Giving Thanks to NCTE

multilingual thankyou

Every year as NCTE approaches, I find myself wishing it was held at another time of the year—some time when things don’t feel quite so hectic, with the holidays looming, my work ramping up and a book still to be done. But this year in particular NCTE was exactly what I needed: the perfect kick-off to the holiday season and a great kick start for writing, with so many people giving generous gifts of wisdom, inspiration and joy.

Talk of joy, in fact, was so prevalent that my wonderful colleague and session pal Kathy Collins warned us not to talk about it so much, lest it become the next new thing, like grit, to teach, complete with lesson plans, assessments and rubrics. But another pattern I noticed in the sessions I attended was the importance of process. In a session titled “Rethinking Our Thinking: The Role of Revision in Writing and Reading,” for instance, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and Dan Feigelson put process front and center as they shared a range of ways to consider and help students embrace revision as, Naomi Shihab Nye puts it “a beautiful word of hope,” that’s integral to the process of both reading and writing.

Appreciative inquiryProcess was also at the heart of a session called “The Art of Knowing Our Students: Action Research for Learning and Reflection,” which was chaired by Matt Renwick. The first speaker Karen Terlecky shared the Appreciative Inquiry process—and showed how it could transform the way we think about meeing professional goals, not as something to achieve but something to inquire into and explore. And Assessment in Perspective authors Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan offered a process for thinking about and looking at formative assessment that can help us move beyond beyond raw data to the living, breathing child beneath the numbers.

Journey of ThoughtAdditionally, process formed the heart and soul of a gorgeous session presentation by Randy and Katherine Bomer. Called “Tracing the Shape of Human Thinking: Reclaiming the Essay—and Writing about Literature—as Complex and Beautiful,” Katherine began by making an impassioned plea to return the essay to its original intention, to explore something through a journey of thought (i.e., a process), rather than to argue or prove. And Randy invited us all to attend to our own journey of thought as we drafted and revised our thinking about poet Li-Young’s devastatingly haunting poem “This Hour and What Is Dead.”

But perhaps what stood out the most for me was the way the whole Convention seemed to be the result of a process that we, as educators, went through over the last several years as we sought—and fought—to find our voices in the age of mandated education reforms and the supposedly objective supremacy of data.

VoldemortOnly three years ago, for instance, the only whisper of push back I heard (at least in the sessions I attended) came by way of the teacher and cartoonist David Finkle. In a five-minute presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” David shared a classic scene from The Wizard of Oz, which he used to question the authority and wisdom of the man behind behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards, a.k.a., David Coleman. At that point, however, like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, he seemed like a “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” specter—someone who’s so powerful his very name could unleash dark forces.

And now, three year’s later, here’s a stand-out moment from a stand-out panel discussion called “Expert-to-Expert: On The Joy and Power of Reading.” Chair Kylene Beers ended the session by asking the three panelists what policy changes they would make to ensure that schools become the place we all want them to be. And without missing a heartbeat, here’s what each panelist said:

Kwame Alexander, the author of this year’s National Book Award winner The Crossover, said he’d make every politician across the country read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl NCTE PanelDreaming. And he’d insist on filling grade K-12 classrooms with much more poetry.

LitLife and LitWorld’s dynamo Pam Allyn said she’d require all members of Congress to send their children to public schools to ensure that they’re actually stake holders in whatever legislation is being considered.

And recent NCTE President Ernest Morrell called for the elimination of all deficit language in schools, for students and teachers alike, which means no more labeling of children as strugglers and teachers as ineffective.

This process also led many of this year’s speakers to share new thoughts and ideas. Ellin Keene, for instance, shared her latest thinking about what’s involved in true student engagement, versus its evil twin, compliance. Her answer? Engagement requires the following four factors:

Intellectual urgency (or the need to know),

Emotional responses to ideas,

Perspective bending, and

Opportunities for aesthetic experiences

Tom Newkirk, on the other hand, helped me recognize something I knew but had never really articulated before: that we don’t read great nonfiction to learn information, but for the same reason we read any other kind of literature: to deepen our understanding of the human experience and, in the words of Kenneth Burke “to arouse and fulfill our desire” to connect. And my friends and colleagues from the Opal School, Matt Karlson, Susan Mackay and Mary Gage Davis, were on fire as they shared new ideas on the connection between beauty and social justice—and made their own impassioned plea to bring imagination, “the neglected stepchild of American education” back into classrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about these ideas as time goes by, as they really got my mind churning. But for now, many thanks to NCTE for reminding me to always:

Trust the Process


22 thoughts on “Giving Thanks to NCTE

  1. Beautiful. Thank you, Vicki. It was such joy (Kathy’s warning noted) to sit with you last weekend. NCTE is mecca. The power eliminating, the connections made, the knowledge shared give me such hope and energy. While NCTE is at a busy time, it is also a perfect time. We need this huge boost to carry us into the thick of the testing pressure cooker season. Reminding ourselves of what is best for students growth and learning, give us the power to resist forces that run counter to it.

    • And what a boost it was to get to see you, too, and share both Tom & Ellin and Opal’s session. So much to think about. So much to wish for. May our paths cross again soon—online & offline!

