One week ago I left National Harbor–free shuttle to a metro station where I took the yellow line to L’Enfant Plaza in DC. From there, a short walk to the Holiday Inn, where I dropped off my things and headed out to walk the National Mall while I waited for my kid and husband to arrive. We spent three days together seeing DC (I had never been before–the food! Seriously! So good!), flew home on Thanksgiving morning, and spent the weekend with my husband’s parents, visiting from Iowa (they took care of the fur children while we were gone and had a lovely dinner waiting for us for Thanksgiving when we got home).
Oh and there were those 88 research paper drafts I had to get through before going back to school tomorrow. That sucked up a good bit of my weekend. Only today have I had time to finally think about this post. There are 29 pages of notes in my writer’s notebook from the sessions I attended at NCTE this year. Here’s what’s resonating:
I loved this. Jay tweeted this out from one session we attended together. The Tests… I love how there wasn’t a huge focus on The Tests in the sessions I attended and the conversations I had with people. We all get it. The Tests are not the ultimate measure of our success with our students, so we don’t spend too much time talking about them. Rather, we discussed story and how to get students to love reading and how to get them engaged as writers. These we know are the more important things. But in these conversations and presentations, I did hear lots of people mention rigor. Rigor as a goal of the work that we do in our classrooms. Rigorous thinking. Rigorous conversation. Rigorous reading. Workshop is rigorous, we say, to justify the approach to people who think it’s too easy for students because of the freedom and student choice–in her Sunday noon presentation, for example, Penny Kittle said she’s tired of hearing people say that teaching kids to love to read is not “rigorous enough.” It bothers me that we work to prove to ourselves and critics that the work we do with students demands rigor. I am working hard to get this word out of my vocabulary when it comes to teaching. If you’re wondering why, just review the definition:
rigorous = rigidly severe or harsh.
synonyms: stern, austere, hard, inflexible, stiff, unyielding, strict, demanding, hard, bitter
There should be absolutely nothing about learning that is rigidly severe or harsh–except for our efforts to protect student learning spaces from all things that seek to make them rigorous according to the definition above. I think what we mean when we say “rigorous” is a whole collection of concepts. To define that work for my students, I present them a list:
thorough, all-out, assiduous, careful, complete, comprehensive, conscientious, detailed, in-depth, intensive, meticulous, scrupulous, sweeping, whole-hog
That’s the kind of work I’m hoping to inspire my students to aspire to. Kittle followed up her lament about people writing off the importance of teaching students to love to read with this (as Jay tweeted out from that session):
And I love this. That thorough, assiduous, questioning, in-depth work we hope to inspire in our students comes from a real love of learning, of reading, of asking questions. I agree with Kittle–LOVE is the highest standard. If we get our students to love the literacy practices we ask of them, our job is done.
2. Literacy demands of our democracy.
Kittle’s Sunday noon session with Kelly Gallagher and Carol Jago left some big ideas rumbling around in my head. Said Jay from that session:
I agree with Jay. This presentation pretty much contextualized all of the work that we do. It gave the reasons why literacy is important. They spoke on the literacy demands of our democracy, the literacy skills our students need to be engaged citizens. Jago argued that “our democracy depends on people being able to read and understand and analyze argument,” that we need to “help students to be able to read their world for ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos.” Yes. Every image our hyper-active media world throws at our students pretty much every moment of their waking hours is an argument. If they can’t read those arguments, they cannot participate in our democracy and they cannot participate as the active agents of their own lives. I have always told my students that the most complex text they’ll ever read is their lives and that they need to be able to handle complexity in order to write their future. But this presentation gave me so much more to add to that argument. It’s not just for students individually that they need to be able to read the world effectively–it’s for all of us and for protecting the freedoms we share in our democracy. It only works when we are all engaged in making it work. And what role do books play in all of this? Kittle was spot on with this:
Our job as teachers is not just to drag students through books they do not want to read, but to help them find themselves in books.
