My Top Takeaways from #NCTE15

I’m sitting in my living room in Colorado, the first day of Thanksgiving break coming to a close. I got home from Minneapolis last evening and opted for checking in my with my family over finishing this blog post (that I started at gate F5 at MSP, writing until my 45 minutes of free wifi ran out). (Click here to see my daily posts from NCTE this year.)

What will really help me now is to attempt to reach into the swirling mass of ideas in my head, newly invited in through the conversations and presentations of the last few days, and identify the nuggets that I will carry with me as I walk back into my classroom next week.

In no particular order:

  1. Data. I have rich data in my classroom about what my students are reading, thinking, writing, learning. It lives in their writer’s notebooks, in the weekly reading check in form that I send around the room every Tuesday, in the margins of their writing (marginalia of the writers themselves, of their peers, and from me, their teacher)–I collect and use much of it to drive instruction, but I need to do more of this, more efficiently, more frequently, more intentionally. I also want to teach my students how to collect and use meaningful data themselves to be able to see and know what they are learning and where they are growing and to be able to set meaningful goals for themselves.
  2. Deficit language about students. This comes from Kwame Alexandar–he reminded us that when you talk about students as marginalized and when you tell them they are marginalized, you will perpetuate the idea that they are marginalized. They will see themselves as other and every one else will too. This even comes down to terms like “struggling reader.” We’re all struggling readers. So let’s just stop with the labels. Words are thoughts and thoughts become how we see and organize the world. If we want our students to see themselves as capable, we’ve got to quit marginalizing them through the deficit terms we use so readily.
  3. And as for words that we need to stop using–can we all just agree right now that we won’t use the word “rigor” anymore? According to my favorite app on my phone, of course, the definition of rigor is as follows: “strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.” There is nothing about this concept that has any business being in any classroom. I’m not sure how rigor became a goal we aspire to in education. I’m trying to make reading/writing workshop work in my high school classroom, yet I hear other teachers sometimes say that workshop isn’t “rigorous” enough for the serious business of high school language arts. That’s right. It’s not strict, severe, or harsh. It’s a place where human beings can read, write, imagine, explore, question, wonder, problem solve… I did hear the word rigor in presentations this year, held up as a goal, as a good thing. Can we just stop? Thanks.
  4. Welcome feelings of inadequacy. This is not a new phenomena for me and the NCTE annual convention. I wrote about this last year, too. I find myself frequently listening to a brilliant teacher presenting and I think, “Argh! Why aren’t I doing that? That’s awesome!” But rather than beating myself up constantly about this, I have to realize that feeling inadequate at my job is an important part of reflective practice. I want to constantly strive to do better for my students. day by day, week by week, year by year. If I cannot create a vision for what my classroom could become that is different from how it is, I will never grow as a teacher. The stories I witness at NCTE help me build vision, they create the gap between my classroom as it is and my classroom as it could be. Without that gap, there is nothing to reach for. So thank you, every single teacher I heard speak, for helping me craft my vision of the possible (even if it does come with a creeping sense of inadequacy).
  5. Write. I am a better teacher when I write. I am better able to teach my students from the inside of the writing process when I write. I am more aware of my world and my place within it when I write. I am a more reflective teacher when I write. I am a better human being when I write. I am more connected to my colleagues near and far when I write. I better understand myself, my teaching, my classroom when I write. So I aspire to more blogging. More tweeting of thoughts/observations/moments from my classroom. More writer’s notebook writing. More writing with students. More writing to figure out what the heck I’m trying to accomplish in my classroom.
  6. Writer’s notebooks. These are going pretty well for some of my students this year. But I want writer’s notebooks to become indispensable to them, as indispensable as Penny Kittle’s is to her. What a great model she is for her students for living the life of a writer. Even in the session she presented with Kelly Gallagher and Donna Santman, when she was not presenting, she was writing in her writer’s notebook as she listened to her colleagues speak. I loved her reminder of doing a writer’s notebook tour for her students and the photos she showed us of her students’ writer’s notebooks, plastered with photos and other things to make them truly unique to each writer. I also need to remember that writer’s notebooks are an important location of data for me about what my students are understanding and not understanding and what they’re thinking about. I don’t collect writer’s notebooks from students, but I do create opportunities for students and I to peek into them together and talk about what’s there. I need to remember how important this is and continue to do it.
  7. The applied humanities. This comes from Christine Kuster and Katie Miles on Saturday (and Bill McGinley, who was unable to be at NCTE this year).  Katie sent along an article to me on this, “Applied Humanities” by Svetlana Nikitina, published in Liberal Education, winter 2009. This may be the framework my colleagues and I need for imagining what we can do with second semester with our seniors. We want them working with words to have an impact on their world–focusing on the particular social issue that they are researching this semester. The humanities, story, emotion, art–these things are so second nature to us that it’s sometimes difficult for us to even see them there. But they must be there. A heavy focus on STEM sometimes seems to eclipse the humanities. This is not a good idea. The humanities help us to understand the human consequences of the things that we pursue through science (or math or engineering or technology). This is what Frankenstein is all about, the ethical boundaries of science. Some scholars are working on how to make the role of the humanities more explicit so students know when they are using those lenses and so teachers can plan for classroom experiences for students to use those lenses. This is really what we are aiming for with our seniors, and the framework may help to to get there more concretely. Dave Eggers said in his keynote that “English teachers are the guardians of empathy.” And we are. We MUST help our students to see very concretely why the work they do in our classes matters toward their meaningful life as human beings.
