Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE


My last post shared some words and ideas from two of the sessions I attended at this year’s NCTE convention, both of which powerfully demonstrated the deep and insightful work students can do if they’re given enough space and time. Those students also benefited from teachers who trusted them enough to let go, which isn’t always easy. We can fear, for instance, that if we let go we’ll lose control of the room. We can fear that students won’t learn what they need to, which will reflect on us badly. Or we can fear that if we veer away from our lesson plans or scripts, students may start to ask us questions we don’t have the answers for, which will reveal perhaps our other deepest fear—that we don’t always know enough.

Dropping the MaskThose fears and what can happen when we move beyond them were explored in a session called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” that I also wanted to share because the ideas were simply too inspiring not to spread around. Chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by a dynamite trio all connected to the Learning Through Teaching program in New Hampshire, Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey and Terry Moher, the session kicked off with a quote from yours truly and another from Tom Newkirk who, in an article called “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” suggests that

“‘opening up’ the discourse to allow for the expression of confusion and difficulty . . . allows us all, teachers and students, to drop the masks that can inhibit learning. We can all act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are. We can reveal ourselves as learners, not always the most graceful of positions.”

To help us feel the power of those words, Louise invited us to look at some of the iconic photographs she’s been sharing with students, such as the one below, and to consider the same three questions that she asks students to ponder: What does it say? What does it mean? and What does it matter?


Those simple questions compelled us to look closely, ‘reading’ the details of the picture as closely as we want students to read the details of a text, and ‘suspending conclusions’, as John Dewey advises in order to share the different things we noticed and consider what they might mean.

Then Tomasen put us all in that ‘not always graceful position’ of learners by asking us to choose one of the images of faces she’d placed on each table and add to the drawing, which led many in the audience to say that the didn’t know how to draw. But draw we did, with most of adding a body and clothing to the head that seemed in keeping with the kind of person we imagined that face to be.

Vicki at NCTE

Next she shared some images from a blog post called “Collaborating with a 4-year Old,” which was written by an illustrator whose daughter commandeered her new sketchbook, much to the mother’s chagrin, to ‘finish’ the drawings she’d started:

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

After laughing at the mother’s story and marveling at the drawings, Tomasen asked us to turn our own drawing over, where we found the same disembodied face, and to try to add to it again. With no more than that we all started to draw, this time capturing who we thought the person was in much more creative ways than before as we instinctively moved from the literal to the figurative. And we picked up our pens with none of the hesitation or protest we voiced before, drawing the way the mother described her daughter doing: “insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done.”

This was possible, I believe, because we used the blog post drawings as a mentor text—a text that opened up what had been until then unimagined possibilities of how we could convey our thinking. Terry then took this one step further when she shared what happened when she used a visual mentor texts to a room of high school students who were reading The Scarlet Letter, a text that many students I know have considered to be the bane of their existence.

Having snagged a used class set of the book, Terry invited her students to mark up the text in any way they wanted, and rather than holding on to any of the practices we use to hold students accountable for reading—entrance slips, chapter summaries, pop quizzes—she gave them the option to not read sections provided they explained why in writing.

Moby-Dick in Pictures CoverAll by themselves, these choices helped her students read more than they otherwise might have, but things got even more interesting when she brought in what would be their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish, which I bought as soon as I got home. As Kish explains in the book’s forward, Moby-Dick had fascinated him since he first saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and also being obsessed with images, he decided to create an image for a quote from each and every page of the book. And as you can see from the images below, he used a wide range of materials and techniques to capture what he describes in his forward as his desire and goal: “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (p. 48)

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” (p. 48)
From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

“For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing – be the end what it may.” (p. 544) From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

With this text as a mentor, Terry asked her students to choose one quote from each chapter of the book and create an image for it. And just as happened with us in the room completing the drawings of those heads, the students images started out quite literal—think cut out pictures of Demi Moore in a white puritan cap—before they became more figurative. What was fascinating, though, was that, as some students ventured beyond the literal, the whole class decided that their pictures should attempt to capture something deeper about the characters’ psyche. And that class-wide decision yielded images like these, which I think are simply amazing:

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

Terry, herself, was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process. And that made me think that something Tom Romano had said in his poetry session—”No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”—applies to teachers and students as well: If there’s no surprise for the teachers, there can be no surprise for the students. Of course that means that we need to be willing to live with uncertainty—or as Cynthia Merrill, another amazing educator from New Hampshire, said in another session, “We need to be sure enough to be unsure.”

