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Faces of Advocacy: Reflections on the 2016 NWP and the NCTE Conferences

The theme of the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English was Faces of Advocacy. A theme that couldn’t have been more timely. NCTE’s call for proposals included the following: “Many times as educators, we feel defeated and incapable of making change of any sort. This [NCTE] conference is your opportunity to rise to the challenge of who you are as a teacher or teacher leader – celebrate and discuss the possibilities that lie ahead of us.” There was definitely celebration in finding a COMMUNITY of educators dedicated to a shared purpose – literacy, freedom, and agency for all. Advocacy. What are we doing to advocate and to inspire advocacy in our classrooms, buildings, community, and the world?

pawlp dinner

L to R: Mary Buckelew, Lynne Dorfman, Rita Sorrentino, Janice Ewing, Tricia Ebarvia, and Kelly Virgin

In this post, PAWLP Fellows Rita Sorrentino, Janice Ewing, Pauline Schmidt, Kelly Virgin, Patty Koller, and Tricia Ebarvia share some of their takeaways from this year’s NWP and NCTE conferences. We encourage readers to respond. Please share your strategies for teaching and inspiring advocacy and service. We also urge teachers to attend and present at local, regional, and national conferences to renew the professional spirit.

– Mary Buckelew

NWP and NCTE provided the time and space to examine our beliefs and share promising practices

by Rita Sorrentino

In sunny Atlanta, the NWP Annual Meeting and NCTE Conference, provided the time and space to examine our beliefs for teaching and learning and to share promising practices for literacy learning and leading.

Writing is an act of courage.

We bear witness to truth and invite others to share/connect their stories. Stories unite us as we counteract the “danger of a single story.” Tough topics require courage and honesty. New authors and new voices are needed to write the books that will save lives by giving students an understanding of themselves in this ever-changing world. Let truth and kindness ripple out.

Take the scary out of writing.

Even though we can’t escape grades and rubrics, we can advocate for writing and assessments that are meaningful and relevant. We can sit beside student writers to guide understanding, and plan next steps. For younger students, a six-word story can be a springboard. Grow each section as needed to begin a biography, argument, memoir, etc. Older students’ use of digital tools and spaces for composition empower them to experience the integration of purpose, audience, and collaboration. Writing bridges the gap between their in-school expectations and their out-of-school literacy lives.

Not just the facts.

Nonfiction has been the Brussels sprouts of the library. Even in nonfiction, information is not enough. The information needs to touch the heart. Voice makes nonfiction books compelling.

Resources: Check out the NCTE Google Drive for a wealth of session handouts and presentation materials.

Serendipitous Meetings, Conversations, and Poetry

by Janice Ewing

I participated in many great sessions, meetings, and serendipitous conversations at NWP and NCTE in Atlanta. One NCTE session that was particularly memorable was called “Writing for a Better World: Poetry as an Agent of Change.” Each participant’s voice was unique, but the message was universal: “En mi verso si libre: In my verse I am free.” (Dilce Maria Loynaz)

From the poets:

Irene Latham: “Talking about tough topics like racism requires honesty and courage – and it starts with the poet, alone, with heart as a guide.”

Margarita Engle: “In Latin America and Spain, poets are regarded with respect because poetry has always played such an essential role in reflecting the essence of any society.”

Amy Van Derwater: “When we read poems, we receive the lives and truths of others. When we write poems, we uncover the truths we carry within. When we do both…we connect. We change. We care.”

Laura Shovan: “When we invite young people to write poetry together, it opens them up because we are valuing each student in the room as a full human being. In today’s educational climate, that is a form of advocacy.”

From the teacher participants:

Margaret Simon: “ Poetry invites students to explore their world and to find a creative and authentic way to be a part of it.”

Tara Smith: “What is the value of poetry in our classrooms? To sow the seeds for advocacy and empowerment.”

From the responder:

Katherine Bomer: “Poetry is truth.”

My takeaway: We need poetry more than ever. En mi verso si libre.

Finding Your Tribe

by Pauline Schmidt

Every year when I attend the NCTE Conference, there are always a lot of moving parts to coordinate – my classes, my students, my family – but it always proves to be worth it! This year, with SIX undergraduates in tow, the experience was even more meaningful to me. Watching their eyes light up as they realized the enormity of the conference; watching their excitement build as they flipped through the program (and saw their own names); and watching the pride in their eyes as they presented for the first time, all impacted me as a teacher educator. Finding a ‘local mentor’ is important, but attending this conference reminds me that the professional family we create for ourselves is one that can span the entire country. Introducing my students to educators and authors in my network hopefully reinforced the importance of this experience to these brand new ‘teacher babies’.

