Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow


For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

23 thoughts on “Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow

  1. Yes, I too left NCTE hopeful and thankful. There was such a sense of collective purpose and joy in that purpose as I made my way from session to session, from conversation to conversation. It will sustain me in my classroom and my work…until the next NCTE. So lovely to have spent some time with you, Vicki.

    • I fear I’m way behind responding to comments, but I’ll use this excuse to say how much I loved the post you just put up about looking at videos of kids going to school around the world. The kids’ responses were wonderful! And, yes, here’s to more time spent together!

    • I confess I had to look this one up: They can because they think they can, which is almost true. As is another one I found on my latin phrases translation site: “Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet.” He who feared he would not succeed sat still.

  2. This is a post I will return to many, many times, Vicki! I love the ways that you blended the important messages of NCTE with the important current events that we face and struggle with. So many links and other readings that I need to explore, integrate, and contemplate. Thank you.

    • Perhaps by the time it’s taken for me to finally get to respond, you’ve had a chance to read a few links. If so, I hope they were inspiring—as are the protests now underway on the heels of all these police shootings. At least people aren’t staying silent. Now, if they’d only listen to teachers . . .

  3. Thank you, Vicki, for your beautiful blog, distillation of NCTE and thoughts on Ferguson. I share your grief. I have been searching for a way to enter into Huck Finn and to return on Monday in the wake of all that has happened in Ferguson and across the country. Your blog and Roxanne Gray’s essay gives me a way in. Among the things I am grateful for is To Make a Prairie!

    • I’m afraid I’m way behind on responding to comments, but I’d be really curious to hear how Michael Brown and then Eric Garner might have have affected your students’ reading of Huck Finn. It was complicated then and is complicated now, but I like to think that if Twain was still with us, he’d be out on the streets demonstrating.

  4. Your session with Katherine and Mary gave me much to think about. Thanks. Also you mentioned that “Invisible Gorilla”. I love that. I learned about it from someone in Reading Recovery. I use it in my workshops to get teachers thinking about what you look for when you are listening to a child read or taking a running record. For example, if a teacher thinks that what she should be looking for is what sounds and words the child missed, than that is what she will see. If another teacher is only looking for the percentages and self-correction rate then she will only see that… and think only about what “level” the child should be on. I try to encourage (and teach teachers) how to look for whether or not the child is self-monitoring, whether he is using a balance of his sources of information (MSV), whether the child is using meaning to make sense of text, what the child does at the point of difficulty, and so on. In other words, we see what we have our minds focused on. I hope others take the time to watch that youtube.
    It was great seeing you briefly at NCTE!

    • Afraid I’m beginning all of these responses with apologies for the delay but, yes, it was great seeing you last month, too! Your comments reminded me of the session I went to with Dorothy and my Colorado colleague Charlotte Buttler who spoke about retrospective miscue analysis. I actually spent a good number of years avoiding helping teachers do running records because it seemed to invite a focus on deficits. The retrospective work Charlotte was doing, though, make me seem them in a whole new light – and to that I’m going to add the Invisible Gorilla as a way of acknowledging the danger of seeing only what we think we should be looking for. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing your thinking and all these wonderful sessions. i couldn’t make it to everything. Don’t you wish you could clone yourself at NCTE? So many wonderful sessions. I also got so much out of the side conversations and just meeting people in the hallway. That’s how I met and had a great conversation with Linda Mullaly Hunt.

    • Afraid this is long over due, Margaret, but at NCTE I kept wishing I could use whatever potion or spell it was from one of the Harry Potter books that let Hermione be able to double up on classes by going back in time to catch one that was scheduled the same time she was in another. Of course, I might be dizzy then – and also would have missed those great hallway conversation, which for me was with Naomi Shihab Nye. But I was so glad that I kicked off the convention with Linda Mullaly Hunt who was wonderful!

    • Of course between then and now, Steve, we’ve also had Eric Garner, which totally shocked New York. I guess the good news is people are taking to the streets. I just hope that this time it has more affect than Occupy Wall Street did.

  6. I’d like to echo Steve — your writing is beautiful and powerful. I wish I could have cloned myself so I could have attended the sessions you went to! What an amazing story they tell, all together as well as separately.

    • Hmm, this is the second person who’s suggested cloning as the way to handle NCTE. After spending the spring watching Orphan Black on BBC America, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but I’m glad there’s twitter, blogs & facebook to catch up on what I missed!

  7. Thank you for the links and your thoughts. I worry that people see this one way or the other. It is very difficult to change a point of view, among adults.“How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” This is the essential question. In our classrooms we have snapshots of humanity with all of the struggles, and they are just kids dealing with it. We as adults are struggling and can’t seem to get it right. Where are the models for our children, when they see headlines or worse see the trouble closer to home. As a teacher I hope to help students see that they do matter and we need their help to make a change. It is so complex and messy. We need to “embrace” these troubles with our students and with them build hope. Perhaps some of that thinking you presented with Mary and Katherine is just the ticket!

    • Too much traveling has made me fall way behind on the blog, Julieanne, but your questions make my heart ache. I usually want to turn to books, but I’m not sure there are any for fifth graders that actually address what life has now handed us. But we must do something, if for their sake not for ours – or else conceded that the American dream was nothing more than a bedtime story. I did, though, love Tara’s post today about sharing videos of kids from around the world going to school with her students. And if you and your kids are still talking about it, maybe sending some books to the Ferguson Library would at least be something they could do.

  8. Pingback: Slice of Life: Stopped Cold | To Read To Write To Be

  9. Thanks for sharing these reflections, Vicki: The next best thing to having gone to NCTE.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this line: “the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.” I think that’s the spirit we need to be invigorated by: The need for us, as teachers, to create spaces where learning is characterized by listening and understanding; where listening and understanding turns into valuing and loving in a way that deeply maintains that all lives manner; which generates imagination of a world where we all can breathe, and a sense of agency to make it so.
    Can’t wait to work with you next week.

    • Didn’t manage to respond to comments, Matt, before I left for Portland, so it’s both strange and poignant to see this now that I’m back. Seems to me that you and all the other amazing teachers at Opal are doing exactly what we both think is needed: giving children the space, time and support to think, share and listen in a way that will hopefully allow them to imagine and create a more just world than we’ve been able to make. The one thing I’m sure of, though, is that the children who graduate Opal will leave having developed a deep sense of agency and heart to attempt to do that, which does make me hopeful.

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