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NCTE November: A Compilation of Experiences

Things You Learn as a First-Timer at NCTE 2019 by Courtney Knowlton

1. If you coincidentally find yourself in an elevator with Kelly Gallagher, don’t be afraid to tell him that Reading Reasons made you a better teacher.

2. Ideas and books will fly at you in every direction. Make a quick note of things, like ‘Read Woke,’ that you want to look into more later.

3. Stock up on the playful badge ribbons, such as “I’m a page turner” and “Word Nerd.” They will go fast!

4. Standing in line at George Takei’s book signing is more than worth it for the chance to listen to his husband’s quips and to experience George’s appreciation for teachers firsthand.

5. Make use of group texts to plan meals together. It is an ideal time to reflect and to hear stories about that time in New Orleans when a writing marathon included a carousel.

6. Download the NCTE conference app. You’re going to need your own “personal assistant” to keep all those times and room numbers straight. You do not want to miss Ralph Fletcher discussing visual literacies using a zoomed in puffin photo.

7. Listen to your mentor when she tells you to wear comfortable shoes. Don’t let blisters slow you down when you’re trying to get from that poster session regarding video grading to a translanguaging presentation several city blocks away within the convention center.

8. Also, listen to her when she tells you to bring an extra suitcase for all the books you will receive for free/purchase. No one wants to be the person sitting on the ground surrounded by her toppled stack of titles because she didn’t come prepared. 

9. Make time for decompressing and processing, maybe in the hotel hot tub.

10. Attend the NWP Brunch. It helps you remember that you are truly part of a writing movement.

A first experience perspective of NCTE by Sharon Williams

In the weeks leading up to attending NCTE for the first time, I considered each session carefully as I perused through the offerings posted in the online schedule for each day. I honestly thought that I would be attending professional development workshops that would offer me ideas on how to enhance my teaching practices in my classroom. And, while this was one of the ultimate aftereffects of attending, NCTE was so much more.  For me, the conference not only offered me the benefit of useful tools that can readily be implemented into my classroom, but it also afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with peers, meet with mentors known personally and from afar, and to reflect upon inclusiveness and social justice in my own practices. 

One session, in particular, that stands out to me is YA Literature and Teaching Poverty. The presenters were dynamic and passionate about the subject of childhood poverty and hunger and the impact that it has upon the learning environment. They created and shared a unit with attendees that included book speed dating, a poverty simulation, and argument essays. Students chose novels addressing the topic of poverty and its impact on not only individuals but also society as a whole.  The chosen novels were read in literature circles. Students were required to write an analysis of their novels with a focus on various themes such as the relationship between poverty and power. 

In addition, the teachers utilized the PBS Series, Poor Kids to drive home the effects of poverty and hunger in the lives of children prior to participating in the simulation and reflection activity. Finally, students were asked to choose a social justice issue related to poverty, craft a claim, and develop an argumentative essay upon that claim. 

At the end of the presentation, the presenters shared student writings crafted during the implementation of this unit. As an attendee, I found it to be very moving. In the samples share, students were thoughtful and reflective in their arguments. 

Even though the unit presented in this session is for 10th-grade, it is my intention to collaborate with my 8th-grade LA department team to include portions of the unit in our hero’s journey unit in January. 

Standout Speakers by Janice Ewing

Three standout speakers for me were Tommy Orange at NCTE, and Dr. Dana Stachowiak and Dr. Kim Parker at CEL. They were all passionate and memorable. I’ll be sharing more about  their presentations in my blog post on December 4th.

What if… by Kelly Virgin

At the very end of a long and packed four-day conference, I attended the NWP brunch and was invited to spend some time reflecting through a What if poem:

What if...
I'd said I'm too busy
this year?
I don't want to spend the money
the professional days
the time
the energy
to travel to NCTE.
I wouldn't have gathered
around tables
and talked with educators from
as far as the West Indies
and near as "a few blocks down the road."
I wouldn't have shaken the hand
of a mentor idol and thanked him for his inspiration.
I wouldn't have rekindled old friendships
and sparked new ones.
I wouldn't have written
and inquiry questions
and personal narratives
and new plans for Monday.
I wouldn't have opened my eyes
and my heart
and my mind
to a wealth of innovative and imperative ideas.
What if
I'd stayed home instead?

I hope to see you all at NCTE in Denver next fall!

NCTE November: Bringing together a Community of Educators

by Liz Corson

I arrived at the Baltimore Conference center on Thursday morning and happily bumped into Pauline Schmidt, PAWLP director, who had invited me to join PAWLP fellows to lead a roundtable the next day. This was my third NCTE conference and, by far, the most transformative, because of how much I felt a part of communities of educators.

