Amplifying the Light: Some Thoughts on NCTE & Beyond


From “Blind Light” by Antony Gormley, 2007,

My hunch is that last December when NCTE announced this year’s convention theme, “Faces of Advocacy,” few of us imagined we’d wind up here, with ethical questions erupting almost daily and hatred running rampant—even here in my liberal corner of Brooklyn, where swastikas were painted on the playground equipment of a neighborhood park just a few weeks ago and a few grade school boys started a club that you could join if you pushed a girl and told her she was fired.

But here we are, and there was NCTE, offering sessions that not only shared powerful and practical ways to advocate for the children, but also attempted “to settle our souls,” just as Penny Kittle said poetry does. And for the days I was in Atlanta, I did feel more settled in my soul. I felt the power and purpose of the teaching profession and drew strength from being part of a community I deeply respect and admire. And I also felt affirmed as I noticed patterns and trends both within and across the sessions that echoed and pushed my own thinking.

small-storyThe word light,or instance, cropped up in several sessions, with Margaret Simon sharing the phrase “Amplify the light,” which inspired this post’s title, in a session called “Writing for a Better World: Poetry as an Agent of Change.” In that same session, Amy Vanderwater urged us all to “look for places where there is light,” then showed us precisely what she meant by sharing a poem she’d written about a brother and sister who’d offered her light through a small act of kindness. Meanwhile. in another session, Ernest Morrell also spoke of light, when he insisted that “classrooms have to be spaces of light. That’s our revolution.” And the word revolution also kept popping up, most notably when Cornelius Minor took the stage at a breakfast honoring the legacy of Don Graves, and after sharing his own poignant story of growing up in war-torn Liberia, urged us to “teach for revolution” and “passionate disruption.”

Additionally there was much talk about the need for us, as teachers, to take risks and be vulnerable, with another “Writing for a Better World” presenter, Irene Latham challenging us to “risk vulnerability.” This was very visibly on display in a session I missed but caught up with online called “Risking Writing,” where Mary Lee Hahn, Heidi Mordhort, Shanetia Clark and Patricia Hruby Powell collaboratively brainstormed, drafted and revised a poem inspired by a photograph of vegetables in real time in front of a live audience:



Risk taking was also at the heart of a session on “Advocating for Essay: Students, Teachers, Coaches, and an Entire District Take a Journey to Discover the Complexity of Thinking,” which was inspired by Katherine Bomer‘s great book The Journey Is Everything. There teacher Allyson Smith shared how she modeled for her fourth graders how essayists take risks and explore ideas to ultimately arrive at some deeper truth by taking a risk herself. To ensure that her demo was authentic, she asked a student to volunteer an idea and was momentarily stymied when the student said, “Candy is Cool.” But with all eyes watching, she gamely dug in and showed the class how a riff on Swedish fish could lead to a memory of sharing some with a stranger on a plane, which in turn led her to consider the power of chance encounters in her life.

As Allyson said, taking these kinds of risks help “create safe spaces for students to take risks.” And creating spaces and opportunities for students was yet another pattern. Tom Newkirk spoke of “creating opportunities for students to try on and explore different identities”; Pernille Ripp talked of “creating opportunities for students to try on and explore different identities”; and Amy Vanderwater reminded us of the need to “give students opportunities to write about what’s happening in the world.”

Given that most of the chapters in my new book all start with the words Creating Opportunities, this was music to my ears. But risking my own vulnerability now, I have to say that while all these words inspired and nourished me those three days in Atlanta, the feeling was short lived. Yes, I believe in creating spaces of light so students can explore and forge identities, take risks and experience, in Ernest Morrell’s words “the power of language and the language of power.” Yes, I believe in small acts of kindness and of holding on tightly to hope. But I’ve found that the words that have  stayed with me most from NCTE came from teacher and Heinemann Teaching Fellow Kim Parker. She was one of the bonfirepanelists at the Don Graves breakfast, and when asked to share her credo, she said, “I believe in rage.”

Those four words allowed me to fully own and embrace the rage I’ve been feeling since the election. I am outraged at the very thought of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist; Tom Price as the Head of Health and Human Services; climate denier Myron Eball as the head of the EPA’s transition team; and, of course, Trump as President.

Those four words also made me realize that I didn’t really want to settle my soul as much as to spur it into action. So since NCTE, I’ve been signing petitions, supporting organizations like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, sending letters to my senators, and with Cathy Mere, adopting the hashtags #NotDeVos and #PublicEd4Kids. It’s my hope that those hashtags can create a space where we, as teachers, can constructively amplify the light of both our rage and our hope, take risks not just in our classrooms but the world, and share whatever inspires or outrages us. And I believe we need to do that because as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently writes in her piece “Now Is the Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About“:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. . . Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism . . . Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it . . . Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction. . . Now is the time to be precise about the meaning of words. . . Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.”


