A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE


Once again I couldn’t quite get this out before the turkey was done. But as I did last year, this Thanksgiving weekend I’d like to share some inspiring words and ideas from NCTE as a way of giving thanks to all the educators out there whom I consider to be part of my professional leaning community, especially all you blog readers who, week after week, renew my faith in teachers. The theme of this year’s convention was (Re)Inventing the Future of English, and as happened last year, I detected what seemed to me to be a pattern in the sessions I attended: that the future we’re in the process of reinventing is one of “wholeness and possibility,” not data points and accountability, where the act of teaching children entails “being passionate together.”

Opal School InvitationThe words quoted above were spoken by Susan Mackey of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, in a session on “Playful Literacy” that I participated in, along with three of Susan’s colleague from Opal, Mary Gage Davis, Levia Friedman and Kerry Salazar. The session was filled with stories (more of which can be found on their blog) about children and teachers who were given the time, the space and, most critically, the trust to follow their curiosity, seek connections and wonder, imagine and dream, knowing that whatever came out of that time would ultimately be more lasting and meaningful than anything that was rushed.

This included the story of a fifth grade boy whose class had just returned from a trip to a rock and ropes challenge course. Back at school his teacher Levia had set out some materials, including some slabs of clay, which she invited the students to use to explore their feelings about their adventure before they turned to writing. And this particular boy discovered that if he put his finger in the slab of clay and then pulled it out quickly, it would make a popping noise, which, delightfully to some classmates, sounded just like fart. He also discovered that the sound became louder if he added some slip to the clay, and soon a whole corner of the room was consumed with creating a chorus of farts.

Focus Daniel GolemanMost of us—including me—would be tempted to see this as a case of a disruptive student leading others to be off task, which, in turn, could lead Levia to losing control of the room. But the gift that Opal teachers give their students—and those of us willing, as Susan said, to trust the process and embrace uncertainty—is the belief that that play was actually important. Not only does it support students becoming authors of their own learning, it puts them into what Daniel Goleman calls in his great book Focus a state of open awareness, which as he describes below, is critical for developing new ideas:

“The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s ‘full catastrophe’—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open time it flourish . . . Open time lets the creative spirit flourish; tight schedules kill it.”

In this case, rather than stopping the silliness and having students get down to work, Levia let it run its course. And her faith that that time was important was affirmed when, after his slab of clay fell apart from too much water and fart pops, the same student created this:

Opal School Clay Sculpture2Once—and only once that was done—was he ready to pick up a pencil and his writer’s notebook and write this amazing entry: “It’s like a hollow feeling when you fall down. You fall into this pit and you start to swing. You’re in a hole, it’s slippery inside and you have no idea what’s going on. My body shut itself down and I close my eyes and I thought it was dreaming. I was super happy after I did it. You have to face you fears.”

I believe that something was getting processed in this student’s mind as he played. Feelings and ideas were coalescing into powerful images and words, just as his fear transformed into triumph after that incredible fall. And none of that would have happened, I suspect, if he’d been given an onslaught of worksheets and graphic organizers and told to write down, say, some sensory details in boxes labeled ‘sounds’ ‘tastes’ and ‘feel’. Instead Levia gave him the time, space and trust to “encounter the unexpected,” which is a phrase Tom Romano, author of the new book Fearless Writing, shared in a packed-to-the-gills session I attended called “Keeping Poetry Central to Our Core.”

Fearless WritingChaired by the ever-gracious Maureen Barbieri, the session also included Georgia Heard and Linda Rief who, along with Tom, reminded the audience again and again that reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job but the means by which we can, in Tom’s words, bring “ourselves into realization.”

Tom also shared his attempt to rewrite the Common Core’s Production and Distribution of Writing standards in a more meaningful and gutsy way. Rather than requiring students to “produce clear, coherent writing; develop and strengthen writing; and use technology to produce and publish writing,” he urged us instead to first invite students to:

“Write expansively, trusting the language in them, letting it gush, leading them to surprise and insights that enables them to craft writing of substance, vision and voice.”

Georgia Heard pushed back as well on the reading standards, suggesting that before we ask students to analyze the craft, structure and meaning of a poem as the Common Core requires, we need to invite them to connect to poetry “by guiding them toward finding themselves and their lives inside the poem.” She showed what this could look like with a group of young readers who, in a month’s time, came to truly understand what Robert Frost meant when he said that “poetry provides the one permissible way to say one thing and mean another.” And she shared this quote by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox, which I’m, in turn, sharing with every teacher I work with:

“Knowledge that is not passed through the heart

is dangerous.”

Finally, teacher and author Linda Rief shared how she set up her class of eighth graders to do precisely what Georgia recommended: to find themselves inside a poem. She brought out every anthology and collection of poems that she had in her classroom and invited her students Awakening the Heart 2to browse through and read some in order to find poems “that speak to your heart.” Once they found one, Linda asked them to write out the poem in the their own hand, forming each word themselves, then illustrate the poem, write a response about why you chose it, and research the poet to find out what he might have to say about reading and writing.

This led students to read more poems than they ever had before and to spend more time with those that spoke to them. One girl, for instance, loved the poem “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye, though she couldn’t quite say why. Something about the images and language struck a chord in her, and in order to understand that better, she went back to the poem again and again, reading it carefully and closely and, as she put it in her response “sleeping on her confusion,” until she discovered something about both herself and the poem.

Inspired by Georgia’s idea of heart maps, Linda’s students eventually created heart books: collections of hand-written, illustrated poems that spoke to their hearts, accompanied by their responses to the poems and the poets thoughts on reading and writing. These books were similar to ones I saw in another session, though that will have to wait for another post, as this one has gotten long. But I hope these words and ideas have awakened something in your own heart, as they did for me, and that perhaps in the words of the Opal School, you’ve begun to “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

Imagine Mosaic

31 thoughts on “A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE

    • I get so much out of going back to books like Georgia’s and Linda Rief’s Seeking Diversity, which is also superb. And a teacher I work with here in NYC have decided to try the Heart Books out, too. So . . . let me know how it goes!

  1. Thank you for writing this post. Sorry I missed meeting you at NCTE. Maybe next year in DC? I particularly liked how Linda Rief immersed her students in poetry by slowing down the process of reading, which is something you advocate for n your book.

    • I saw your name somewhere in the program, Elisa, but as it was I couldn’t manage to hear everyone I wanted to here. But definitely, let’s try to meet in person in DC. And I think it’s only by slowing down that we can also go deep. But Linda’s part of the session also reaffirmed the amazing power of choice, which seems in short supply this year in my part of the world.

      • Hi Vicki,
        Yes, I was involved in two separate sessions and was invited to a third so I was limited in my choices for sessions. That’s why I’m so glad people are posting about their experiences at NCTE because I know if I’d had more time, those are sessions I would have chosen to go to. Yes, choice is also important. I try to make sure that happens in my class every day.
        See you in DC!

  2. Your opening story was powerful, and look what was unlocked when this boy was given the freedom to explore what was buried deep within. I missed this session, but. Feel I learned the essence of it through your post – so much to think about!

    • So glad you could experience it vicariously, Tara, as the session was truly wonderful. Again and again I’m astounded with what kids are able to do under the right set of conditions, which here not only included time and freedom but trust, which seems so very critical to me.

    • You’re more than welcome, Jeannine. That word ‘heart’ seemed to be another pattern at NCTE this year. And that seems like another thing that a program or a textbook can’t have, but a teacher always does.

  3. Vicki, I was thrilled to meet you after Georgia, Tom & Linda’s session! Your recap is perfect, and I’m so happy to read your thoughts about the Opal School’s session. It was on my list, but there were so many worthwhile sessions, choices had to be made. I left Boston feeling as you do, imagining “possibilities that [I] couldn’t have imagined before.” Thanks so much for sharing!

    • I love meeting blog readers at NCTE and am only sorry I didn’t have a chance to see Colette as well. But maybe next year—though it’s hard to imagine how NCTE could top this year’s convention, which I think is the best one I’ve ever attended.

      • ACK!! When Catherine told me she saw you at the conference, I was so bummed I didn’t tag along with her to that session! I had my English Department teachers with me, and we were polishing our presentation in our “spare time.” She said she recognized you right away (she has a good eye for people). Thanks for this post.I enjoyed your summary of the session I missed…another piece of evidence as to why you were nominated for an Edublog award! Maybe next year for #NCTE14 ??

      • I’m so behind responding to blog posts, Collette! I’d adore finding sometime to have tea, coffee, a drink or a meal with you & Catherine next year in DC—and maybe get some suggestions for other good sessions, as I seemed to have totally missed out on Moby Dick until this year, perhaps because I’ve been too NYC-centric. And thanks for the Edublog vote! I appreciate it enormously!

  4. Finding what is inside and getting it out, what a task for us all. The physical nature of that process is necessary. Play, exploration and creation are so apparent in the Opal School, makes me want to move to Portland! Thank you for the Matthew Fox quote. It gives me a whole new perspective on (and need to re read) Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart. And thanks for the wonderful recap of NCTE. This is the next best thing to being there.

    • I adored that Matthew Fox quote, too! And I loved how the heart came up in session over and over again. Of course, getting to that heart is not always easy, but I think that believe that more is there is at least half of the challenge. And I’m seriously considering a trip to Portland just to see the teachers in action.

  5. Vicki, I love reading your blog. Always. Like Don Graves you are a terrific observer, listener, and reflective teacher. I am sorry I missed all that those from the Opal School had to show. Imagine! That’s the word we should all teach by. Next year. Trusting the process leads to surprise. NCTE always energizes me to re-imagine all that can be for students. Thanks for your insights.

    • And thank you so much, Linda, for dropping by! The other word that stuck with me so much was heart and how, despite what David Coleman says, it’s only when we trust and honor our students feelings and thoughts that learning becomes truly meaningful. And your session was such a moving testament to the power of choice, which is in short supply around here. But I have found an eighth teacher who wants to try to do poetry heart books this spring, which I’m thrilled about. In the meantime, hoping our paths cross again soon!

    • I watched a webinar that Opal & NCTE put out last spring, and I was so struck by something that seemed so obvious. Writers always need to step away from their desks and projects to refill the well. For me that’s often making a cup of tea or deadheading the flowers in my (small) garden. And while I’ve come to value that time in my own writing life, I realized how seldom we give that time to students. Definitely something to keep thinking about.

    • I wish I could have met you there too, Matt, but I’m hoping that your Reggio experience more than made up for missing NCTE. I’ll try to put up a link to the PD workshops in an upcoming post—and having just taken a moment to catch up with your final Reggio blog post, I just want to say how much I loved the list of all the ways documentation helps us focus on the true heart of learning. Thanks!

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    • So fabulous to hear from you, Stacey, as I’m a huge Two Writing Teachers fan! And I’m so excited that I’ve got an 8th grader teacher I work with who wants to take heart books on. But as I’m writing this, I’m suddenly finding myself wondering about what a collaborative teacher heart book could look like. Hmm. . .

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