  2. Vicki, I always feel like to want to hold onto your posts and read and reread them until they become part of my internal lexicon. This one is no exception. Thank you for pulling me into the action at NCTE which I hate to have missed. Once there I never want to miss that gathering of incredible learners. I am interested to know more about Ellin Keene’s engagement piece … especially the point of “perspective bending”. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    • I totally second this lovely affirmation and want to thank you, Vicki, for truly capturing the essence of NCTE15 in such a thoughtful way. I too found myself feeling a deeper sense of gratitude and renewed hope being in the company of caring educators whose dedication and committed was so inspiring.

      • And so good to touch base with you, too, Linda! It does feel that some tide is turning toward more student-centered teaching and learning, which is truly wonderful. And so excited to be able to continue that conversation with you, other colleagues & more amazing teachers at NERA in May!

    • If I got this right, Dayna, I think by “perspective bending” Ellin meant that when you’re really engaged your open and receptive to seeing things in new or different ways. You revise, rethink, change, add on something you’ve been thinking as you consider something new. And I think that’s exactly what should happen when we read a good book.

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  4. Something I love about NCTE and other conferences is this kind of marked acknowledgement of how others push our thinking. You do such a beautiful job here of appreciating others, when in fact, of course, we all appreciate what you do, too! My takeaway is your easy recognition of others, and Ernest Morrell’s call for eliminating deficit language. I’m going to try that.

    • Thanks, Berit. I feel enormously privileged to get to spend time among such wonderful thinkers and colleagues. And, yes, to no deficit language! Choice words all the way!

  5. Thanks, Vicki, for noticing both “joy” and “process”. After only two NCTE attendances, I can’t speak of any long term trends but I do believe that NCTE is “less commercial” in terms of sessions and I greatly appreciate that.

    Today I wrote about “student involvement” and I’m still not sure that’s the phrase that I was searching for. As i finished cleaning up my notes, I notices that students seemed to be at the center of their own learning (and I really hate “engaged” as I don’t know what that means) in the search for “transfer”. I believe that students have to be a part of the learning decisions in order to build their own confidence in their skills/knowledge and to truly push beyond descriptions of themselves as a letter or number assigned by an assessment. Knowledge, confidence and competence are all related in terms of sel-perception of “How am I doing as a learner?”

    • So wonderful to share some of NCTE with you this year. And I love the idea that at some level what ‘engaged’ means is that students are at the center of their own learning. I think that’s echoed by Charlotte Danielson when she talks about engagement as not simply being on task but truly intellectually involved, which is exactly what you’re talking about here. And to do that kids need to have more voice & say than we often give them.

    • Thanks so much, Terri. I’m finally, finally, finally near the end of the book you saw in one of its early incarnations, so you should hear more of my voice soon. And it’s my dearest hope that this book gives you and others like you more concrete tools to help the teachers you work with take on more deeper and student-centered work. So . . .wish me luck!

  6. Vicki, I so appreciate how you synthesized you impressions of NCTE in this post. Appreciative Inquiry is an idea I’ve been thinking about without calling it that, and want to explore more deeply. I picked up The Best American Essays of 2015 yesterday, thinking of Katherine Bomer’s lovely and inspiring presentation as I scanned the contents. I’ll be looking forward to reading more about your thoughts about NCTE. In the meantime, thank you for reminding me to “trust the process!”

    • NCTE is a bit like reading a great book: it gives us language for something we’ve felt or sensed ourselves but haven’t yet been able to name. Appreciative inquiry was like that for me, too, as was Tom’s words about nonfiction & Ellin’s for engagement and aesthetic experience. And will try to share more about the Opal School’s sessions, which was truly exquisite!

  7. Hi Vicki,

    What a great post! I’ve been thinking lately about how the public at large is saying that all the changes in our field are sort of a revolution. With certain politicians at the helm, there are people out there saying that they’re tired of schools not doing what they’re supposed to, so this (??) is the answer.

    However, your reflections on the tone of NCTE being so much about process, the amazing ideas in The Teacher You Want to Be (can’t put it down!), and all the work out there right now about risk, creativity, and all the things we love about teaching are sort of the counter-revolution. This counter-revolution is so critical to our future as a field…it’s what real learning is all about…it’s about kids going through sometimes not-too-linear steps (scary for business people to wrap their minds around) to learn something new…it’s all about teachers finding the magic way in to kids’ minds through engagement, authentic context, and assessments that are more 3D than the number crunching we’re forced to do all too much these days.

    Thank you for this post and for all your wonderful ideas in this age that unfortunately neglects the complex process of learning in the name of factory-style education machines.


    • It does feel as if a tide is turning, doesn’t it, Tom. And at the risk of conflating two very different issues, I wonder, if like gun control, this is the moment where something has to change because we’re metaphorically killing kids with all our obsession on data and testing and factory-model schools. And interestingly enough, next year’s NCTE theme is focused on advocacy, which seems like a logical and wonderful next step.

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    • Thanks so much for the ping back, Christie—and so glad I followed it back to read your fabulous post! The fact that kids were saying that they finally figured out how to write about literature says it all. That means they really learned the big concepts, which I think is more important than the perfecting of any single piece. Let’s just hope that as they move up the grades they continue to have a teacher who honors their thinking and their process as much as you clearly did!

  9. Once again I read an essay from The Teacher You Want to Be – I’m not sure why, but somehow, surreptitiously, I happened upon it at exactly the right time! I suppose I have been turning to that book after a frustrating experience at school with grown ups without realizing it!? This time it was Kathy Collins Collaboration vs. Compliance that came to my rescue.

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