23 thoughts on “Amplifying the Light: Some Thoughts on NCTE & Beyond

  1. Will the Dems be outraged now? Obama policies led by Bill Gates and obeyed by Duncan have paved the way for Devos..take away vouchers and presto, we have Democratic ed reform. How will Booker, Emanuel, Malloy, Cuomo and yes, Clinton distance themselves now? They all take bribes from the Wall Street hedgeucators masquerading as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Cory Booker even earned the Devos seal of approval with an award for supporting her mission @schoolchoicenow. Let’s not forget how we got here.

  2. You wonderfully captured the feeling of NCTE, the conversations that lead us to hope, but I am also moved by your conviction to keep fighting the good fight. I am afraid to put my voice out there. I’m not sure what to say. I don’t know how to be in this new world.
    I’m so glad we connected at NCTE. That’s another strength for me, the meeting of like minds and kind people.

    • So you know, Margaret, I really wrestled with this post & my partner David and I had many talks about whether to post it on not. Ultimately, though I’d glad I did. And I think it’s worth noting that you took the risk to say you’re afraid to put my voice out there and don’t know how to be in this new world. I think we’re all grappling to figure that last part out and it so helpful to be part of a community that really tries to speak the truth.

  3. Vicki,
    What a delight to see your new blog post this morning! I’m still at the “fractured stage” which is why my quotes remain quotes without conscious threads to weave them together. Thank you for your bravery!

    I’m still at “fear”? How do I get unstuck and move to action that is true to my beliefs and includes that fear and rage in an appropriate and not job-costing fashion. I’m not silent as I write letters and sign petitions, I’m just not quite ready to publicly move on! ❤

    • I believe there are many ways to action, Fran. And I think you’re acting every time you send a blog post into the world that advocates for children. We need both people like Chimamanda Ngozi Acidichie and like you, Steve and Mary Lee, who are working bravely, often in an unsupportive culture, to ensure that children are given time to think, imagine and create.

  4. Vicki, You always speak straight to my heart. I see myself all over the final quote … “addiction to optimism” and “carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction”. Indeed now is the time to do like those vegetables – “Stand, then speak, then lead”.

    • Those words really made me stop & think, too, Dayna. And it is so interesting, but perhaps not surprising given the political context, that the poem Mary Lee and her session mates crafted speaks to that as well. Go vegetables!

  5. Thank you so much for these words, Vicki. Your writing is always so eloquent and poetic, precise and heartfelt.

    NCTE16 sounds like a wonderful gathering (as usual!) and a chance to begin to think through some of the really traumatic events of recent days. And, I, too, am filled with rage.

    But one thing that complicates that rage, for me, is where I live and who I interact with on a daily basis. Prior elections showed Pres. Obama winning pretty handily in my home town, but this election was different. I began to worry in earnest a couple weeks before the election when I felt a hardening of the heart, which had begun to congeal a few years earlier and grown more hard-edged in my corner of the rural, upper Midwest. This change culminated in a literal tie-vote in our middle school election the day before the actual election. It was clear that my classroom contained approximately an equal number of supporters of both sides. How was I to address this, much less my own grief and anger? What should be my role as I interact with parents and students and colleagues and even a beloved brother who I know to be good people, but who somehow could tolerate the misogyny and racism and anti-intellectualism and, well, how can I say it except — hard-heartedness — when I found all of that abhorrent?

    I can tell you that I don’t have an answer to those questions.

    So, what I did for the entire week of the election and its aftermath was to try to reclaim a center of decency in our classroom. While I am a believer in talk, especially about important, even controversial issues, I asked that the kids not talk about the outcome of the election. I was worried that the talk would not be real and from the heart, but would follow, instead, the dark paths that had been worn by so many words that had been used in the past. Instead, what we did was watch many StoryCorps short animations to try to help the kids feel again, rather than react. We listened to the story of a bus driver who helped a woman who rode his bus to unite with her friends again, treating her with dignity and respect in the process; we listen to two nursing home employees who felt such a sense of responsibility to their charges after the nursing home shut down that they continued helping them even without being paid (“I wouldn’t be able to live with my conscience, if I had left them.”); we listened to a little boy interview his father about the hopes (and fears) he had for the son growing up African-American in a dangerous world; we heard a man who, at knife point, chose the remarkable step of compassion, rather than retaliation.

    I have no idea whether choices like this make a difference, or how to overcome the big problems that face us. And while StoryCorps did not take away my anger (and I sort of hope it doesn’t), it did temper it a bit. I can feel my anger beginning to transform from white-hot toward what the community organizer, Ernesto Cortes, once called “cool anger”: anger enough to move one to do things that are difficult and uncomfortable, cool enough to act with heart and understanding.

    Sorry I’ve taken up so much space here, but I didn’t get a chance to go to NCTE16 and I feel like I missed these kinds of conversations. Thanks for clearing a space to speak from the heart. Best to you and your readers.

