels more intimate and may be more manageable than traditional circles. Together, the pair could share their reading experience with the class. One idea I had for adapting this strategy into my classroom was to have students write a book review together in a dialogue format or to create a podcast book review in which the students discuss the book as peers, or perhaps to have one student act as the interviewer and the other, the critic.
I was also intrigued by Allison’s idea of using another type of pairing—books and food. Before reading a book, students could be introduced to a significant food related to the book. For example, sharing small pieces of chocolate before reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or rolls of bread before reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Then, as students read, they could notice the significance (or symbolism) of this food throughout the book. Or, conversely, students could read the book first and then come up with an item of food that relates to the book and enhances its meaning in some way, perhaps literally, thematically, or symbolically. This idea could extend easily to other types of pairings for books―perhaps to a meaningful object, piece of artwork, or a song.
PCTELA also gave me the opportunity to finally see PAWLP fellows Lynne Dorfmann and Diane Dougherty present on their work on using mentor texts to teach grammar—and what a wonderful opportunity it was. I know I will be bringing back their lessons on how to teach grammar in context. I especially appreciated their emphasis on the types of “grammar discussions” that we can encourage students to have as they examine a text together. Having students discuss grammar in the context of published pieces of writing―whether it’s a short story, children’s book, or essay―allows them to see that grammar and purpose are inseparable, as well as see the many different, possible ways that grammar can enhance meaning.
In particular, I enjoyed how Lynne and Diane showed us the power of the “whispering parentheses.” For example, during their presentation, they pointed us to the wonderful uses of parentheses in Cynthia Rylant’s An Angel for Solomon. I also appreciated their mini-lesson on creating paragraph breaks. After discussing when a writer might use a paragraph break―for example, when there is a change of topic, location, time, or speaker―Lynne and Diane then shared a short excerpt from Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet’s A Prarie Year without any paragraph breaks. Together, the teachers in their audience became students as we discussed where to place the breaks. Though a brief session, Lynne and Diane’s workshop offered many practical lessons I can use in my classroom today.
Of course, while practical ideas to bring into my classroom abounded, PCTELA also provoked thinking on larger, even philosophical ideas about education and its purpose. On Saturday, in the morning keynote address, Agnes Scott College professor Toby Emert asked us to think about the role we have as English teachers to address LGBTQ issues. Specifically, Emert argued that English teachers are in a unique position to influence students’ thinking and sensitivity to queer issues because we, as English teachers, are the experts on how stories are told and transformed―and this includes the story of LGBTQ issues. He discussed the varying levels of support teachers can offer, from the words we choose (or choose not) to use to the texts we make available in our classroom libraries to the texts we choose to teach (and thus value). I know I will be teaching a little more thoughtfully and purposefully with his ideas in mind.
The two author keynote addresses were also incredibly moving and inspiring. Cynthia Lord spoke candidly about her experiences as a writer, sharing some of her very first work as a writer in kindergarten, emphasizing the need for young people to read, write, and perhaps most of all, dream. She also spoke tenderly about the role that some books have in our lives: “I think some books carve a hole in us, and they leave us with a need to fill that space.” A reading experience can be so moving that it changes us, leaving a space in our hearts that can only be filled with more stories, more books. Cynthia Lord also ended her talk with a beautiful note of gratitude for all the work that teachers do.
Kwame Alexander, too, spoke of his early literacy experiences and reminded his audience that teachers have tremendous power to develop a love of language and poetry in young children. He credits poetry for being the vehicle through which he could experience and understand the world, not only as a boisterous child, but also as an adult: poetry, he shared, helped him court his wife (he wrote her one poem a day for a year to woo her). I was struck by his passion and could easily see how he would be received so well in schools across the country, from our youngest students to our oldest. (I was so impressed, I emailed his contact person to explore the possibility of bringing him to my school district.)
On the Monday morning after PCTELA, I projected my selfie picture with Kwame Alexander to the classroom screen. As students walked in, I saw puzzled faces as they wondered 1) why their teacher was posting a selfie in class, and 2) who the person was in the picture.
