Well we’re here. St. Louis. In the shadow of the arch. Surrounded by our people (that’s the best part).
Like I’ve done for NCTE the last several years, I’m writing this evening to pull together what I thought about today (and last evening since I didn’t write last night). I’ll start with our friend and Colorado colleague, Julia Torres, from the opening session on Thursday:
— The Paper Graders (@ThePaperGrader) November 16, 2017
In a conversation about controversial books, Julia pointed out that we have to question what is considered controversial because what’s unfamiliar is what is often labeled as controversial. This sent me into my notes from my grad school work, searching for the tidbits that helped me to formulate my instructional purposes for teaching literary works:
“Social imagination is the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficit society, in the streets where we live and our schools. Social imagination not only suggests but also requires that one take action to repair or renew.” – Maxine Greene: Releasing the Imagination
“Literature and the literary imagination are subversive.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice
“Literature focuses on the possible, inviting its readers to wonder about themselves. […] Literary works typically invite their readers to put themselves in the place of people of many different kinds and to take on their experiences.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice
“Good literature is disturbing in a way that history and social science writing frequently are not. Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful confrontation with one’s own thoughts and intentions.” – Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice
“Narrative fiction creates possible worlds–but they are worlds extrapolated from the world we know, however much they may soar beyond it. The art of the possible is a perilous art. It must take heed of life as we know it, yet alienate us from it sufficiently to tempt us into thinking of alternatives beyond it. It challenges as it comforts. In the end, it has the power to change our habits of conceiving what is real, what canonical.” – Jerome Bruner, Making Stories
Books challenge us and our students to imagine the experiences of others, to see possibilities beyond our own realms of existence, to connect, to question.
Books are our weapons in the battle we fight in our classrooms for our students’ hearts, minds, and humanity, as Jimmy Santiago Baca told us this morning.
I have seen Jimmy speak on a few occasions–and I am amazed that I’ve never heard him repeat any story from his life. He has a universe of stories in him. But today was different–he was speaking especially to us: teachers, of reading and writing, about the critically important work we do. As he spoke, I wrote madly in my writer’s notebook to capture as much as I could. Here are a few tidbits:
- When will we turn our classrooms into places where we can speak again? Instead of an incessant unbelievable march for acceptance?
- Turn classrooms into battlegrounds for hearts and minds.
- We are the leaders. Leagues of students will follow us.
- Imagine a world without teachers for one second. Everything goes dark.
- Whenever there’s controversy, there are teachers. That’s who we are.
- Don’t mess with the teachers, dude.
- Students are the makers of history because of us. Teach them to use language as a weapon of love to fight the lies.
- We are the dream makers.
- Weaponize your words to fight injustice.
- Just write. Even if it’s only “Hi pencil.”
- Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.
- Education taught him that he could make his own life.
- Make mistakes. Since when did we start living trying not to make mistakes?
- The thing we have is amazing endurance to deal with so much crap.
There is something magic about Jimmy Santiago Baca. We were lucky to have him in our school in the spring of 2016. Picture 100 high school seniors, knee-to-knee in the library, writer’s notebooks on their laps, completely rapt by Jimmy. He told stories. He talked about writing. He asked them to write. He asked them to stand and read their words aloud. And they did. It was beautiful.
A real highlight of my day was this:
At the podium is Nancie Atwell. I started my career with In the Middle back in 1994 in my composition for teachers class during my teacher certification program at the University of Colorado. Miles Olsen told my class that we better be able to clearly articulate what we thought about In the Middle when we walked into job interviews as if Atwell’s book was so seminal that every self-respecting language arts department across the country would know about it and have an opinion about it.
I waited for that question in my first job interview back in 1996, and it never came. I got the job and at some point asked my colleagues what they knew about Atwell. They did not know who she was and were not familiar with the book or even workshop pedagogy for that matter. I didn’t quite know what to do with all of that. I was in first year teacher survival mode anyhow, so I just set aside the whole question, having no idea how right Miles Olsen was about the impact of Atwell’s work on my career.
She told the story of one of her students who came to her as a non-reader and ended up reading around 50 books during his 8th grade year in her classroom. And then he went off to high school where he fake read only two books in 9th grade. She spoke of how the readers she cultivates in her classroom have to put their reading lives on hold for the four years of high school language arts.
Enter intense feelings of inadequacy. I worry that even though I intend to build readers in my classroom, I end up squelching them somehow. We do one book together each semester but the rest of what they read is independent or book group reading on books that they choose. But my students are not reading 50 books in a school year.
Atwell repeated a few times the list of components students need to become readers: choice, access to intriguing books and intriguing invitations to read them, time to read in class, conversations with peers and the teacher, expectations from the teacher to read outside school voluminously. I know the things I need to work on–and it all comes down to more talk about books in my classroom. A community of readers can truly persuade a student to pick up a book, and than another, and another. We do some talk about books–but I know we can do more.
Atwell turned it over to Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to talk about how they cultivate high school readers. They were inspiring as always, and I’m anxious to get my hands on their upcoming book. I had to leave early to get my brain ready for our presentation, but as I left the auditorium, I heard Kelly say, “I’m a literacy teacher, not a literature teacher.” Yes.
Our presentation today was really different from any other presentations we’ve done, and it was a total blast. The core of it was what Jay is calling “two-prong authenticity”–authentic for both teacher and students. Music is in the realm of authentic for our students–they steep themselves in it. And for a singer-songwriter like Jay, music is in the realm of authentic for him. We’ve done songwriting workshops for the last two years for our senior LA class. His insight from inside the process as a songwriter makes the workshop meaningful for students and makes songwriting approachable even for those who do not even begin to consider themselves songwriters. In our session, we modeled the process we’ve used with our students to get them writing songs and shared some resources. And then people wrote some songs.
Jay brought his guitar and he sang–a few of his own songs and and a few songs that people wrote during the time we provided for them to play around with songwriting. Here’s a clip of him working with one of our attendees to put her lyrics to music. Huge thank you to everyone who came to the session. We really enjoyed working with you! We will post our presentation materials here sometime tomorrow.
In the interest of sleep, I’ll wrap this up, even though there is definitely more I could say about my day today. We present again tomorrow: a follow up of last year’s Stop Grading presentation that gets into more nuts and bolts about what the process has been in our classrooms to move away from traditional routes to the semester grade. (3pm, I.22, room 143–hope to see you there!)
Finally, last evening I got to hang out with my student teacher from seven years ago, who was here representing the Denver Writing Project at the NWP meeting. I love NCTE for the connections. I love these meetings for how they cultivate leaders, like this rock star teacher (whose rock star-ness was crystal clear to me in her very first days in my classroom as a pre-service teacher all those years ago). She’s doing great work in her school and for her students. I know I was supposedly the mentor, but I learned a lot from her.
Thank you, NCTE, once again, for bringing us all together.