To do that, I think, we have to trust not just our students but ourselves and hold on to the belief that it may, in fact, be that willingness to be unsure that makes us, not only learners, but professionals—unless, of course, it’s something in the water in New Hampshire.

Edublog Finalist LogoP.S. Click through to vote for To Make a Prairie, a finalist for this year’s Edublog Award. Voting ends on December 18, 2013. THANKS!

14 thoughts on “Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE

  1. I’m going to savor this, Vicki, because I have the pleasure of teaching book groups with different ages at my school as a lit coach, so will try some of the ideas for sure. I’ve often had students draw what they’re reading, but never this way, more literally. Thanks much for sharing what you learned!

    • Hello Linda! At some point at NCTETom Newkirk talked about the importance of multi-modality, especially in this time of ours. And if Daniel Pink is even half-way right, that the future will belong to creators and empathizers, artists, inventors, storytellers and designers, it seems so critical that we give kids not only different ways to express their thinking, but different ways to develop it in the first place. Feel free to share what happens when you and your students experiment!

  2. Vicki,
    Thank you for capturing and understanding what it was we were trying to do in such a short time in our session. When working together we realized we could have gone on and one and are thinking about how to take this work together further.
    I appreciate you willingness to open your mind and let go!!

    • As I hope you know, Tomasen, I adored that session and would love to sit down once again with you, Terry, & Louise and hear you go on and on. That alone makes me think that a fews days in New Hampshire this summer might be good for my soul!

  3. Moby Dick, again? That white whale was everywhere at NCTE as a direct reference, or, as you have noted, in texts shared. (Note to self: generating a post about that…) Great post…and I did vote for you….! No self-promotion needed…no question in my mind!

  4. I’ve been thinking about how important it is not to follow a lesson plan or script so closely, but hadn’t thought about it in quite this way. It may not be the most graceful position to be in, but revealing “ourselves as learners” is so important. I think it helps create an environment where students are comfortable asking questions we may not have an answer to. This is just the kind of space where real learning occurs. Thank you for sharing these insights, Vicki!

    • I was working with 4th & 5th grade teachers yesterday, demo’ing some small group work, and was so pleased that without me using the words “letting go,” what they took away was a desire to try stepping back and, in their words, “loosening up.” And acknowledging how hard that can actually be, they decided to try to visit each other’s rooms to support each other, which was wonderful. And while I think being a learner can sometimes feel uncomfortable, I think there’s so much students gain when they hear us say “I’m not sure.”

  5. The idea of creating an image for a chapter or a line seems to tap our right brain the way students did in your last post on the Opal school in Portland. Pushing our thinking to a visual representation seems to open up, even create channels of thought. This is such a great way to break those literal ties that hold many students back.

    We are professionals. Thank you for that reminder. When others don’t seem to trust, we loose the strength of our beliefs, and we question our understanding of learners and learning. That is the tragedy of the classroom teacher.

    On the flip side, the opportunity to engage with learners in that daily process is such an honor. This is the beauty that classroom teachers pursue for their students and themselves.

    Thank you for always focusing on the joy and possibility of learning.

    • I love that phrase “create channels of thought” and your reminder that it is, indeed, an honor, to truly engage with children and their thinking. It seems that setting students up to create new channels of thought is something else a textbook simply can’t do but a teacher can. Nor can a textbook help students own the learning, which, again, a teacher can.

  6. Pingback: Ahoy! White Whale Sightings! « Used Books in Class

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