Looking back at #NCTE19 (from Tuesday in Colorado in 23 inches of snow)

This post was also published on The Paper Graders.

“Process all you heard today and set your intentions from here on out.”

–Sara Ahmed

I intended to write this post on the plane on the way home, but the internet wasn’t working. I reviewed my notes in my writer’s notebook instead to figure out what I would write about.

I intended to write this post yesterday, but all I could muster after four packed NCTE/travel days was yoga class, and making pizza dough, and Scrabble with my family.

I hope to get this post done today, but the sun is already setting and my body is buzzing from the snow shoveling that sucked up a good portion of the afternoon (we got 23 inches of snow in the last 24 hours). And I’m getting hungry–almost time to make some dinner.

So in no particular order, here are my takeaways from NCTE in Baltimore:

1shea martin’s selfie pedagogy. They defined this as “culturally responsive pedagogy that is not student centered. It’s often filtered by educator’s experience, interests, and trauma.” This is when we have the best of intentions to respond to who our students are and what they need, but we’re standing in the way ourselves, making it impossible to see our students clearly. More nuggets from shea: “The Road to liberation is paved by good intentions.” And “Be okay with letting students drive sometimes.” And “In order to be truly liberatory, we have to make our culturally responsive pedagogy unfiltered and student-centered.”

If you didn’t see shea’s important thread about how not having their pronouns on their nametag affected their experience at NCTE, take a look here.

2The importance of “troubling” our own beliefs about education once in a while. This comes from Kate Roberts. What she meant by this is that we must make sure that our classroom practices line up with our beliefs, and we have to examine carefully for any mismatch frequently. She asked, “what practices are working for my kids? and which are not? is there a practice that is not doing what is intended for it to do?” I really appreciate this reminder as I’m heading into the end of the first semester here, meaning that I get a fresh start in just a few weeks. I’ll want to make that fresh start standing firmly in what I’m pretty sure is working for my students, free of what doesn’t seem to be. I’ll seek their feedback as part of the final exam stuff we do, and I’ll listen carefully when I read their semester grade letter/stories for indications of what’s working and what’s not. Kate also reminded us: “If we don’t listen to what’s relevant to our kids, we’re going to lose them.”

3Tricia Ebarvia: “Our goal is to let students become who they are” and “in what ways can writing be an act of liberation?” Yes. And we do so much sometimes that gets in the way of this. “Does your teaching lead to deep understanding about writing?” Tricia asked. I want it to. I want my students to have a deep understanding about what writing can do for them. I love that Tricia said she never collects writer’s notebooks, that they are “conversation students have with themselves.” I don’t collect them either, but I harbor some guilt about this. Students take photos of individual pages on occasion to turn in to me, but I never collect and read the actual notebooks. I, too, consider those notebooks my students’ personal space for their own thinking. I have no business there, and it was great to hear another educator I respect say the same. Tricia asked, “what are the values and assumptions we perpetuate when we ‘correct’ forms of writing?” Yes, I worry about this. I’m using the college board’s new AP Lit rubrics to score (not for a grade of course) my students’ writing so they’ll know what’s expected of them for exam writing. But I want to make sure my students know those rubrics are not about some kind of “correct” approach to writing what they think about a book. It’s just one way–there are many others. How is my class making space for those other ways?

4 #DisruptTexts. The session I attended last year by these smart teachers was a packed conference room, and this year, it was a packed ballroom. I am so grateful to Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres for the important work they have been doing to drive this conversation. As I’ve written about before, they’ve really challenged me to reexamine AP Lit. Their mission includes “creating an equitable and inclusive curriculum by repairing the damage of a white-centered pedagogy.”

Julia asked, “how are we rewarding conformity and punishing resistance?” She reminded us that we must “recognize the ways we are all complicit in perpetuating systemic oppression, and consequently, we are responsible for dismantling it.”

Lorena reminded us that the traditional canon is “for white people, by white people, and about white people” and reminded us that we must look for and include the stories at the margins of this. Because “race continues to be the largest determinant of inequity across all areas of life,” we must bring it into the classroom deliberately and “challenge the problematic, violent, and incorrect dominant narratives that exist in books.” Lorena added that this is literally an issue of life and death for some of our students, and she wondered what it would mean to “design a class focused on counter narratives.” I would love to go there with AP Lit–we’re definitely heading in that direction.