One of these is an on-line community of educators. Through @ValBrown’s #cleartheair and #disrupttexts, I began learning from educators of color and reading books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and White Rage by Carol Anderson and Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed.

At a Thursday workshop on Identity, Inquiry, and Equity, Jess Lifshitz, a 5th grade teacher who I followed on Twitter and through her blogs ( shared how she teaches a critical reading process. “We can give them a critical reading process that they can apply to the reading they do in the world and the ways in which they live and interact with others in the world” (J. Lifshitz, NCTE 2019). This is something I am striving to do with my students constantly and year round. 

Another presenter, Sara K. Ahmed, shared the importance of examining our own privileges as well as helping our students to recognize their privileges. On Saturday, I was able to speak with Sara in between sessions in the hall and thank her for her book, Being the Change, that a year ago, gave me the courage to start to explicitly bring identity into my classroom with my fifth graders through choices of texts, topics we study, and discussions we have. 

Tricia Ebarvia, a PAWLP fellow and #disrupttext founder, led us in creating our own timelines and explained how our students’ time lines can be shared and discussed. Tricia shared Beverly Daniel Tatum’s (2000) work, “Who I am? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am” (Tatum, The Complexity of Identity: “Who am I?”).

In addition, I grew closer to the PAWLP community. I became a PAWLP fellow two years ago. I had the pleasure of presenting at last year’s PAWLP day and am a part of the Anti-Bias Book club. Hanging out over dinners in restaurants, sharing pizza in a hotel lobby and talking long after the pizza had gone cold, enjoying s’mores and finding more books to buy, and diving deep into our passions and worries as educators, wives, mothers, and citizens, we connected and I felt lucky to be part of the PAWLP community. 

And that was even before the Sunday brunch when PAWLP directors, Mary Buckelew and Janice Ewing, authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019) presented. I had attended their workshop the previous day, along with other PAWLP fellows, and loved being guided by Mary and Janice and Liz Mathews to creatively reflect on my research question through sketching and poetry and sharing. At the brunch, in addition to hearing Mary and Janice talk about action research, we also got hear from Brian Kelley about his use of sketching to help slow down kid watching and noticing, and from Courtney Knowlton who shared her discussion with a colleague that helped her refine her action research, and Liz Mathews’ use of art to reflect. I felt lucky to be a part of such an incredible group of educators and grateful I had been able to spend time with fellow PAWLP educators.

NCTE: Diversifying Who I Hear & Read

While I want to learn and I want to personally change, my wanting to contribute to universal changes in equity, social justice, and anti-racist structures and policies in education might also mean not thrusting my whiteness into conference sessions.

Read more

From the Classroom: Authentic Audiences

Lauren Heimlich Foley

For some of my students, an authentic audience equals a writing competition or online publishing site. Yet, for most of my middle schoolers, writing for their own personal enjoyment or to someone in their life—a classmate, friend, family member, or teacher—creates the rewarding and exciting real-life writing opportunities they seek.

Nancie Atwell’s letter-essays, discussed in The Reading Zone and In the Middle, offer a great starting place. Students write to a classmate about a book they have read and receive a response back. I have been adapting this letter-essay assignment for my English class. In their October letter-essays, students recommended their Independent Reading Books and analyzed their texts for the interaction between elements of fiction, literary devices, and/or conventions. When launching the letter, I invited my students to write to anyone. I wanted my eighth graders to think about their recommendations as a piece of writing that could reach beyond the four walls of our room. Students’ letters became more than an assignment for school; their authentic audiences drove their writing and their focus.

While they shared their work with their tablemates, some students also addressed their letters to parents and siblings. Other students wrote to friends on different teams or in different schools. One student reached out to her cousin in Scotland. Another student recommended Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie to a family friend dealing with a similar life situation. He wrote, “I thought that you would enjoy this book [because] it really shows how siblings are there for each other and how Steven helped his younger brother in times of need.” Two students recommended books to me, and one student recommended her book to our technology teacher. She reported, “Mr. H. already responded to my email. He says he’ll check out the book.”

In addition to writing about books, my students find authentic audiences for their genre studies and Self-Selected Writing Pieces. With weekly student writing conferences and small-group, teacher conferences (based on a recommendation from Dr. Mary Buckelew), students have been writing more for one another. Classmates become invested in their peers’ work and want to see how the final pieces turn out. To foster this collaboration, I might say to Evan, “Make sure to read Dave your ending; see what he thinks. And, Dave, you need to finish your story for Evan.” Their dedication to finishing the piece and sharing their work with someone fosters their writing process and progress. When Meg asked me to read her short story—which brought me to tears—I asked if everyone at her table had read the piece. They already had and revealed that they too had become teary-eyed.

