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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.

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