Every year at NCTE, I look forward to the moment when The Paper Graders’ daily learning reflection pops up in my feed. It’s such a powerful way to capture and keep learning. Every year, I want to write my own, and every year I make excuses for how tired I am at the end of the day. But we’re all tired at NCTE. We still need to process and reflect if we want the learning to stick. Which is a very roundabout way of saying thank you to Dr. Z for finding the energy to write those posts and share her learning and inspiring me to try my own daily reflection.
I loved listening to Jimmy Santiago Baca‘s opening keynote. If you haven’t read “Coming into Language,” it’s a powerful and important piece. Here are my favorite quotations from his talk:
- “I have to know why I’m writing, why I’m teaching.”
- “I like working in the margins.”
- “I know [school] is the best we can do but for me it’s not good enough.”
- Quoting a woman whose child he was teaching: “I would have died to get my child an education.”
- “Keep the light lit.”
- “He’s gotta have drugs in there. No, it’s just poetry.”
- “True poetry happens when mistakes happen, when fear calls to us and we form a song to cross that bridge.”
His talk also introduced me to Amanda Gorman, a spoken-word poet and activist (and the first Youth Poet Laureate). I enjoyed their conversation and I’m planning to listen to some of Gorman’s poetry next week.
I took the most notes in my next session, Don’t Give Up on Boys! This was a panel discussion about the needs and hopes of boy readers and writers featuring Jason Reynolds, Ralph Fletcher, Dan Gemeinhart, and Jon Scieszka, whose name I have finally learned how to spell correctly. The chairs, Margaret Simon and Julieanne Harmatz (two of my favorite teacher bloggers!), had such thought-provoking questions for the panel.
As always, Jason Reynolds was an electrifying speaker and I tried to copy down his words exactly as he spoke them:
- “People say, ‘Oh you were a reluctant reader.’ No. I wasn’t a reader.”
- “I saw books as punishment, the antithesis of all things that were fun.”
- The seeds for later reading and writing were partly sown by the older men whose stories he loved to listen to as a child even though “No child should ever hear them”
- His work is informed by “all the things I was taught to be ashamed of”–the rap music he listened to, “the knuckleheads in my neighborhood,” “my colorful family, my colorful neighborhood.”
- His books are “more like documentary work. I am those kids.”
- “I wanted to grow up to be Langston Hughes.”
- “Poetry was less daunting [to write] because there was more white space, fewer words.”
- “I’m trying to write books that are protecting kids, protecting kids from invisibility. [Books that say] no, you’re not just an issue, a problem, a disenfranchised child. I refuse to allow you to be discarded and disregarded.”
- “We push back on disenfranchisement by bolstering visibility.”
- “As I look around the room, what’s a classic to you isn’t a classic to me.”
- “The way I felt about language wasn’t wrong.”
- He was told that his “natural relationship with language” was wrong, improper. How could he develop a relationship with reading and writing, with literacy, when he was told that the way he used language, his mother used language, his community used language was wrong?
- As a teacher of graduate students, he tells them “I need you to unlearn everything you know [about writing].”
- What he tells young people when he teaches writing: “Let’s take a deep breath and relax. Cook the chicken first. You can season it later.”
I wish I could bottle Jason Reynolds’s words and dispense to teachers as needed. He speaks truths that his audience at NCTE may sometimes find hard to hear, but there is something about the way he communicates that makes it possible for his words to be heard and felt deeply. Maybe it’s because he’s a poet and he speaks so often in metaphor. There is a compression, an urgency, to his speech. We can’t help but sit up and listen because something momentous is at stake. But there is also a gentleness and an empathy in his words. He knows how to connect. I am in awe of what he accomplishes rhetorically every time I hear him speak. His words to teachers make us want to do better, be better.
Ralph Fletcher reminded us that school doesn’t always meet boys’ needs for active kinesthetic learning, their need for collaboration and talk, their need to write parody and satire. I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement: “Pleasure is a bad word in school.” I know I haven’t made reading and writing pleasurable enough in my Composition classes this semester. That seems to be a perennial problem. And pleasure should be central to our purposes, because “If they enjoy writing, they will write at home. If they enjoy reading, they will read at home.” And then as a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement: “Do the writing that only you can do.” Fletcher was quoting Don Murray who he thought was quoting Sandra Cisneros. It’s a good line.
Julieanne Harmatz concluded the session with the line that I’ve taken for my title. It was a powerful and moving session–and also full of laughter, which my notes didn’t adequately capture.
Next, I couldn’t miss an opportunity to listen to Nancie Atwell. Nancie Atwell. I have to write her name twice. Because it’s Nancie Atwell. In the Middle is quite possibly the book I have read and reread most in my life (it’s certainly the professional development book I’ve reread most often), and I never cease to find something more in it to think about and reflect upon. Atwell’s message has never changed: when we create favorable conditions for readers (and writers) in our classrooms, kids will read (and write). And they will grow as readers, as writers, as thinkers, as human beings.
She highlighted the top ten conditions for reading, as identified by her students (the stuff you already know about–book talks, classroom library, time to read in class, a teacher who has conversations with you about your books, etc.). And that list got me thinking. I already know all that stuff. I mean, I teach it to pre-service teachers. And yet, how many of these conditions do I consistently create in the courses where I’m trying to grow readers? I’m missing many of them in my Composition courses, where independent reading is almost an afterthought. I’d like it to become more central next semester, and this list reminded me that I already know what to do to make that happen. In my Children’s Literature courses, I need to provide more opportunities for students to write to me and to each other about their reading, I need to have more conversations with them about their reading, and I need to make sure I’m making individual recommendations.
The core of Atwell’s talk was a profile of one of her students, Mike, who did not read before he came into her room. This is what she did to create a reader: she booktalked a Carl Deuker sports novel selected with Mike in mind; he snatched it from her hand as she hoped he would; and he’d finished the book within a week and a half. And then he tapped into the social network of peers (Atwell notes that “books can become the shared context of the social network” in our classrooms) and found book after book to read. I didn’t write down how many books Mike read that year, but it was a lot. 35? 50? (I realize there’s a big difference between 35 and 50, but for a kid who read 0 books the year before, either 35 or 50 makes the point equally well that what Atwell does in her classroom WORKS.)
The most affecting part of her talk, for me, was hearing about what happened to Mike in 9th grade, when he moved on to a public high school. It’s what I saw happen to my own high school students after they left my class. It’s what I see happen to many of my college students. Without their reading community and the support of a reading workshop classroom, even ardent readers lose their way. Mike went from reading 35 or 50 books to fake reading the 2 books assigned in 9th grade: Romeo & Juliet and A Tale of Two Cities.
I feel like I need to incorporate some white space to pause here and recognize the sadness and wrongness of that. We can do better. We have to do better.
But Atwell did offer hope: many of her students do come back to reading as adults.
And then Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle spoke. I mostly wrote down titles of books and mentor texts as fast as I could. Their presentation was about the cross-country book clubs they facilitate between their students and a class of pre-service teachers at Miami University. Kelsey and I felt so inspired by it that we’ve cooked up a book club next semester between her 7th-graders and my pre-service teachers. Penny Kittle reminded me of a few things I want to be doing more of in my classes: writing beside texts every day, reading more poetry, sketching and drawing more.
My final session on Day 1 was a session with writers featuring their best writing prompts and ideas for students. I was so inspired by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater‘s talk. Amy always makes me want to write. So many wonderful nuggets:
- “In order to write, you have to do stuff.”
- “What are you doing that you have to write about?”
- “We don’t have Netflix or video games, but we adopt lots of foster kittens.”
- “I’m now the Kitten Connection.”
- “If there’s a book you want to read, then write it.”
She also shared her poem, Moon Mama, and it made me tear up.
And in addition to all of the learning, there was this to come back to in my hotel room–the most unexpected treat. The Arch, right outside my window.
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