Amplifying the Light: Some Thoughts on NCTE & Beyond

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From “Blind Light” by Antony Gormley, 2007, http://www.antonygormley.com

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:

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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.”

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From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings

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A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:

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While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:

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Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.

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