NCTE14 Reflections, Friday, peppered with Tweets and feelings of inadequacy

Greetings from DC!? We’re not quite in DC. The Gaylord Hotel is not quite DC. It’s certainly something, but not quite DC.

Anyhow, it was a tiring but inspiring day, as they always are at this conference.

And if you’re wondering what we thought about the day, you can take a look at today’s tweets… using this handy guide that Jay sent out first thing this morning:

It really is true–Paul hardly ever Tweets. But that’s okay. We will still hang out with him. The morning general session–awesome. So inspiring, both Marian Wright Edelman’s talk and the panel discussion gave us much to think about:

When the general session ended, the three of us sat there and talked about what we had just heard and used it to reflect on the school where we teach. We could have kept talking about it all day right there, the only three conference goers left in the huge ballroom. But we realized that the convention center crew was re-setting the chairs for whatever was going to happen next, so we relocated to the atrium area, where we ended up in a great interstitial conversation:

Jay recognized Paul Thomas sitting next to us. We got to hear him speak last year in the session with Alfie Kohn, the session that sent me on the gradeless trajectory that I’ve been on since then (read more about that here). So it was awesome to tell him how my classroom practice has changed since then, for the better. But it did kind of launch what ended up being the theme of the day for me: feeling inadequate. I reflected constantly over my classroom practice–every conversation, every presenter I listened to, on every page in my writer’s notebook (I filled eleven and a half of them today). The distance and space from my classroom helped me to see it clearly, to find the places I want to grow, to see clearly the places where my practices aren’t matching my intentions, as Paul Thomas said.  And this is okay–this place where I start to question, wonder, feel inadequate. It’s a reflective place. Back at school, the days move so flippin’ fast that I hardly have time to breathe, let alone find that distance from my practice to really think about it. But here, constantly challenged with the vision articulated by the people I meet, I have that space to reflect. And it’s powerful. The sense inadequacy that bubbles up is a good thing. It moves my practice. And I’m reminded of Newkirk’s words in Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (2009) (the book I brought with me on the trip because I think it’s the meditation I need right now): “So what happens if we begin with this premise: Difficulty, disappointment, resistance, and failures are inevitable in the profession of teaching” (p. 164) Newkirk says we need this because

In the classes I read about, everything seems to work; student writing is impressive, often deeply moving; the teacher seems to have achieved full participation of all members of the class. And what I find most difficult to believe, the teacher never shows signs of despondency, frustration, anger, impatience, or disappointment. If there is anger and frustration, it is usually directed at external forces–administrators, testing services (the designated “bad guys”)–and never at themselves or their students. The teachers I read about don’t doubt their competence, or at least they don’t admit to their doubts. (p. 163)

And yes, today (and lately) there have been times where I doubt my competence. There I said it.  And I OWN it.  Today when we talked with Paul Thomas and heard about the simple yet powerful ways he gets his students focused on driving their own revisions in their writing, I wondered if my thorough revision assignment (starting first with MY feedback on their work) actually directs their writing too much. In the process of getting grades out of the way of them becoming engaged writers, am I actually getting in the way instead? I need to do some thinking on this. Next we attended the 11am session with Jim Burke, Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Michael W. Smith, and Jeff Wilhelm: 

And it was going great:

Awesome, right? Until

We left for a short time, but then we snuck back in (don’t tell anyone). We were just in time to hear Sitomer discussing technology. I’m pretty psyched about technology and the very important literacy skills practice tech tools provide our students and the powerful ways these tools can engage our students. So when I heard the doubt, the questioning, the wondering from Sitomer about whether or not tech tools in the classroom are making it possible to win the war between focus and distraction in our classrooms, again surfaced those feelings of inadequacy. He wondered if in our march toward one-to-one technology integration, we are actually moving ourselves toward a place we don’t want to be. He brought up the examples of the tech company CEOs who don’t permit their children to use technology at home as evidence for us to reconsider our journey toward wired classrooms.

But I’ve already done a lot of thinking about this issue and I respectfully disagree. All tech tools are not created equal. Sitomer provided an example of an on-line Shakespeare resource that had blinking images in the margins that distract just about everyone, no matter how focused they tend to be. I pretty much don’t send my students anywhere on line during class where there are blinking distracting things. We use powerful digital tools to connect and engage in the writing process and collaborate with each other.

And let’s be honest–if we don’t help them figure out how to manage all the distractions in their high tech world, when will they learn it? Removing tech tools from their hands totally isn’t the answer. That will never teach them how to use them effectively, and basic literacy is at stake here. I wrote about this a few years ago in response to an article about a Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that had gone tech free. In short, if we take away tech tools from classrooms in the name of helping students focus, privileged students who have access to those tools at home will likely be fine, but our students who don’t have access to those tools outside of school will lack some important literacy skills they need to find success in life.

So it was a good reminder about how important it is for me to help my students figure out how to manage their life and their focus and their use of technology in the context of their learning. And the creeping inadequacy was managed, temporarily.

Until session D.21:

My big classroom research project right now is about going workshop–not just sort of like it feels like it’s been in my classroom with workshop hiding here and there the last few years, but solidly, fully, all the way workshop. And it didn’t take the presentation from these rockstar teachers for me to doubt my ability to achieve this. It’s been there significantly for the last few weeks. That’s the subject of a much longer piece of writing I’ve been building in my head for a few days now. But this session–these teachers were so clear on workshop, on just exactly what it looked like, on just how to approach it, on just how to construct PD to get everyone on board. I was in awe. Workshop is complex and complicated and messy and hard to visualize within the structure of a high school curriculum where the things we assume we must do are in such stark contrast with the workshop vision. There appears a chasm that feels unnavigable, yet these teachers have not only crossed it but built a bridge for others to follow. And I think their very clear vision will help me to pinpoint the places where I’m getting tripped up (and the places where it’s working, because I know it is working in places too).

From there it was a Troy Hicks chaired session that included my former high school student recently finished with her PhD in literacy. She studied the ways that teachers used technology in their classrooms, looking to understand what it looked like when teachers’ beliefs about the role/power of technology infused their teaching practices in ways that, at the most powerful iterations, integrated smoothly into their students’ literacy skill building.

And there it was, the inadequacy. Are my classroom practices with technology growing my students’ literacy skills?

Can you see why I’m so tired this evening?

Paul and Jay and I walked around looking for a restaurant for dinner, and–after reading several menus–settled on Potbelly for sandwiches and then Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream rather than braving the 90-minute wait at the Italian place (the hostess seemed surprised we didn’t have a reservation… who knew?). Then we holed up in a quiet spot in the lobby of my hotel (no light shows on the hour every hour at my hotel) where the wifi was moving a bit better and finalized the details for our presentation tomorrow.

My mind will be spinning I’m sure as I drift off to sleep.

That is why I keep coming back. This place–this conference–in the company of all of these people–challenges me. It forces me to keep building my vision for what my classroom could be, for the powerful and wonderful things my students could be doing. Even though my brain is exhausted now to think about it all, I’m excited to get back to my classroom and get started working toward the new pieces of the vision I’m seeing appear just beyond what my line of sight has been up until today, here, now, with all of you.

Thanks for being here and providing opportunities for me to feel inadequate.

It’s a good thing even though generally our world doesn’t make it seem like that’s a good thing.

But again, we need to be able to dialogue about our moments of failure, else how will we ever be able to see past them to all that is awesome and possible just beyond the place where things aren’t working as well as they could?


This entry was posted in #NCTE14, 21st century teaching and learning, gratitude, making change, muddling through, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to NCTE14 Reflections, Friday, peppered with Tweets and feelings of inadequacy

  1. Karen Hartman says:

    Wonderful, Sarah. I feel as if I’ve been along for the ride. Miss being there this year. Good luck today. I know Fairview’s three rock stars will do a great job!

  2. Vince.Puzick says:

    Great blog! Resonated with me so much! Being a reflective teacher is only as powerful as one is honest with him/herself. And growth from such an honest look is inevitable! Can’t wait to hear about Saturday!

  3. Pingback: My Top Takeaways from #NCTE15 | The Paper Graders

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