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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: http://inquiryadventure.weebly.com/. 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!

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