Ode to Conferences

I know I don’t represent everyone on this, but I have always found teaching conferences, gatherings populated with and led by feet-on-the-ground practitioners, life-changing. I’ll never forget my first NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Conference. I was 21 years old, in the midst of that most difficult first year of teaching, and I happened to be teaching English at a private school so small I was the only middle school English teacher. I had six preps that year, including 8th grade history which I was in no way qualified to teach, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed by the time November hit that I wasn’t sure which way was up. My professional network at that time was non-existent, except for my subscriptions to two NCTE-based journals (Voices from the Middle and English Journal), and I soaked up each print copy I received in the mail as if it was manna from heaven. When I heard that NCTE was just one hour away (Indianapolis, 2004), I marched to my principal’s office and begged for support to go. She gave it.

As I walked into the Indianapolis conference center, I felt swarmed by my people. We all looked vaguely similar, earnest and bookish, large name tag waving in the wind. I ran from session to session, increasingly exhilarated. I became an expert at hunting down sessions in which I would get a coveted “handout” . . . A practical worksheet or idea I could apply when I returned to the daily onslaught. I spoke to everyone I could. After all, I was a relative hermit on an island by myself and a brand new teacher. Every word, idea was like a revelation. Literally everyone I met had more experience than me. I could not write fast enough, talk enough, walk fast enough. I had found my people. It turned out, all along, I was not alone.

Fast forward fifteen years in my career, and conferences like NCTE have a very different, but still exhilarating function. But I was not the only faculty member representing St. Andrew’s in Baltimore at NCTE 2019 this November. Read on to see how a pro like Harriet Whitehouse, 6th grade English Language Arts, makes the most of conferencing:

The following is my report on the NCTE in Baltimore. I very much appreciated the opportunity to be there.  Attending the sessions restored my joy in my profession, especially after this fall of doggedly putting one foot in front of the other.  More so than other NCTE conventions I have attended, the 2019 NCTE stressed openness, modern voices,  global literature, and diversity. There was also more about heart and aesthetics than incorporation of technology, which is a change from previous years. In the following report, I will cite each session and provide one key item that informed my thoughts, outlook, and inspiration.

THE OPENING KEYNOTE ADDRESS: George Takei, alias Hikaru Sulu of the Starship Enterprise, spoke about his years in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.  His theme was inclusiveness, celebration of diversity, and the requirement of social justice throughout our society and the world. 

I spent considerable time in the Exhibit Hall looking at the new books coming out.  I also talked with several publishers’ reps, and I have arranged for examination copies of grammar and writing materials for grades 5-8 to be sent directly to us in the coming weeks.

Sessions attended: 

COMPOSING WITH THE EYES OF ARTISTS: CRAFTING MULTIMODAL WRITING PROJECTS ACROSS GRADE LEVELS.  The term “existing literacies” was used as a springboard to enter literature and writing projects when one finds the students’ existing literacies.

CENTERING A DIVERSITY OF LGBTQ VOICES IN EDUCATION:  As we experience an increasing number of LGBTQ students, there is a growing body of literature that gives these students a greater chance to join the mainstream in education and school life.

STORIES FROM THE STICKS: REVERSING NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER AND RAISING ENVIRONMENTALISTS VIA LITERARY INQUIRY INTO THE NATURAL WORLD. This session provided profound information on how to use literature to raise environmentally aware activists for the well-being of the planet. 

INQUIRY IN THE OUTDOORS: PLACE-BASED WRITING AS AN AVENUE FOR AUTHENTIC RESEARCH. “Thick descriptors” was the keyword in this session, using one’s civic and natural environment to survey, make field notes, and interview as the precursors to each major writing piece.

POEMS AS PORTALS FOR INQUIRY.  I had the joy of hearing Georgia Heard present, and she led us to Joy Harjo, Native American poet whose poem “Remember” resonated with me.  I will be using “Remember”  in my classes when I teach Escape from Aleppo.

BLACK, QUEER, AND HERE:  INTERSECTIONALITY AND INVISIBILITY IN BLACK QUEER YA. I know at SA that we are often perceived as landing on the wrong side of being open and celebrating diversity, especially among the families of our African-American boys.  The LGBTQ issue will also increasingly come into play at SA, as will the intersection of the two.  Knowing the literature available seems really important.

TEACH GRAMMAR AND CONVENTIONS THROUGH SPIRITED INQUIRY: BUILDING A CULTURE OF CURIOSITY AND POSSIBILITY. I loved the premise presented in this workshop of teaching grammar through “the patterns of power.” Meaning and effect are much more important than grammatical rules, and the rules are presented as a way to enhance the meaning and effect.

USING PLAYFUL INQUIRY TO REDISCOVER THE POWER AND JOY OF WORD STUDY AND GRAMMAR. My second grammar workshop also emphasized student-inquiry driven grammar instruction by allowing the students to ask the questions that would inform their writing.

WORLDS WORTH FIGHTING FOR: THE WONDER AND AWE OF SPECULATIVE FICTION. Author Holly Black was the presenter of this session about world-building in literature and writing.  I have students who love to read about world-building, and some who are even playing with writing their own world-building stories.  The role of social justice in world-building was one focus of this session.  One other item of importance that really does influence my teaching at this point is the prevalence of the “imagination gap,” and the word from the presenters was that a significant way of overcoming the imagination gap is to move stories out of “fairyland” and into contemporary settings.

SAY YES TO PEARS.  This was my closing workshop, one that I picked for pure fun on the final Sunday morning of the convention.  I left this session in a glow because I see “Food Literature” as an immediate source of capturing the attention of the students.  One moves from creating a food map of significant family foods to food narratives that involve extended family and their stories.  After that, it is an easy extension to teach a piece of literature by tracking the food references and their role in telling the story.  I have ordered the book and will use it when I teach my winter and spring novels.

Inspiration and innovation can come in all sorts of forms: a quick google search, a conversation with a colleague, a tweet. But it can also come when we think big. Harriet’s words above pay testimony to the regeneration that is possible when we invest the time to request conference support, write sub plans, and hop on a plane. Perhaps the session sampling above will whet your appetite to find a conference of your own to apply to attend in the coming months. Need ideas? Reach out!

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