  8. Jettison what distracts my classroom from the most important stuff. Penny Kittle reminded us to keep focused in our planning first on what’s essential for our students to know/be able to do, then on what’s important, and lastly on what’s nice to know if there’s time for it. The work of a high school ELA classroom is important–students must develop lives as readers and writers able to collaborate with others to solve problems. Why on earth do we ever do anything else in class? I want to look closely at what we’re doing and look for the places where we’re not focused in a meaningful way on this work. I know there are things we just don’t need to be doing in favor of students engaging with text as readers and writers in the most meaningful ways possible. Kelly Gallagher showed us how he presents “seeds” to his students in the form of info graphics, one per day, that they read together, discuss, and then write about. He did this for seven class days in a row. Low stakes writing. Infographics that reflect topics and issues that matter to students. Powerful texts for practicing reading and for them using as a launch pad for writing. I need to do more of this. And get maybe a bit more committed to a daily classroom schedule that makes space for meaningful reading and writing work every single day.
  9. Why read? Kathy Collins presented some powerful research about why reading is so important to us individually and collectively. It’s transformative for individuals who then can contribute more positively to our collective needs. It’s a critical piece of a functioning democracy. This is so clear now with all the angry and often unfounded-in-any-kind-of-reasonable-thinking rhetoric that is flying around everywhere. We’ve got to slow down, think, ask questions, listen to one another, learn about the experiences of others, develop empathy. Reading helps develop all of these things. I can make a better argument to my students about this.
  10. Elementary teachers rock. I attended a few sessions aimed at elementary teachers and I learned so much about concrete ways to help my high school students become better readers. I loved Vicki Vinton’s very simple framework where she asks students what they know about a text and what they wonder about it. The first question teases out what they are able to see, learn, figure out–infer. The second question gets students to explore what is uncertain, what they don’t know, what they want to know more about. As a framework to structure a collective reading experience (as we did in Vicki’s session), it’s beautiful. So simple and uncluttered, yet there we were pointing out very specific bits and pieces of the text and seeing what we could figure out about them, forming questions that drove our reading, and revising our understanding as we read and discussed more of the text. I can see how this could be so helpful to emerging readers in elementary school–and I know it will be incredibly helpful to my adolescent readers. It’s as if we get to high school and assume that they can all do just fine with reading, but really we must remain vigilant. They need to continue this sort of reading work to become stronger and stronger readers.
  11. Stop grading. I attended a couple of sessions about grading, managing the paper load, etc. And both were PACKED with people, pretty much standing room only. People are hungry for strategies to do less “grading” because it is the one thing that sucks up our very life as ELA teachers. And I cannot tell you how many times I heard presenters say, “I’d love to just not have to deal with grades at all but my school requires me to put grades in the gradebook.” So does mine. But I don’t do it anymore. At least not in a traditional sense. Points, letter grades, rubrics that spell out every little possible contingency for a student’s performance on a task… we really can stop all of this. In fact, we must. It’s better for our students and better for us. They are readers, writers, human beings, not point collectors. But as long as we still throw points at them, they will continue asking, “how many points is this?” rather than, “can you read this and see if my ideas are coming across clearly?” I haven’t put a grade on a paper for almost two years now (trying to catch up with Nancie Atwell’s forty years with no grades on papers, as Kelly Gallagher told us on Saturday). We can look at this differently. (Click here to read some of my thinking about this in the blog from the last two years.)
  12. Love. Susan MacKay told us about her third grade student Angelina who said, “I figured out what belongs in the middle. It’s love.” This is beautiful. So simple and so true, yet love so often seems to be at the center of the business of school. Ernest Morrell reminded us that we are engaged in a war with media for the “lives and souls of our babies”–a media, he explained, that broadcasts constant messages about what it means to be cool, what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be smart, and who gets to do math, for example. Hence, he called to us to commit to teaching them how to read those media messages critically. And in his call I see an example of love in the middle–for “our babies” and their very souls. Kathy Collins asked us to have an appreciative view of the children in our classrooms, to work to know them as the individuals that they are, to be able to serve up invitations to them as readers and writers that are as unique as they each are. Colleen Cruz reminded us how important it is to find the positive in every single student so we may cultivate healthy relationships with them so they feel safe and valued in our classrooms. I could go on–calls to put love at the center of the work we do came up again and again. Love belongs in the middle of all of it.

And with that, I feel like I can close my notebook (for now), the most important strands in my thinking downloaded here to this blog post. I’ll work to get through the school work that followed me on break in the next two days–then enjoy Thanksgiving, then get to some writing I want to accomplish this week.

I’ll close with gratitude. Thank you, NCTE15. I’ve also decided to do less Facebook and more Twitter (even removed Facebook from my phone toward this goal) so I can keep in better touch with all of you in the months ahead.

I’m so glad I made the trip to Minneapolis–and I’ll see you next year.


This entry was posted in #NCTE15, balancing, colleagues, cultivating our voice, grading, gratitude, literacy, making change, not grading, on the road again, professional development, teaching reading. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My Top Takeaways from #NCTE15

  1. Pingback: Collecting Snippets from #NCTE15 | Resource - Full

  2. vvinton says:

    So glad, Sarah, that you totally got that the Know/Wonder chart works as well with high school students as it does with lower school ones! It’s a wonderful way in particular to help HS students who are turned off to reading to begin to build an identity and sense of agency as readers. And so glad you filled me in on some of the sessions I missed—in particular the one with Penny, Donna & Kelly, which I couldn’t get in to! THANKS

  3. Pingback: Daily Links (weekly) | Musings in a Post-Postmodern Milieu

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