    • Oh, Steve, never apologize for taking up space! I do believe that choices like yours to turn to StoryCorp after the election matter. You gave your kids the opportunity to connect with their best selves, and while, of course, you can’t control what they’ll do with that, I think the creation of those moments, opportunities and spaces to reflect and feel is one of the most important things we can do. And you should know that you gave me an opportunity as well to feel stirred, I serendipitously watched the father and son interview that you mentioned here. And, OMG, did it feel good to feel deeply moved, not only by the father’s amazing words, but by seeing that the videos were supported in part by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, which I also looked at, and Delta Airlines, which seems to be doing an amazing job of holding on to integrity and decency. It was a reminder to me, as I like to think your post-election week must have been for your kids, that goodness exists. And while that doesn’t immediately change any of the darkness gathering around us, it did fortify my heart.

      • I do wonder whether maybe one of the most subversive (and positive) acts we can do is remember, deep in our bones, that decency exists and that it is powerful, indeed.

  6. (Thanks for including our session as a point of light!)

    Perhaps we all get to Kim Parker’s (and your) credo on rage in our own time and our own way. I started with #haikuforhealing after Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t seem like nearly enough. So just now I set up recurring monthly donations to 4 organizations and created a page in my notebook that has the phone contact information for my senators and the representatives (both for my neighborhood and my school’s). I followed all of them on Twitter. Then I bookmarked so I can get information about upcoming bills. I don’t have much time during the day to make phone calls, but I’ll be ready when a few minutes open up.

    What I have to remember is, like Steve, the work I do 8-12 hours every day 5 days a week 9 months of the year is my most important social action.

    Thank you for your honesty, for your conviction, for all you do near and far.

    • Absolutely, Mary Lee. There’s so many paths to some many ways of taking action. And I absolutely believe that teaching can be one of the highest forms of social action. In fact, as I listened to Kim and the other panelists, I was reminded of something one of the teachers I had a chance to meet in Reggio Emilia said. He was puzzling through what next steps he might take to help his kids (who I think were kindergarteners) draw a figure in action, and I suggested he could take them to see the first graders’ paintings of animals in profile and ask them what they notice. He liked the idea but felt compelled to remind me that, in Reggio Emilia, they don’t teach art so that children will grow up to be artists but so they won’t grow up to be slaves. I think the kind of teaching our amazing extended PLCs believe in is engaged in doing just that. And I can’t really think of anything that’s more important than that.

  7. I loved this! I wanted you to be aware that there is a mistake. Adichie is a woman. I knew you might want to correct that pet of the blog post. Best, Suzanne Vine And I believe we need to do that because as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently writes in his piece “Now Is the Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About“

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Oh, thank you so much, Suzanne, for catching that! I realized that when I went to her website to get a link for her, and I think I wound up spending so much time on the site, reading about her and ordering her books, that I forgot all about the pronoun! It’s another reason why we all need each other!

  8. In response to your comment: Do or write something? Well…You certainly did!
    Your inner activist produced a thoughtful post has received some very interesting responses. I too share Margaret and Fran’s very valid concerns. My sons have a saying “Stay off the skyline….” (generally used for military operations) which seems like wise advice for this new normal. On the other hand, I know that I cannot sustain silence. I will most likely be public. I recognize that that we are only in “previews” for what will be going on for the next 4 years…and there is going to be enough fodder to sustain the anger or rage that Elie Weisel wrote about in “The Perils of Indifference” when he stated, “Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative.” I may have to work on getting very creative. I will not be indifferent.
    For example, all it takes is a statement ….like this one from last week: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” That only incites the “rage”….so, yes, I am currently working on a response to that heresy!!
    I also am impressed how Steve and Mary Lee explain (above) how they see the social action in their roles as educators…(yes, all politics is local)…and good citizenship will come from their good examples. I am also writing NCTE directly (draft of letter complete…in mail this week); Fran sent me the contact. Also K Cody (Twitter @codyjohk) is a legislative poster from NCTE…she left a comment on my post…and I will follow up.

    Do not go gentle….Rage, rage….-Colette Marie

  9. Your reflecton on NCTE is beautiful. I found so many uplifting moments of light during those sessions of poetry and promise. Now I am trying to deal with my rage in a way I can sustain and make sense of. We need to rage effectively, together. We must heal, get our bearings, and speak out for “the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.” I love MaryLee’s action plan by bookmarking legistative bills. Activism needs good information and energy. I fear the wheels are turning in the wrong direction. We need to find ways to focus the rage. Thank you as always for your clarity and purpose.

    • Having just experienced an uplifting moment by being inspired by Steve’s comment to look at an animated StoryCorp video, it seems more clear to me that we need the light to deal with the darkness. We need the hope as well as the rage, as each tempers and keeps the other in check, so that we can act constructively in whatever way we feel compelled to. Too much rage can make us act out in non-constructive ways and too much hope can blind us to the reality and lead to what Achicidie called the “addiction to optimism.” But perhaps it’s through a balance of those that we find our purpose.

  10. Pingback: Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat | To Make a Prairie

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