Whereas yesterday left me feeling somewhat inadequate, today left me feeling inspired. That is the roller coaster of great professional development if you ask me.
The day started at 7am with a run with Liz–my former high school student from my teaching days at Illinois and newly minted literacy education PhD. We ran along the Potomac and talked about life for 40 minutes or so. After the run, I had a spectacular oatmeal breakfast in my hotel (I have oatmeal issues, ok?) and eventually made my way to my first session of the day: Hackjam (G.37).
You can see the results of our work at the Hackjam here. But in short, I have got to do this with my students. I’ve got to design some missions to send them out in the school re-seeing, re-imagining, re-mixing things they’ve always understood in a certain way. I can’t wait. And this is just the kind of thinking I need to figure out how to get workshop working more effectively in my classroom. I know I’m essentially hacking my classroom with workshop to begin with, but I need to continue to re-see it, to re-imagine it, to re-mix it to make it really work for my students as readers and writers.
At the Hackjam, the mission I chose (and took on with Liz and a teacher she has worked with in Michigan) was to go to the exhibit hall and collect as much free stuff as we could in 10 minutes and then bring those things back to re-mix them into something else. (Liz also wrote about this adventure here). I just have to share with you one item I picked up during this mission (aside from the Pearson pen I picked up as a funny gift for my student who was heavily involved in the student protesting of the Pearson-made state tests that happened last week at our high school) (another article on it). There was a Cliff’s Notes booth. That alone I found gutsy… many English teachers do not hold these resources in terribly high esteem to begin with. But this button…
Firstly, I think it’s gutsy for the people at Cliff’s Notes to come to an ENGLISH TEACHER’S CONVENTION where we don’t necessarily have the best relationship with things like Cliff’s Notes. Often students use them when they are not reading. Of course this is the subject of a much longer blog post at some point (or an entire dissertation if you really want to know what I did my PhD research on), but I think the existence of Cliff and Spark and their ilk has a lot to do with the disengaging ways classrooms sometimes ask students to deal with literature, my classroom included (there’s a whole story about that in the dissertation). In short, I’m always working to inspire my students to READ for themselves, for their understanding of the world, to imagine the experiences of others, to be a better human being, because their lives depend on it. Cliff’s Notes do not help them with that. They need to engage in the text itself. And I need to help them with those texts that are challenging and difficult so that they don’t resort to Cliff (like I did as a student because, well, reading wasn’t that much fun as it played out in school for me).
This button is also problematic because it’s entirely inappropriate. It’s inappropriate for A) the sexual innuendo. The “I” on the button is presumably a student, the one taking a test to “score” on. Not the place for this kind of innuendo. And B) the implicit message here is that students need Cliff’s help to do well on the test, that what’s most important here is a test score. This does not emphasize all the best reasons we can put before our students to become readers. I don’t see this button saying, “I became a better human being with Cliff” or “I developed empathy with Cliff” or “I learned about living a life with Cliff” or “I became a better thinker with Cliff” or “I am better able to handle our world’s complexity with Cliff.” Nope. Apparently it’s all about test scores. We have a hard enough job right now convincing our country that test scores are not the ultimate measure of the success of our schools and students. This button is not helping.
Next was the Secondary Section Luncheon, which I’ve never attended before, but kind of had to this year. I’m so honored that my state affiliate thought to recognize me with this award. Liz attended with me as my guest and former high school student. The food was pretty good. And the speaker–Cory Doctorow–wicked smart. I’ve never read any of his books but I will now. I’m pretty sure he should run for president, even though he’s Canadian.
After lunch–another session about workshop, J.44, chaired by Penny Kittle and presented by another set of teacher bloggers (yay!) who write at threeteacherstalk.wordpress.com/. I’m very much looking forward to exploring their blog a bit to see what they talk about there. Jay met us at the door–he’d gotten there early to get a spot, since it was Penny Kittle, and the room was small, and you know the drill.
— The Paper Graders (@ThePaperGrader) November 22, 2014
It was so great to hear stories from other classrooms where teachers are attempting to do the same work we are. One of the hardest things about going workshop is having a clear vision for what it looks like. It helps to hear as many teachers as possible describe what it looks like in their classrooms. And here we are in that session–quick Paper Graders selfie: Up next? Our session! Here was one Tweet we sent out to entice people to come hang out with us:
— The Paper Graders (@ThePaperGrader) November 22, 2014
Our plan was to share with our audience some stories we’ve written and shared with our students toward the efforts of writing WITH our students–a key piece of workshop teaching. It’s been a game changer for all three of us. And the session reminded me that I need to be doing even more of it. We’ve gotten to the point where we are writing those stories that are the hardest to tell (my dad’s decline due to a nasty variant of Parkinson’s disease, the scary premature birth of Paul’s daughter, that time when Jay failed a class in college…), and when we do this, we open up the door for our students to write their most important stories too. Writing becomes authentic, relevant, real. And thanks to Liz for capturing the pre-session scene (and thanks to Liz for hanging out with me a good portion of the day and attending our NCTE session for another year!):
— Elizabeth Homan (@lizhoman) November 22, 2014
Our crowd was awesome. They listened to our stories. They indulged our descriptions of how we work with those stories in our classrooms. And then they put pen to paper with us and they started writing their stories too. I love the silence of a group of writers in the same space together but lost in their own writing worlds. And then the sound of those writers turning to one another and sharing what they wrote. We hated to interrupt the story sharing, but we wanted to see if any brave souls would take a risk to share their stories with the whole group (three did!) and we wanted to reserve some time for dialogue with the audience–their ideas/thoughts inspired by what they experienced with us.
Oh, and during that silent writing time, I started a piece in my writer’s notebook about a story from my life I’ve not yet written about. That was good.
I was kind of exhausted after all of this. And getting hungry. And losing patience for the light show and over-the-top holiday decorations and crowds of the hotel. So we headed out to find food in a quieter place. We had a very nice dinner and then wandered out for hot chocolate in a chocolate shop where we sat for a good hour or so telling each other stories from our lives. Even after all these years we’ve worked together, we discovered stories about each other that we didn’t know.
That’s a huge reason why we do this conference every year. This kind of time with colleagues is indispensable. The work we do every day in our classrooms is exhausting and frustrating and wonderful all at once. And important. Critically important. My PhD adviser, Bill McGinley, argues that we teachers of reading and writing are in the business of saving lives. And he’s right really. That is what we do. It’s just a heck of a lot easier to do that work together.
As I write this, I’m actually at the end of my NCTE journey for this year, on my way to a shuttle to the metro station so I can re-locate to a hotel just off the DC Mall. My family is joining me for a few days so we can see DC. Paul and Jay have already left for the airport to head back to Colorado. And English teachers from all over the country are trickling out of the hotel and heading back to their lives. Some have to be back in their classrooms bright and early tomorrow morning (we’re lucky to have the whole week off for Thanksgiving).
I still have one more NCTE14 blog post coming. I need to write to coalesce the big threads I want to take back with me to my classroom. That might take me a few days.
Thank you, all of you, for coming to this thing, again and again, year after year. I appreciate you and the work you do. I’ve learned a lot and I leave here full of gratitude.