Yes, I am finally joining the Paper Graders as an official member! Mrs. B is here! We had an amazing day at NCTE today, including a presentation entitled Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning to over 200 people in a not-quite-big-enough room at the St. Louis Convention Center. Sarah and Jay spoke about how they are teaching students to take ownership of their own learning by creating their own learning goals, becoming better at reading their own writing and finding flaws in their drafts which they can correct. I shared how my IB students practice for their Oral Exams by pairing up and sitting across from each other with one person as the speaker and one as the listener, and while the speaker delivers his or her commentary on a poem or soliloquy or piece of prose, the listener listens, very carefully, and takes copious notes on the commentary being given by their partner. The exercise is one to prepare them for their Oral Exam in January, since there is no way for me to sit with each of my 90 IB students and listen to a 10-minute commentary. They are learning how to listen carefully, take notes carefully, present a commentary in a compelling way, and then give feedback to their partner that will help them improve in their next attempt at an oral commentary. The point being that I am trying to teach my IB students who are getting ready to head off to college, work, the military or world travel how to speak clearly, listen carefully, and help another human being improve their efforts at speaking and listening. These are skills that will help them in college, in jobs, in life, and they are also learning how to be more independent from me, the teacher, and help each other without my interference. In the end, these practice sessions help me as much as they help them, because I don’t need to be listening to every word of 90 students, but can listen in and offer a helping hand when needed.
My day started with a wonderful walk with Sarah Zerwin down by the riverside as we ventured early this morning to the Saint Louis Archway Park and surveyed the Arch itself, along with the park around the Arch, the trails leading down to the river, and the life of St. Louis on an early Saturday morning. We saw a river barge going by, just as it would have many years ago, we saw the sun come out from behind the clouds to light up the Arch, we saw an amazing bronze statue of Lewis and Clark returning from their long exploration to the Pacific Ocean, and we saw a beautiful little cobblestoned section of St. Louis called Laclede’s Landing, St. Louis’ oldest district. The sad part of our journey was that we saw a few runners and Park rangers, but not many other people, a common theme in our few days here in the city that has served as the Gateway to the West. Jay noticed that there seems to be an emptiness in St. Louis, as if the life of the city has been punched out in the last few years. We heard some poetry shared by Noana, a young teacher at tonight’s Fountain of the Muse session after all the other NCTE participants had gone home, that backed up what we were feeling. She lives here, and she wrote a beautiful poem about St Louis, about the old buildings that seem to have black eyes from the blown-out windows, and the empty streets, and she told us that St. Louis has always wanted to be a big city, but is still and ever was a small town.
My first conference activity this morning was going to hear Sara Ahmed, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, and Stephanie Harvey speak on Igniting Kids’ Curiosity and Passion with Student-Directed Inquiry Circles. My favorite part was Sara’s section on Soft Starts, where the elementary and middle schools they work with have a 5-15 minute “soft start” to the day where they come into the classroom, find a book or newspaper or magazine, find a comfortable beanbag chair or place on the floor, and read for a few minutes before they begin class. Another version of this soft start that Smokey Daniels presented was a middle school in Kentucky that has kids waiting at the door to come in and choose to do a dance party or reading or work on hands-on projects for a few minutes before the day of learning begins. The end product in all of these experiments was a group of students who were more settled, more relaxed, and more ready to learn. I thought about how I practice a “soft start” with my high school classes by asking them to pause each morning for 3-5 minutes to do a mindfulness exercise. Sometimes we just focus on breathing, sometimes we do morning sun salutations outside facing the sun or the Flatirons, and sometimes we lie down on the floor, put our feet on the chairs in astronaut position and just take a few minutes to calm our minds and bodies. The result for my students is that they can then come to the work of the day in a more relaxed and more focused mood, and they are able to get more work done in less time, because they have a clear mind and a more relaxed body to get into whatever we are working on that day.
For lunch, I was fortunate to go to the Secondary Section Luncheon where Daniel Jose Older, who has a new YA book called Shadowshaper out, spoke to us about the value of teachers in supporting and encouraging young writers to become committed writers of the future. He said “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” and he spoke about how his mother, who was a teacher, encouraged him in his writing and creativity, as did his teacher in middle school, who gave him a book entitled Bloodchild by Octavia Butler. He didn’t read it or really understand it until 10 years later, but when he did, it became one of his inspirations for writing his own work. He said he did not see himself in books because he was a young boy of Cuban descent in New York, and he said most books he read in school did not contain black or brown characters unless they were being saved by white men. He asked us “How do you survive the long night of invisibility when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back?” Great question, and one that he is trying to answer by writing YA books that feature young characters of color who are powerful in their own right. Daniel ended his talk with the statement that “Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world around them, it is to arm them with language to describe what they already know.” Powerful words from a powerful writer.
So what did I learn today? I learned that the best way to get to know a place is by getting outside and walking in the streets and parks and secret sections of town. I learned that soft starts can work for children of any age, and I would say soft starts would even work in an adult work environment too, if adults could put down their cup of coffee and calm themselves for a few minutes before diving into work. I learned that I need to be more aware of the diversity in my classroom, and how I must choose works which speak to all the cultures and colors present there. I learned that “Teachers are magic, and magic is dangerous!” And I learned that spending my time, money, and effort to come to the national conference to present with my colleagues brings me closer to them in the shared expenditure of energy, and allows us to share some of the work we are doing at our high school with the rest of the teaching world.