Sharing and celebrating creative and original writing within our class has become a staple, and this mindset has propelled me to add a new question during my conferences: “Who are you writing this for?” For example, when a student began developing ideas for a picture book, we discussed who she might read it to when she was all done; her little cousin was on the top of her list. Another student, inspired by her Social Studies Research Project on Jesse Owens, created a short story about his life and his ability to overcome the hardships he faced. I encouraged her to share the writing with her Social Studies teacher. Last week, students, inspired by an astronomy lesson, decided to create a multiple perspective story, exploring if the sun died. Although still in the planning and developing phase, they are already excited to share their finished piece with their science teacher.

Next Steps

In December, the letter-essay will be adapted for an assignment after our whole-class reading of The Outsiders. Students will engage with the text by writing a letter to an adult in their life. They will recommend the book, explore a theme, and connect to our larger unit: Words to Live By. Like a more traditional literary essay, this assignment will ask my students to analyze The Outsiders and engage in theme development; however, it will also enable them to put a more personal touch on their writing. My hope is that these adults will read The Outsiders or remember when they read the book, creating a space for my students to have a readerly conversation with them. Also, my students will be conducting research for our January non-fiction unit. In addition to students selecting the topic they wish to learn about and the genre they will use to showcase their knowledge, an extra question will ask them who they are writing to—who they want to inform with their writing.  

Finding authentic audiences encapsulates why we as humans write: to share our stories and let our voices be heard. Helping my students to think about who they are writing to and why they are writing has become a focus during instruction. The seemingly simple questions “Who are you writing this for?” and “Who will read this piece?” have shifted our writing process and created real-life writers out of my eighth graders.

I would love to hear the ways you are getting your students to write with authentic audiences!

Storytelling & Inquiry at NCTE

By Liz Mathews

Attending the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference for the first time, I worried mid-way that my conference-going experience was fragmented and would be disconnected from a single, purposeful narrative. With this blog post in mind, I wondered how I could possibly interweave learning about trauma-informed arts activities, critical fat studies in graphic novels, and moving, first-person immigrant stories together. Looking again, I think what stiched this patchwork together is the elemental commitment to the power of storytelling. But I am provoked, too, by a comment from my Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) colleague, Kelly Virgin, who remarked during my workshop on action research with Janice Ewing and Mary Buckelew about the value of entering and entertaining multiple inquiries.

I didn’t resolve any of the questions that the NCTE panels raised; I may never. That’s OK, especially just two days after the conference close. This past weekend, I collected voices. I was stirred. I felt more emotional about being human together than I normally allow myself, thanks to the generous vulnerability of presenters and attendees. Here are two snapshots from the conference, which I hope may spark your own inquiry:

#WhatICarry by Joan Bauer, Donna Gaffney, Katie Hyde, Tendo Mutanda

It may be easier to express fears and worries in images. Children who’ve experienced trauma especially demand socio-emotional projects that help bridge the gap created from loss. As Donna Gaffney noted, “Children experience loss, but they don’t understand grief.” The salve can be photography and arts-based writing. Using themes of self, community, family, and dreams, #WhatICarry aided self-understanding and the “ability to read the world.” Katie Hyde framed the work: “It’s not about using one medium to explain another, but rather to expand.” That expansiveness, in the form of multimodal books and maps, embodied once-foreign grief in a circular process. As Joan Bauer said, “To write is to walk forward and backward at the same time.”

De Artista a Artista: Craft Learning from Yuyi Morales, Maya Christina Gonzales, y Juana Martinez-Neal

Juana Medina “made sense of silence by coming up with stories.” She wove her own stories of family, place, migration, identity, and illustration to a room of early morning attendees, many of whom expressed their relief and delight in hearing and seeing stories that represent, rather than erase, them. Medina reminded us, “the world goes round with stories.” Next, Yuyi Morales continued the morning’s oral histories by sharing her own narrative about her progression as an artist and transnational human. She was vulnerable and inclusive, reflecting on how we, collectively, “started not knowing anything,” and grow. She admitted that she came to the United States feeling “insufficient,” but that she realized how “that space that was a void is really like a blank canvas.” Her art and writing is an act of recovery, of power, of invitation. “Every book [I write] is an exploration of something I need to grow,” Morales said. We’re all called upon to grow alongside Morales and Medina.

I thank my PAWLP community for affording me the opportunities to share in meaningful conversations and engage in the spirit of inquiry together at NCTE. I was grateful to discover at NCTE the transformative work that our PAWLP fellows are doing in their schools and communities. It’s ironic that it can take coming to another city to learn about the important work happening at home. I’m honored to call you colleagues.

