Fierce Kindness, Day Two, #NCTE16

I’m writing this while hanging out at Java Monkey in Decatur. Jay is strumming away on the guitar and singing his songs. We’re eating vegan cake, enjoying some wine. We actually ran into a former student of ours who now goes to college here in Atlanta and regularly hangs out at this coffee house. She was surprised to see us all here, and I was reminded again about how our students just might be taking over the world (it is customary to run into a current student or alum whenever I travel anywhere…). She commented that we all seem to be pretty good friends, and we are. I’m so grateful for the people I teach with. As Claire helped me maneuver my fork on the plate to scrape up the last of the vegan chocolate ganache, Paul jokingly said, “It takes a village.”

But it’s no joke. That’s exactly what it takes.

We are a village.  (Claire is even helping me write this right now.)

NCTE expands the village.

Today started at 6:45am.

So worth it, though. Teacher church. Otherwise known as the Don Graves breakfast. My friend Kate invited me, and I’m eternally grateful. I feel like I missed out on some critical writing teacher experience by not ever having had a conversation with Don Graves. I can read his words (I’m working on that), and I know that his legacy plays out in the writing and teaching of the teachers whose writing and words have inspired me for years.

But today I got a better sense of the person Don Graves was.

There were some stories about him. About how he listened to people in a way that made them feel like they were important and that they had his attention fully and completely. People felt valued and honored in his presence. There were stories about how he would give his time to teachers he didn’t even know, to listen, to hear about their classrooms, to offer whatever he could to help them in their pursuit to make writing meaningful for their students.

In these stories, there was a definite a call to honor his legacy of kindness and generosity.

Last spring, the University of Denver had a memorial service for my dad to provide an opportunity for the community there to say goodbye. My brother and I read our eulogy to the crowd of Dad’s students and colleagues. After the service, two of his colleagues came up to me separately and told me that they had never heard my father speak an unkind word to anyone. I loved hearing this, and it became my father’s challenge to me. He had always taught me to care about the experiences of others, to say thank you, to be exceedingly generous, and to work to improve people’s lives. These were the rules in our home when I grew up. These were the principles that I saw my dad live out in his interactions with people in his professional world, with extended family members, and with waiters at restaurants and salespeople in department stores and cashiers at the grocery store. When I learned that Dad worked intentionally to be a force of kindness in his professional life, this became my challenge too. I would be beyond honored if kindness was a quality that stood out about me. Via my father, via the legacy of Don Graves, this has become my charge.

And what does that look like in my classroom, this “relentless barrage of kindness” (as Smoky Daniels called it)?

It’s showing my students that I know they can become readers and writers, that their ideas and words matter, that their unique perspective on the world is important. It’s “leaning in” to listen to students, to their parents, to colleagues. It’s saying thank you, thank you sincerely. It’s generosity with my time, my focus, my resources–with anything I can give.

It’s doing what Tom Newkirk implored us to do as he closed out the Don Graves breakfast as a response to what he called the recent “troubling crossing of so many lines.” He asked us to march, to show solidarity, and he suggested that we could do it in small ways, like cultivating the practice of deliberate acts of kindness. He said that sometimes in the busy-ness of our work, we don’t think about who we could reach out to. We must reach out. We must connect. We must speak up–even if it’s difficult and scary.

From 6:45 am to now, approaching midnight, it’s been a typical NCTE day–a blur of wonderfulness and new ideas and conversations with colleagues from across the country. I connected with the fellow teacher bloggers at Three Teachers Talk. We saw our friends from Michigan (session A.55–“Teenage Change Agents”) and got some great ideas about how to get my students writing to have an impact, to make change. We met new colleagues in the people who attended our session today. I got to hear from some of my inspirations: Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst. I love the sessions that Kylene moderates. Her questions pull out the specific details that the audience craves to understand about the practices the panelists describe. Linda closed the session with a call to kindness. She read to us from Wonder, a passage where the principal says to be “kinder than necessary.”

From the legacy of Donald Graves to the reminder from Linda Rief, my day was bookended by calls to be a beacon of kindness. I love that this is our village’s response to the results of the recent election–action through kindness. Standing together to protect and honor our students and their stories is what we must do.

I’ll close with the words of Cornelius Minor from his brief talk at the Don Graves breakfast where he expressed his credo that guides his teaching: “If we are not showing fierce, selfless love, we do not deserve our teaching licenses.”







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