“Who’s that, Mrs. Ebarvia?”
“What, you don’t know who Kwame Alexander is?”
Confused expressions answered.
“Well, let me tell you… “
I went on to share my experiences from PCTELA. Though my students were surprised to learn that conferences for teachers existed, after I began talking passionately about what I had learned, I could see their curiosity grow. And when I booktalked Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover?
It was checked out by a student by the end of the period.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.
This year was my first attending PCTELA as well, and I couldn’t agree with you more about the great, intimate atmosphere. I love what you shared about the book clubs and food. In an undergrad lit class a while back, I had a professor who rotated types of responses. One type of response was a creative response, and some people brought food. So when we read a poet from the Middle East, I brought in dates and almonds that were a subject in one of the poems to share with the class.
I was also really moved by Kwame Alexander’s keynote. One thing that stuck with me was when he said (paraphrasing to the best of my ability), “I fell in love with language arts as I wrote poems while my teacher was talking.” His ability to recite poetry as part of the fabric of his regular speech thrilled me too. It reminded me that rote memory, particularly of poetry, can be a worthwhile exercise. Poetry Out Loud, anyone? 🙂
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I liked the idea of having students pick their own books for the book club. I remember only one time during my high school experience when our teacher let us choose the book. Some might argue that students will pick easy books, but my group chose challenging novels for the project. Book clubs are a great way to get students excited about reading. It gives them a small amount of freedom in an otherwise completely structured environment. I am planning to use book clubs in my future classroom. Overall the PCTELA conference sounds awesome!
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I really appreciated your commentary on the PCTELA conference; I’m still an undergrad and I haven’t been able to attend any conferences for teachers yet. My friends who are also studying to be English teachers at the high school level often talk about how we could engage our future students, as we remember our own experiences spent in boring English classrooms. So I wanted to thank you for giving me a few ideas of what I could one day execute in my own classroom. I love that an exercise so simple as giving students chocolate before reading helps promote understanding of the reading. I never really thought about it, but we are the people who tend to shape how a story will be interpreted in the way the lesson is planned and executed, which is why I appreciate the notion that we can try to make every student feel comfortable in our classroom by simply adjusting our own narrative.
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Yesterday, our school hosted parent visitation day. Parents follow their middle schoolers for day. In my class, I used a graphic which Tricia Ebarvia, friend and colleague, presented at PCTELA: What does two hours of reading look like. I used it to begin to teach inferencing, but something else happened. Parents were surprised to learn how many students admitted the feeling of “I have no time to read in my life.” Even a mom raised her hand. Yet, Tricia’s graphic started a wonderful reflective conversation in my classroom. I think reading for pleasure seemed manageable…and a skill was learned in the process: planning. Yeah, sometimes we have to plan and commit to something like as rewarding and enriching as reading for pleasure…reading for ourselves…much in the same way we plan to exercise or take a walk or enjoy a vacation.
I share this vignette to corroborate the spirit of this post–getting out and seeing/hearing other educators and writers is something we all need to do. It was a huge hole in my teaching life for too many years. I am grateful to know and call so people from PAWLP, NWP, PCTELA, NCTE colleagues and friends. These organizations have brought people into my life who have made all of the difference in my world(s).
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Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Brian. You know I agree with you 100% about the value of professional development like PAWLP. Though I have much more room to grow, like all of us, I know that I would not be the teacher I am today without organizations like PAWLP, PCTELA, NWP, NCTE who put me in touch with people and ideas that nudged and provoked me to rethink my practice on a regular, consistent basis. That reflection piece is so important.
I also appreciate that you shared my graphic. 🙂 I’m working on a few more, so if you have an idea or see a need for any particular type of graphic regarding independent reading, let me know. I’m working on another version of that two hours per week one. I agree with your point about making the time – and that time can be more than manageable so long as we plan for it. In fact I just told students yesterday that committing ourselves to reading two hours per week builds a habit of reading that simply saying “read this book by this date” does not. And it’s the habit that we’re after.