“What surprised you?”
Kylene Beers said this morning in her session with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher that If you take nothing else from her talk, take this simple question as an awesome invitation to get students to talk with each other about what they read.
Yes. I love this question. In fact, I’ll use it to reflect over today’s text, the sessions I got to attend.
What surprised me?
ONE: The eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers. It was a “heartbeep moment” (Olivia Van Ledjte–a moment that changes the way you see humanity). Jordyn Zimmerman’s talk brought me to tears: she was “desperately tired of being silenced” by schools who saw her as less than due to her differently-abled brain. I loved her advice: “greet students in the hallway, even if you don’t know them, even if they don’t respond.” I will remember this. Zephyrus Todd reminded us that our LGBTQ students want to be treated with normalcy, for us to “love them just like they’re any other person because they are.” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez affirmed what I have been telling my students: “putting power into the hands of the youth is what the world needs more than anything right how.” He’s so right–watching my students talk and listen to each other about our world gives me so much hope. I just want to hand it over to them already. And Marley Dias for president, right? I loved her charge to us, to awaken our students to the experiences of others because “most people are asleep to the problems of others.” This IS my charge, but sometimes the landscape of the day to day eclipses it–the bells keep ringing and all those little things I need to do to keep my classroom running never seem to go away… but I want to stay laser-focused on this work. I’ll keep Marley’s words in mind. (I missed the remaining students–had to leave a few minutes early.)
TWO: Actually, the eloquence, wisdom, poise, and confidence of the morning key note speakers did not really surprise me. Young people are all of those things when we get the heck out of their way. The students reminded me that I need to continually work on not impeding what is possible for my students to accomplish and become in my classroom and in our world. We need them to be fully present change agents right now. We need them desperately. I want to play backup. I want to listen, support, think through with them, help them problem solve, show them how to use literacy skills to impact their world, to be activists, as Liv said, because they are thinking beyond their own lives and experiences.
THREE: This sobering moment from the session with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher: One of Penny’s college students, when speaking about his high school writing experience said, “it wasn’t like the teacher wanted to have a conversation with you about your writing. You could go see her if you wanted to.” Ouch. Do my students ever think that about me? I hope not; I actively check in with them every week as they write in my classroom. But am I showing them that I really do want to have conversations with them about their writing? When I make sure I sit down for that conversation with each of them, I do. When I even schedule the conversations in advance (as I’ve been doing the last three weeks as they’ve made their way through three drafts of a major piece of writing), I show them that I’m planning time and space with each of them. This matters. I will do more of this.
FOUR: Jay and I realized during this same session (Kylene, Penny, and Kelly) that because we literally teach NEXT DOOR to each other one class period of the day, my seniors should be having conversations with his freshmen. That particular class of my seniors is the quietest, most perplexing group of students I have ever taught. There is a majority of naturally “quiet kids” in that class (confirmed by having had them in my class as freshmen too), but I don’t want to just leave it at that. I want to help them talk more, to use talk to learn, to use talk to connect. How might it change the dynamic if they have to talk to a 9th grader as part of what we’re doing in class? Lots to think about here. I loved Kelly’s suggestions for how to teach kids how to have good conversations–firstly, have good conversations with them. And I loved the flipgrid videos–I’ve been wanting to use this tool. Might finally take the leap.
FIVE: Kate Flowers took us through a mini reading ladder activity. She asked us to write down the last three books we’ve read and then rank order them from least to most difficult. Then we were to write one sentence about how we defined difficulty as we ranked the books. Then we talked to each other, and a few people shared their lists and thinking out. I defined difficulty based on how much work it took me to keep my eyes on the page and my mind focused. But that was not how other teachers defined it. I was struck by how much thinking about our individual reading process came out of this. As I listened to teacher after teacher talk through their rank-ordered lists, I knew I had to throw this task at my AP Lit students. It was incredibly meaningful even just for considering a few books and writing one sentence… My focus in my AP Lit class is building readers, and I love what the task will tease out for them about the reading journeys they have been on. Thank you, Kate, for making me actually try out a mini reading ladder. Of course I had read about the approach through Penny’s work, and I knew it would be powerful from reading the examples she provides, but I had never sat down and actually tried it myself.
(and then I left in the middle of that session–and missed Anna Osborn’s entirely–so I could catch at least some of the conversation Kylene Beers moderated between Ernest Morrell, Pam Allyn, and Kwame Alexander.)
SIX: When I walked in the room halfway through the session, Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander were in the middle of a conversation about the books our students need: books that represent them more diversely, books that provoke their thinking, books that reflect our world authentically. Kwame repeated a few times that the books will do the work–meaning the right books will help our students to know and think about the ways our world marginalizes and oppresses; we need only to give students the space to talk about them. I love this. So much. And Ernest gave me the question I need to launch the second semester with my senior lit class: If you could change your community and/or our world, what would you change? I can’t wait to get my students started on this work. AND I have always felt incredibly guilty as an ELA teacher who really doesn’t like Hemingway. I discovered I have a friend in Pam Allyn in this. Thank you, Pam. I will stop apologizing for this Hemingway issue.
SEVEN: Kwame Alexander answered the final question from Kylene with a poem. And it was perfect. She asked, “How do we respond to that person who wants to silence us?” His answer? This.
EIGHT: Sometimes the best way to do the conference is to skip out on a round of sessions and go outside on a gorgeous day and walk a bit to get some local food for lunch. It was Jay’s idea. I’m grateful.
NINE: The knowledge was flowing SO FURIOUSLY in the #DisruptTexts session with Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and fellow Coloradan Julia Torres that I couldn’t keep up in my notes and had to resort to photos of their slides to capture what I wanted to hang on to and come back to and reflect on (which was everything). This is such an important conversation, and I was lucky to have as my insightful shoulder buddy for turn and talks during this session Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk. Between this session and the one with Beers, Morrell, Allyn, and Alexander, what I really want to do with my AP Lit class is make it nothing but texts that disrupt the canon–both for whole-class reads and book groups. Contemporary. Voices that write about what we’re dealing with NOW. Marginalized voices. Counter narratives. Including stories that don’t perpetuate a damage-centered narrative (Tuck 2009) about people of color. LOVED Julia’s framework for addressing resistance to work to disrupt the texts we typically put in front of students:
- When you feel defensive, ask: what are you protecting?
- When you don’t want to change, ask: what are you maintaining?
- When you make choices for students rather than making space for their choices, what’s the message you’re sending?
I love that Tricia, Lorena, and Julia asked us to step up. They did not mince words. They did not sugar coat anything. This is the work we need to be doing. All of us. Now.
And Kate Flowers has the best possible counter to anyone who says they can’t make change or that they have to keep doing things that don’t help kids because they’re told to: “That’s not good enough.”
We have voice and agency over what our students experience in our classrooms every day. Let’s make it the best we possibly can to honor their individual journeys as humans and to make our world kinder and safer and more inclusive.
THAT was a full, empowering, exhausting, 14-pages-of-notes-in-my-writer’s-notebook day. See y’all tomorrow.