A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

While I couldn’t quite manage to get this out before the turkey was carved, I’d like to give my thanks this week to the amazing educators I had the privilege of hearing at last week’s NCTE convention and to share some of their incredible thinking with those who couldn’t be there. The theme of this year’s convention was Dream, Connect, Ignite, but in most of the sessions I attended there seemed to be another theme lying just below the surface: a dream that by connecting we could ignite a movement to push back against the forces of standardization that threaten to engulf us.

This came through loud and clear in the keynote address by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, who expanded on the ideas from his famous Ted Talk on “Changing Education Paradigms” (which can be seen in this wonderful animated version by RSA Animates). According to Robinson, our current educational system is not only out-dated, it’s built on three principles—conformity, compliance, and linear thinking—which are diametrically opposed to the very qualities that make human beings vibrant and vital: creativity, diversity, and ways of thinking that are organic and highly personal. And it’s precisely these last three qualities that he thinks schools need to foster and embrace.

Creativity, diversity and personalized thinking were on center stage in a knock-out (and hilarious) session by Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Matt Glover and Ginny Lockwood, who explored different aspects of choice and ownership. Kathy looked at how, even in an education system narrowed by the confines of conformity, we, as teachers, still have some choice in what we attend to and ask students to do. And Ginny, picking up on that thread, made a passionate plea for choosing to create classrooms in which students are not simply ‘doing’ school—i.e., compliantly completing our assignments—but are truly and deeply ‘being’ in school, with mind, body and soul fully present.

To see what that could actually look like, Stephanie shared clips of her fourth grade students discussing topics of their own choice (in this case, whether money solved problems or made them worse) in what they had dubbed the “Circle of Talkingness”. And she celebrated what she called the “little healthy chaos”—i.e., the messiness that inevitably comes when we choose not to make our students conform to linear ways of thinking. Then Matt shared the amazingly diverse and highly personal ways second grade students incorporated what they had learned from an author study of Cynthia Rylant into writing pieces whose genre they had chosen themselves; and he offered other ways of giving students more choice in what they were going to make within the framework of non-genre specific units. Then the session ended with a rousing reading of my new favorite picture book Prudence Wants a Pet by Cathleen Daly, whose main character, as you can see below, is the epitome of a creative, unique thinker.

I also had the opportunity to hear Randy and Katherine Bomer speak along with professor Allison Skerrett and high school teacher Deb Kelt in a session entitled “Building on Strengths: Teaching English as if Adolescents Already Knew What They Were Doing.” In each speaker’s own unique, diverse way, they shared examples of “appreciative” curricula and teaching, which acknowledges, honors and builds on the experience and capabilities of students, instead of seeing them as deficient because they don’t conform to some norm. Kicking off the session, Randy looked at how deficit language, which sends out the subliminal message to students that they’re lacking or unable, can creep into our teaching talk even when we don’t intend it to; while Katherine suggested a writing conference move inspired by improvisational comedian Stephen Colbert: saying “Yes, and . . . ” to students instead of “No, but . . .” as a way of framing whatever follows around student strengths instead of deficits.

And finally, in perhaps the most subversive talk, I saw middle school teacher and cartoonist David Finkle share a comic strip presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” which used the scene from The Wizard of Oz to question the bluster and wisdom of the wizard behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards. My favorite part? After hearing the wizard, a.k.a. David Coleman, say that “people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” (as he actually did during a presentation to the New York State Department of Education), a puzzled student asks his teacher, “But don’t authors want us to feel something?”

Needless to say, I came away inspired to focus on what both we and the students we work with can do, instead of what they can’t, in ways that push back on the conformity, compliance and linear thinking that this David Finkle cartoon so brilliantly captures. And for that, I’m astoundingly thankful.

6 thoughts on “A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

  1. Thanks Vicki – I wish I could have been there. I probably need to read this again and again – because I want to react to EVERY part of your blog. I cannot believe Coleman said that – the only response I can conjur is “ugh”. Okay, okay – text based answers. Fine. Stick to the text. Got it. Use evidence – we know. How does one exactly, read a text and not react personally or have thoughts? No one cares? Tell my friends in my book club – they care! And we are all highly literate members of society. Sorry for the crazy – but Coleman makes me feel crazy. I love the “little healthy chaos” phrase – exactly the vibe I try to strike in my classroom – the way we know our students are not just “doing” school. Again – thanks – I love that you make me think and I love when you post:)

    • The only problem with going to things like Reggio and NCTE is that they sometimes make it harder to be in places that seem so entrenched in those compliant, linear, conforming ways of thinking. But it was truly great to hear so many people in so many diverse, creative, unique way share their ideas and practices. We are not alone!

  2. Vicki – It was great meeting you in Vegas and I enjoyed your session. Thanks for sharing here what you attended. Looks like we went to some the same (K. Collins’ session) and some different. I enjoyed Rose Cappelli and Lynn Dorfman’s session a lot. They used the book “Painting the Wind” for a mentor text on varying sentence length. I’m actually about to post on that session today or tomorrow on catchingreaders.com. I also LOVED KWRay and Lisa Cleveland’s session. They had done an author study on Marla Frazee (GREAT picture books). They videoed their kinders asking Marla a question about her work. At the NCTE session, they played each kinder child asking the question and then had Marla (Right there!) answering the question. What a fabulous idea for a presentation. Looking forward already to next year’s NCTE.
    Pat Johnson

    • It was great to meet you as well, Pat. NCTE always makes me wish I could be like Hermione Granger in one of the Potter books when she’s able to time travel in order to take classes that are at the same time. I’m so sorry I missed Katie and Lisa’s session, but I’m glad I’ll be able to catch up with Rose and Lynn at Catching Readers. Now on to Boston . . . !

  3. Pingback: Learning and “feelings” | inside the dog…

  4. Pingback: A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE | To Make a Prairie

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