NCTE November: When it comes to good professional development, Neverless!

By Jason Fritz

Early on Friday morning, as I drove into downtown Baltimore, I couldn’t help but notice the streetside Baltimore Ravens’ Neverless signs, a clever play off of the “Nevermore.” refrain of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and homage to the city’s fascinating literary history. Right away, I could see why NCTE would want to hold its Annual Convention in such a place.

At the Friday General Session, speakers Tonya Bolden and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. emphasized that teachers should remind their students just how quickly a society can change its laws and remove freedoms previously thought permanent. Gates detailed a long list of such instances in U.S. history and punctuated his talk with, “History repeats itself, but only if we let it.” I don’t see how anyone could have left the session without a sense of agency and duty to go out and do something to make the world a better place. I’d like to start my journey by reading Bolden and Gates’ collaborative work: Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow.

I attended two morning sessions, the first of which was “Who Has Time to Read Books?: Carving Out Space for Honest Inquiry Into Our Readerly Identities as Teachers Who Support Students as Readers” by Alison Crane, Katie Hamill, Danielle Lillge, and Melinda McBee Orzulak, all of who were informative and inspiring. One of the opening slide statistics—excerpted from Dan Seitz’s article “Books are good for your brain. These techniques will help you read more.”—caught my attention: “Reading books can exercise your brain and even boost your emotional intelligence. Despite this, about a quarter of all Americans haven’t read a book in the last year and our overall book-reading time is on the decline.” In a moment of levity, one of the presenters mentioned the irony in English teachers struggling to find time to read because of the demands of teaching. But all of the presenters essentially used this alarming knowledge to drive home the point that for teachers to develop themselves as readers amidst their busy lives, they should do so first through self-examination, inquiring of their habits and beliefs as readers, and then through intentionality, setting new goals for what, how, when, where, and why they read. One of my take-aways was that to grow as a reader, teachers should always strive to read new genres and read with an eye towards understanding and appreciating unfamiliar languages and cultures, something I’d imagine teachers would want for their students to do as well. In fact, I’m currently reading the graphic novel Watchmen, a genre that I don’t have a lot of experience reading in, but I am enjoying it so far.

The next session was entitled “Authentic Inquiry in the High School Classroom: Choose Your Own (Research) Adventure!” by Amber DeSimony, Donna McAndrews, and Kristin Richard, all outstanding staff members from Niskayuna High School in upstate New York. To start, they encouraged all participants to pull up the website where they essentially housed their inquiry project, and I have included the direct link here, so that you can take a look at it: Although there were many fascinating features of their inquiry project, what resonated most with me were two of the formats that students could use to present their research. The first was a research panel, where students could work together, each presenting to an audience on a different aspect of their inquiry project. The second was a TED Talk, where a student could present on their inquiry—either presumably live or in a recorded format—to an audience of their peers and beyond. I became excited because I could see students getting excited in presenting in these formats! I highly recommend taking a look at some of the videos on the website where students reflect on why they chose their particular presentation formats, as they are informative and helpful in thinking about your own potential inquiry project for students.

My day culminated in the most important experience of all for me—a session entitled “How Can We Help Our Students Establish and Maintain a Writer’s Identity K-16?” which was sponsored by the National Writing Project. I facilitated one of nine roundtable discussion in a room with my PAWLP colleagues. My particular session was “Roundtable 4: Giving Students Choice of Topic and Genre: How We Can Make That Happen”. I started each of my 30-minute sessions by introducing myself and asking the participants do the same, learning along the way how incredibly focused and eager to learn each of the teachers around the table was. I handed all participants what was my first infographic, which I made through the Piktochart website, and used it as a guide for the session, starting with my rationale for implementing choice in student writing, which included wanting to increase student engagement, promote a broader conception of writing among students, and encourage greater student autonomy throughout the writing process. I discussed successful teaching strategies, shared laminated copies of activities that I used with my students, and passed around texts, such as Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts, that I found particularly helpful in implementing choice of topic and genre. Most of the session involved participants discussing their experiences with offering choices, asking questions that they had about offering choices with writing, and brainstorming how to overcome the barriers that they had encountered in implementing more choice in the classroom. As with anything that is deeply engaging, I lost sense of time, and what was 60 minutes felt more like 5.

Leaving Baltimore, I realized that I had made a great mistake in only planning to go for one day. With what I had just experienced in the span of three sessions, I now knew how much more beneficial multiple days would have been, giving me many more opportunities to learn from other teachers and acquire new ideas for improving student learning. Driving by those purple Ravens’ signs, repeating block by block, like a refrain in my head, will forever remind me that when it comes to good professional development, Neverless!