Musings on NCTE 2016

I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference “Faces of Advocacy” earlier this month. For years, I had the misconception that NCTE was for secondary teachers. Then, as I began immersing myself in multiple blogs, I discovered that many elementary level teachers attended and loved NCTE conferences. My school sponsored my attendance this year, for which I am grateful and honored. I have attended many national conferences of various types, often as the sole teacher from my school, not knowing other people there. In spite of that being true again, I was surprised by how “at home” I felt at this conference – that I had found my tribe. img_7530

One highlight for me was the sheer number of authors who I was able to meet and/or listen to speak. It was inspiring to be with so many of them. I discovered new authors whose books I hadn’t read yet. I learned about new books that are forthcoming and sound marvelous. I heard origin stories for stories as well as circuitous revision routes. I scribbled furiously to catch words of wisdom from many:

“It is through books that we have the opportunity to meet people different from us and realize how alike we are.” Nikki Grimes (italics added by me)

Ami Polonski (Gracefully Grayson) talked about the power and responsibility that adults – teachers and parents – have as gatekeepers of middle grade fiction. We tend to buy the books, not the kids, so it is our duty to have a variety of books available and to teach them. This, and everything else I heard about the importance of diversity within our classroom libraries, has inspired me to set a goal for next summer: to look critically at my classroom library to see what “holes” I have in terms of various identifiers to make sure that I truly have opportunities for all kids to find books that are mirrors and windows. This research will inform my book purchases in August for the new school year. Of course, I’ll keep this in mind as I acquire books between now and then as well! But I look forward to a careful, critical examination of my library.

Many authors spoke of how they hear from readers and learn that their books truly save lives. Sharon Draper, an award-winning author as well as former teacher (and 1997 National Teacher of the Year – cool, fun fact to learn!), stressed how important it is to find THAT book for kids who don’t read, THAT book that finally turns them on to reading. Combined with another presentation on the Heartwork of Teaching, I was reminded again and again how the connection with our students is at the heart of any meaningful teaching. I know this, I believe this, and I value being reminded of this truth. It’s easy for teachers to get caught up in the day-to-day mundane details. This conference was a fantastic affirmation for me of what is most important.

Many authors also spoke about themselves as students, and many of them were not great students. Many struggled in school. It was inspiring to see how they overcame their challenges and became creators who impact children’s lives. Kwame Alexander said it well, “Sometimes we have to teach the kid, and not the curriculum.”

I shared with author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, how her book Fish in a Tree impacted one of my students a couple of years ago. Reading the novel as a class read aloud was a catalyst for this fourth grader to publicly own who she was as a learner to her peers. The strength and pride I saw in that student made my heart swell, and Lynda’s gracious and generous response to my story actually brings tears to my eyes when I tell others. Later this week I have the privilege of closing the gap and sharing her response with my former student.

One of my favorite sessions was about thinking of reading as revision. We talk all the time about revision when we write, but we also revise when we read. Our ideas of what is happening in a book are constantly changing as we learn more of the story. I gleaned so many ideas for conferring with kids about the reading that they do as well as resources for my future reference. Ellin Keene shared a powerful metaphor created by a first grader (I believe that’s the correct age) – that it’s like throwing a rock in a pond. The first time you read something, it makes a big splash. The ripples are your thinking getting bigger and bigger. The rock, your first thought, is still there though, underneath the water. I love it! As I thought about this metaphor, I realized that the edges of the pond are like the text of the story – our ideas and thinking are contained within the boundaries of the text evidence. I can’t wait to share this with my students.

Even in my final session when I, like everybody around me, was exhausted, and I felt like I had been drinking from a fire hose, I still gleaned valuable nuggets. One question by Jen Vincent has stayed with me, “Are we creating classrooms worthy of our children’s intellect?” That is a useful question to ponder and a critical lens to turn on my classroom and my teaching as I reflect throughout the year.

I’m grateful to have gone to this conference. I’ve returned with many books to share with my students and colleagues. I have pages of inspiring notes to return to and reflect on all that I absorbed. Thank you, NCTE, for a fantastic conference. Thank you, Dawson School, for the ongoing support that you provide for our professional development.