When Tricia took the stage, she shared a tidbit from Chad Everett, who said that there are no “diverse” texts. That term suggests some kind of a norm to begin with, leaving the ones that don’t fit it as “diverse.” Definitely problematic, and a term I can happily set aside. This take on the term diverse isn’t visible without a critical perspective, and Tricia asked us to “intentionally support the development of a critical consciousness in our students.” She showed us how to get students to think about what is seen and known in a text and what is invisible and not seen to start them thinking about dominant vs. counter narratives and offered examples of how we can infuse typical literary analysis conversations with a critical lens. An example she gave was to ask which characters in a book have the privilege to be major instead of minor characters, or round characters rather than flat ones.

Dr. Parker asked us, “to whom are you accountable” for doing the work as anti-racist educators. She asked us to work in community with each other, especially with Black and Indigenous educators and other educators of color, lifting up their efforts and voices, honoring their knowledge production, and working toward liberation as co-conspirators. She reminded us that we each have a circle of what we can control and what we can influence, and we need to remember that there’s plenty outside of that we can neither control nor influence. We can focus our efforts in the places we can have impact.

I loved that the session included hearing from some authors themselves, authors to consider as we make choices for texts in our classrooms. I loved the energy in the session, the free books, the awesome book marks, the conversation at my table. I loved that there were so many people in the room.

5Day three started VERY early with the third Don Graves Legacy Breakfast hosted by Heinemann. The theme this time was orthodoxy, the orthodoxies that creep into our teaching and make us ineffective. Graves’ solution (as Tom Newkirk reminded us) was to intentionally pay attention to students, who they are, what they’re saying, what they need. This lines up with some conversations my SLCC teammates and I have been having. Though we’re all using the same general paper cycle (repeated every six weeks or so, inspired by this), our classes look pretty different. We’re each following our students’ interests and inviting them to focus on what matters to them as they make choices about what they read and write.

What followed Newkirk’s introduction was inspiring and important–I feel lucky to have been in the room. Here are some tidbits:

“The outgrowth of using politeness, kindness, and civility as veils to avoid the most important work in our classrooms is racist tweeting, police brutality, the inhumane treatment of immigrants, etc. We must examine the role our classrooms have and do play.”

–Lorena Germán

“Identify the racists by the outcomes their actions produce continually.”

–Cornelius Minor

“Stories, the pen, can keep the stories of people alive even when the world says other.”

–Tiana Silvas

“We must write–the number one condition of being a writing teacher.”

–Penny Kittle

“Graves is speaking to those of us inside, not outside, of our profession to work on orthodoxies. […] But putting students at the center does not mean we should neglect ourselves. […] Can’t get to the kid if you can’t first get to yourself.”

–Chad Everett

And the work Andria Cole is doing with A Revolutionary Summer in Maryland shows us so clearly the interplay between literacy, literature, and self-love. Talk about liberation. We need more of this kind of work.

6The highlight of the whole conference for me was Tommy Orange. NCTE Vice President Alfredo Celedón Luján introduced Orange with this: “Real stories are hard to read. Not because they’re hard, but because they’re real.” From the moment Tommy Orange hit the stage, he was one collection of words after another I wanted to remember and scribbled madly into my notebook. “The more specific you get in your writing, the more universal it is,” he said, rather than helicoptering over your life and writing generalizations. One I want to share with my students: “I wish I had become a reader earlier. I wasted a lot of time.” And “For us,” he said of the depiction of native people, “to only be historically depicted means we’re already gone.”

Tommy Orange speaking at the Saturday general session.

7Next year: ¡Confluencia! Songs of Ourselves. This is the conference theme for NCTE 2020 in Denver. And I have to say I love it. Alfredo Celedón Luján writes of discovering the theme in the call for proposals and explains that a confluence, literally, is a coming together of two rivers, and figuratively, we can think of it as “the joining and/or reunion of ideas, genres, philosophies, songs, genders, cultures, heritage, ethnicities, regions, terrains, wafts, teachers and students of English, pedagogies.” I love that the theme uses the Spanish version of the word, which for me speaks to the rich Latinx heritage of the Denver area. I love that there is literally a confluence of two rivers within walking distance of the Colorado Convention Center. I’m excited that the conference will be just down the road for me, requiring a bus ride down US 36 to get there rather than a flight across the country.

“Leave NCTE with a blessed unrest in your belly.”

–Chad Everett

Yes. I have more in my notebook that I could share with you–like the project based writing session (Liz Prather et al) that gave me some great ideas I can use next week. But what I’ve shared here is the stuff that has created that blessed unrest in me. An unrest to keep working toward equity, keep engaging the conversation with my colleagues, keep finding ways to infuse it in my classroom, keep finding ways to step aside so I can see my students clearly as they are so I can build a classroom that sees them fully.

Those are my intentions from here on out.

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