A girl and her cat take on the world with nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book and enough dreams to fill the universe.
With upcoming finals, Thanksgiving break, and a conference, I haven’t been posting very much and I do apologize. I have been swamped with papers and homework and studying and family activities. In fact, yesterday my family went to get our Christmas tree and it’s over nine feet tall and I’m pretty sure it’s eight feet wide. It’s an enormous tree. Regardless of all this, I wanted to share with you all a brief recap of the annual convention for the National Council for Teachers of English, or NCTE, that I attended in Boston last week.
First off, I was my pleasure to be traveling with the majority of my special methods class. They’re a group of brilliant girls who inspire me to be a better teacher. The car ride down was a great exchange of ideas, ranging from how to build a project-based and portfolio-based classroom like we had read about in Room 109 by Richard Kent to how do we get quiet kids to speak up. The next morning, we all trooped to the airport in the newly fallen snow. An uneventful flight later and we were in Boston.
We checked into our hotel, which was an interesting labyrinth of a building and settled in. All of us were excited for the next day at the conference. We all woke up around 5 AM in Boston, which was 3 AM our own local time, but we didn’t care. We had to get to the mentor breakfast. We had to get to NCTE. Trooping out into the drizzly, gray New England morning, we made our way to the Hynes Convention Center and up to the tippy top floor where a selection of fruits and cakes were waiting for us. We made it inside and found our seats and listened to a man present a woman for a very inspiring project. This woman (I’m sorry, I can’t remember her name) had brought several schools together around one book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This project had become a huge cross-curricular, cross-district project. Students were being visited by doctors and scientists who talked about growing cells and how cancer actually works in your body. College students volunteered for reader theaters. Art teachers had exhibits put up of student work based on this book. It sounded amazing and wherever I end up, I am inspired to do the same thing. This woman showed me that cross-curricular can really happen and not only that, it can be on a huge scale where the benefits get to more than one class and last more than one semester.
I went to that first session, the group session where the students did that amazing piece, combing movement with music with sound and with language to create art. It was a powerful piece that they presented and it raised a lot of questions for me. Is ignoring my students differences really the right way to go? Does that help anyone, pretending there is no difference? I do not believe that skin color defines who you are and that you should be treated differently, but I think that it brings with it a different cultural background. A different square in the quilt of people. Should I bring that out? It probably depends on the student, but from this groups performance, I am tempted to try. To try and acknowledge that we do have differences and that’s alright. Different can be equal. Ignoring a difference is like saying it doesn’t exist and that can mean that I disregard a cultural heritage that is different than mine, an identity formed on a different foundation, and it no longer has a foundation to stand on and I don’t want to do that.
The first talk I went to was on taboo language in the classroom. Does it belong? Definitely, it has a place. By not ignoring an entire world of vulgar language, we can teach students how to use it, when to use it, so that they can learn its proper place. The world is not a clean place and our students work will not always be these G to PG rated pieces. Allowing them to swear when it’s appropriate in their work and teaching them when it works and doesn’t work is invaluable. One of these presenters also spoke about the n-word in his African American literature class. From what he was saying, I think he may be overly sensitive to the word. He even had an African American student who had even written a blog post on how she wished he would be less sensitive about the word. It should not be censored from pieces of literature because we do not want to offend students or ourselves. Reading an excerpt does not make you a racist. Talk about the word and acknowledge its power, but we cannot fear certain words. Perhaps in student writing, the n-word has no place, but in Twain’s Huck Finn and Morrison’s Beloved, that word has meaning. Words are tricky and vulgar words can be even harder to deal with.
I attended a rather disappointing session on how to use dystopian literature in my classroom. I do not really want to attempt to teach high school students Derrida’s form of literary criticism while teaching a dystopian novel. I’m not even sold on teaching a whole class novel in the first place. I also believe that plenty of people grow up to be successful happy people without knowing who Derrida is or understanding the difference between the signified and the signifier. I did learn about the book series The Knife of Never Letting Go and Brave New World and I am very excited about both of these books which I picked up at the publisher’s hall.
Another noteworthy session I attended was on research. These two women presented their ideas on how to make research accessible for their students and how to teach them real research skills. The research paper is a dreaded and dirty word in most English departments, but these women had it figured out it seemed. They would teach their students the difference between when Google research is acceptable and preferred and when it was better to find peer-reviewed articles and how to do that. It was fantastic. With some of the novels they teach, they realize their students may not have the background information they will need to really understand the text, so they tell them to go home that night and research for one hour only about a given topic. Students come in the next day saying that they spent more than one hour researching and that they hoped that was okay. All students had something to share in class on the topic as well. The best part about this exercise was it’s never graded and students love doing it. In teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the teachers complied a list of topics that seemed to be confusing or of interest to students. The list ranged from fashion to white soup to carriages. They would have students sign up for a subject and then give them one class period in the computer lab to develop one PowerPoint slide. These slides would be emailed to the teacher who would then put a master slideshow together. The students had no idea what order their slides would be in or when their slide might be brought up in class. When their slide does appear, they have one minute to present their findings. I love this idea. I love the brevity of the project itself and how it teaches students to filter relevant information. I can’t wait to try something like this in my own classroom.
In my quest to be the cross-curricular teacher, I really appreciated the talk by the Duke elementary school teachers on science notebooks. In their preliminary research, they had tried to find what real scientists do and they nailed it. Everything they said was absolutely golden in terms of what a science notebook should look like and what a scientist has to do to be successful. I hope that they read this blog and realize how much I appreciated that. English teachers seem slightly less timid about broaching science than science teachers do about teaching English skills. I loved their insights about having students draw really detailed pictures and putting together portfolios of lab write ups that use technology to make them visually appealing to the reader. These teachers also teach the difference between narrative writing and scientific writing and when which is best used. They’re teaching this to elementary students. Imagine what you could do with high school students and a science teacher!
Of course I attended many other wonderful sessions, but these are just a few of the standouts. I loved the Ignite! sessions and listening to Penny Kittle, who is pretty much the biggest superstar of my special methods class, speak. When she talks about getting her students to read and she shows those pictures of how many books they’ve read in her class versus other classes, I feel hope for getting my own students to read. Right now, I’m struggling to convince this one boy that I tutor that he is a reader, he just hasn’t met the right book yet, and Penny Kittle gave me hope that I can break through to this kid.
Now, the publisher’s hall/exhibit hall was like a book mecca. I went a little crazy and didn’t quite understand the concept of advanced reading copies there on that first day, but every penny spent there was worth it. I ended up bringing back 34 books, but I had to leave behind 6. I hope that next year I’ll be able to stay for the section meeting after NCTE and take home even more. I actually need a new bookcase now. There is no space for these new books. They sit stacked on my chair in the order that I want to read them in. Thank goodness Christmas break is coming otherwise I would get nothing done. I love the publisher’s hall. I absolutely love all the books. I don’t know how I feel about the cutthroat last day when all the books go on sale, but when was the last time I saw someone cutthroat, ready to bowl people over and fight tooth and nail over Gareth Hines latest graphic novel? Probably never. I always knew that books had power, but I don’t think I realized how much or what kind.
As I come away from this conference with big hopes for the future, I am so inspired. To be around, brushing shoulders with some of the greatest English teachers in the country was an honor. While I may not make it back with my special methods class again, I am going to try my hardest to make it to D.C. next year and who knows, maybe one day I’ll even present something.
Check in tomorrow for my foodie adventures in Boston. Come hungry.
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