A Renewed Sense of Purpose and a Strengthened Focus

by Kelly Virgin

In addition to rolling through the Atlanta airport Sunday night with a suitcase so full of books it put me over my allotted weight limit, I also rolled away from NWP & NCTE with a renewed sense of purpose and a strengthened focus. In the teaching profession it is far too easy to get bogged down by bureaucracy and distracted by the ever-evolving, school-wide initiatives. However, after spending four days surrounded by some of the nation’s best and most dedicated educators, I was given a timely reminder of exactly why I chose this profession in the first place and why I continue to choose it day after day. So even more than the free giveaways and piles of instructional activity ideas, I am grateful for the pages of my spiral-bound notebook that are filled with the sloppily scrawled words of others. Words spoken from the heart and laced with hope and determination:

“Writing is a way for us to insert ourselves powerfully and assertively into the public narrative.” -Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

“Invite them into the world of reading so they will discover the beauty of the literature we love. It starts with joy. It starts with reading.” – Penny Kittle

“You don’t tell a child she’s a genius — you make it impossible for her not to see it for herself.” -Ernest Morrell

“We read and we write to discover who we are. To become a better person and, hopefully, a better nation.” -Kylene Beers

“Literacy is democracy.” – Pam Allen

“The best question is the question to be explored, not the question to be answered.” – Linda Reif

“We are the army: the manufacturers and the purveyors of hope.” – Kwame Alexander

“What YOU do on Monday at 8:30 is going to change the world.” – Ernest Morrell

And so with these and so many more important reminders swirling around in my mind, I faced Monday morning with a smile fueled by the power of positivity and a rekindled, burning desire to make a difference in the lives of my students.

NCTE 2016

courtesy of Kelly Virgin

Finding our Parks, Maker Spaces, and Marathons

by Patty Koller

Mary Buckelew and I represented our partnership with Valley Forge National Historic Park during the session, “Finding Our Parks and Making: NWP and the National Park Service.” Collaborating with other NWP sites in the planning and presentation of the panel discussion gave me a deeper understanding of where and how these various National Park collaborations have been envisioned. Professional learning, youth-leading work, and place as source and text were some of the major themes that emerged as we read samples of student work, described our teaching/learning experiences and shared resources.

Having been involved at our local PAWLP site with Making, I was interested in seeing how this concept was being applied in a library setting. I came away from the session, “Makerspace in the Library: What it means for Your Classroom,” with new insights and a variety of resources to explore such as Buffy Hamilton’s blog posts at

A “Writing Marathon” is an often-featured event of the NWP Annual Meeting that is hosted by the local Writing Project site. We enjoyed unseasonably mild weather as the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project led us to thought-provoking sites in and around Centennial Olympic Park. Our final location was just outside The Center for Civil and Human Rights where I had time to reflect on the enormously moving exhibit I had experienced there the day before.


by Tricia Ebarvia

It’s hard to describe the experience of the NWP/NCTE Conferences. A gathering of thousands of educators might seem overwhelming to some—and it definitely can be—but this year, more than any other, being with my “tribe” (to borrow from Pauline’s title above) was rejuvenating, especially after the last few weeks. After just one hour at the NWP plenary, for example, I texted a colleague at school: “My soul needed this.”

I heard more than one person over the weekend lovingly refer to conferences like this as going to “teacher church.” Whatever your religious affiliations may or may not be, I think there is something to this observation. We go to conferences like this as a community, a congregation—not to worship but to gather. To be in a place where our beliefs—and more importantly, our practices—can be explored, deepened, challenged, and forged: all in service of the students we return to.

On Friday morning, I had the opportunity to attend the Don Graves Legacy Breakfast, hosted by Heinemann. A panel of educators spoke of Graves’ legacy, of his belief in “radical humanity” and his “deep conviction” that every child could write if he had one good teacher to help him. “Be that one teacher,” Graves urged us.

Penny Kittle led the panel in a discussion on this year’s theme of credo. What do we believe about teaching and learning, ourselves and our students? One by one, the panel of leading educators stood and claimed their beliefs. Katherine Bomer began with her belief in the power of children’s voices, that “the desire to express themselves is relentless.” “Writing,” Bomer continued, “is a way that children’s voices come to power.”

Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell spoke of their belief in the power of mentors, of educators as a “connected family tree.” At the previous Don Graves breakfast, three years ago, Allison and Rebekah heard Tom Newkirk’s charge to carry on the legacy of Graves, and that’s when the two Virginia educators got to work on their first book, Writing with Mentors, published last year. Smokey Daniels stood and listed many of the beliefs that Graves’ inspired in him: “Respect children. Listen first. Be generous. Follow your heart.” “We need,” he added, “a relentless barrage of kindness.”

Heinemann Fellow and high school teacher Kim Parker stood and claimed her belief: “that persistent achievement gaps do not need to be.” Thus, she argued, “I believe in rage. I believe in action.” Teachers College educator Cornelius Minor urged us to “cultivate our best person persona” and to teach “not for mastery but for revolution.” Georgia Heard: “I believe in those who don’t think they have anything to say.” She reminded us that we are all “turning the corner” in search of ourselves.

When the panel finished, Tom Newkirk cleared his throat, and with candor and passion, he looked out into the faces of the hundreds of educators gathered. In times like these, he argued, “We have to learn how to march.” Though we may feel overwhelmed at the challenges educators—and the country—face at this time, one small way we can move forward is to “cultivate the habit of deliberate acts of kindness.”

Not random acts of kindness. Deliberate.

I walked away from the breakfast feeling inspired, empowered to take those deliberate steps, even if it’s just one at a time, to reflect deeply about my own belief in the power of education, and my own power as a teacher to make a difference. Be kind and generous, I remind myself. And march.

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