Yes! They must be engaged readers. They must practice handling complexity. They must read to find themselves to figure out what role they will play in our world and how they will contribute. There is no more important thing for us to ask of our students. And, as Kittle explained, our job is to provoke their thinking. With books. With conversation. Through the writing we ask of them. We must read our students carefully to figure out how to do this–there’s no pre-packaged curriculum to buy. THANK YOU, Penny, for telling a packed room full of teachers that we have to do this work on our own. This IS the professional work of teaching, no matter what those policy makers/ textbook writers/ “teacher-proof” curriculum marketing people say. I’m on a year-long journey in my classroom this year to document my attempts at going workshop, and sometimes it starts to feel so complicated because I can’t see it clearly through the screen of the curriculum expectations that seem to be asking for something different. So it was so refreshing to hear Kittle articulate it all so simply: Read, write, revise, every day. I’m percolating over that. It’s the mantra I need right now. Gallagher’s contribution to the conversation was all about reading, and he offered three simple claims:
- Students need to read more: “Reading Hamlet is not the problem. ONLY reading Hamlet is the problem.”
- Students need to read better: we are literacy teachers, not literature teachers.
- Students have to learn how to track their thinking over time. We need to teach them to read differently: he’s worried about the “runaway train of close reading.” Instead, students need to work to track close reading over time. He gave an example of tracking a story in the media over time–what an awesome idea. Imagine if your whole class collected articles published about an issue like Ferguson over the course of an entire school year and read and discussed them frequently? This is real-world literacy.
3. Smarter uses of technology in my classroom.
Gallagher showed a photo of a bulletin board from a classroom where students were collecting media articles about one story as a way to study the story that emerges over time. Teachers in a Saturday workshop session we attended showed photos of classroom doors covered with photos of the book covers that the teacher had read that school year as a way to model a reading life. These teachers also showed photos of their ever-growing classroom libraries, shelves neatly organized with enticing titles peeking out at students from every wall in the classroom.
I love what these teachers are doing, but in my teaching world, where we share classrooms with other teachers and can’t be guaranteed the being in the same teaching space from year to year, it’s just not feasible to plaster walls or doors or shelves with artifacts and books. But can’t I use technology to achieve some of the same things? My students could use a Pinterest board to track one story in the media over time. In fact, I just started a few weeks ago with Pinterest to collect articles connected to my students’ social issue research. But I could absolutely open up the job of collecting to all of us and we could study the board frequently–and students could see it at any time, not just when in the classroom. Plastering my classroom door with photos of all the books I read is complicated–I have three different classrooms that I teach in, so I’d have to do this three times. And I’m not sure my colleagues who share my teaching spaces would be okay with me totally taking over our shared door. But I can (and do) model my reading life for my students with my public Goodreads account.
And as for that classroom library that I’m pretty sure I’ll never have? Our school librarian is awesome. He will buy any book we ask him to for the library. He has a student advisory board that recommends titles as well. And he can put almost any title on a Nook that he’ll check out to students. He’ll happily put together a huge cart full of engaging titles for my students and wheel it to my classroom. In short, our school library is pretty fantastic, and my students and I spend a good deal of time there. And I can use some tech tools (Goodreads, students’ blogging about their reading, etc.) to keep talk about books front and center in our classroom so that my students continue to travel that path between my classroom and the library.
4. Hack it.
I wrote about my experience with the Hackjam in my post about Saturday. But what I wrote above about technology is an example of hacking. I’m using technology to re-see, to re-imagine the approaches other teachers have used to make reading visible in their classrooms. I want to continue to hack my classroom with workshop (and hack my approaches to workshop to make it work in my classroom). In short, what’s resonating to me is that hacking is about being creative, about taking a different approach, about working to “stop talking about what’s not possible” as Marian Wright Edelman implored us all in her keynote address.
5. Love is everything.
Morrell’s Presidential address was nothing short of inspiring. How lucky we are as an organization to have his vision and leadership. I loved his review of the history of NCTE to show how we’ve always been fiercely dedicated to social justice; we need to continue this important work and be agents of change. I love how he fights for students and cultivating their voices. I love how he helps us to see clearly the literacy demands our world asks of our students, now and into the future (“Kids become playwrights to discuss issues in their community. That’s tomorrow’s English”). I love how he reminds us of the sacred privilege we have to teach young people. I love how he honors us as teachers: “The best kept secret of English Education is the genius in our classrooms that we sit on because we don’t know how to share it.” I blog to share and read others’ words to learn. But we’ve got to figure out how to do more of this–how to share our expertise with each other and against the forces out there who think they know better than we do what is best for our students in our communities.
This work we do is not easy, and we should not expect it to be. Kittle ended her noon session presentation by reminding us that the hard thing about this work is that it is never complete. But she loves it because it’s so imperfect. So do I. It’s good to know that we’re all working at it together: