All posts by Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

Again

school shooting photo
Photo by fabola

America has once again been rocked by a school shooting. I wish I had hope that this time, maybe, something would change. That we would commit to valuing our children more than we value our guns. But we won’t. If seeing 20 little children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT did not make us want to change our gun culture, then nothing will.

As a teacher, I have to do active shooter drills. I have to figure out how to respond if someone comes into my school with an AR-15—have you noticed it’s often an AR-15?—and starts shooting at my students and me. I have to figure out how to barricade the room in the event my students and I are unable to escape, which is really our best option. I have to figure out what I have on hand that I can throw at a shooter to distract him. I learned how to grab a shooter’s elbow and drop, using my weight to pull the shooter down if it becomes necessary I have to tackle him directly.

What we aren’t talking about as much is this thread Michael Ian Black shared on his Twitter timeline. He lives not far from Newtown, CT.

You will probably need to click over to Twitter to read his whole thread, and it’s worth a read. Toxic masculinity pervades our culture. The worst thing a man can be called is weak or feminine. We even use a crude word for female genitalia to describe such men. Toxic masculinity contributes largely to our gun culture.

We idolize guns. We worship guns. We genuflect at the altar of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

It’s been said before, but I’ll repeat it: one man tried to create a bomb with his shoes on an airplane, and now we all have to remove our shoes at the airport so security can be sure we’re not hiding bombs in them. Kids start a ridiculous meme called the Tide Pod Challenge, and there are calls to figure out how to get Tide Pods out of their hands. We require anyone who wants to drive to obtain a license and pass a test to operate a vehicle. We have awareness campaigns for drunk driving. We require car insurance. In virtually every other area, it seems we have figured out a way to use legislation or rules to keep us safer.

Yet each time children are killed in school, we are told it’s not the time to politicize the issue, it’s a mental health problem, and that their thoughts and prayers (but not their actual spines) are with us. If their thoughts were really with us, they would do whatever it took to prevent the next one. I doubt their prayers even exist. I can’t see into their hearts, but I “know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). “Thoughts and prayers” is an empty phrase they trot out to appear to be doing something instead of the nothing they are actually doing—well, aside from taking donations from the NRA to continue to support our right to bear arms.

I recognize the Second Amendment is in the Constitution. I don’t think it should be, but my government has a lot of rules I don’t agree with. This one just happens to be the one I feel most strongly about, perhaps because I do worry one day I will go to work, and it may be my last and because I worry when I send my children to school. However, I also recognize that the Second Amendment is here to stay. So I really can’t understand why we cannot pass common-sense gun legislation in our country. Nothing in the Second Amendment prevents it. It doesn’t mean taking away your guns.

Don’t tell me this is a heart problem, not a gun problem. Try killing 17 people with a knife in a school. You’d never be able to do it before someone tackled you. Guns make it very easy to perpetrate mass killings.

Do my students wonder if I’d be willing to take a bullet to protect them? Do they wonder if I know what to do if someone tries to enter our classroom with an AR-15?

Our president claims no child should ever be in danger in an American school. Yet he revoked a measure that might have prevented the mentally ill from obtaining guns. I don’t suppose I’ll get into how little empathy the president has for others. I’d be here a long time, and frankly, I didn’t expect anything more from him.

I don’t care what your politics are. I don’t know how you can watch these tragedies repeat themselves and think that doing what we are currently doing is the best we can do and that it’s much more important to worship the almighty gun than it is to love one another. We should really be ashamed of ourselves.

Our children are crying out for our help.

I’m leaving comments open, but I’m warning you now—you can share your pro-gun arguments with the NRA. I’m not listening to you anymore because you have never listened to people like me, not if it meant putting people before guns. I will not give you a forum on my blog.

Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth

My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.

I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, AP Photo

I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.

The true story behind the photo is more complex. Really, read the article I linked. It’s quite an incredible story.

I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.

They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.

We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.

I showed them this interview with O’Brien:

We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.

But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.

And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”

As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”

Slice of Life: Twinning

This week is our Winter Carnival Week, which is much like spirit week in some other schools. Each day has a different theme, and we can “dress down” as long as we are adhering to the theme. Today’s theme was “Duo Day.”

This morning, I walked into our History/Social Science Department office to pick up a few items, and I noted that two of the history teachers were wearing gray sweaters, just like me. “Oh, I see you got the gray sweater memo,” I said, and one of my colleagues replied, “I wish we would have planned to be duos today so I could have dressed down.”

Cathy and Dana
Cathy and Dana

It’s bizarre how when you work with people for a while, you start dressing like them. A few months ago, my colleague Cathy and I showed up to work dressed alike nearly head to toe. Except for our shoes, we were identical.

Years ago, I had a colleague who had the same denim dress and a similar green flowered skirt, and we invariably wound up wearing our “twin” outfits on the same day.

Why is it that this happens?It never seems to be planned, or at least it’s not in my case. What psychological impulses or weird twists of fate cause us to reach for the same outfits as our colleagues on the same day?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Slice of Life: Maker Space

Oat and Maple Bread

My kitchen is a maker space. If you have been reading my blog for a while or know me in person, you might know I make soap. I haven’t made it as often over the last year—mostly just for my family and me. One of the beautiful things about making something like soap yourself is that you can control everything that goes into it. I also make lotion, and if you knew how cheap and easy it is to make, you’d never buy expensive lotion at the store again.

Over the last six months or so, my new favorite thing to make is bread. I have long been intimidated by baking bread because I have zero skills coaxing recipes that need special attention. I can’t do kneading or rolling things out (don’t ask me about my attempts at pie crust). I ran into a great no-knead recipe, and I was sold. I’ve been baking bread ever since, and nothing beats homemade bread. The picture above is my flour mixture and oats for an oatmeal maple bread that happens to be my favorite one to bake… and eat.

So why am I writing about this on my education blog?

I’m on winter break, which means I have time to bake Christmas cookies and bread and whatever else strikes my fancy. Teaching is such an exhausting profession. When I come home from work, most of the time all I want to do is read. I try not to bring work home.  And honestly, I try not to give a lot of pointless homework. Preparation for class in the form of reading and writing is pretty much the extent. Occasionally, students study for quizzes in my class. Over the two weeks that they are on vacation, I have asked them to read what they choose. I have explicitly told them not to work on revising their essays. The only work I want them to do for me is to read… and to read what they want to read. Maybe they’ll make a few things, too, with the time they have. I hope they do.

My friend Jared says in his Statement of Teaching Philosophy that if you “ask [his] sophomores ‘How many of you are painters?’ there might be a few hands raised in a class.” On the other hand, he adds, if you ask young children the same question “a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically.” So what gives? As Jared asks, “What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go?”

We all need an artistic outlet. I never felt like a very confident artist. I have been a pretty good musician (though very out of practice). For the past five years or so making soap and then learning to bake have been artistic outlets for me. With all the buzz in education about maker spaces, one thing we seem to forget is that elementary school classrooms are tremendous maker spaces, or at least mine was. We need to figure out how to give students the time and the space to continue to be creative. My answer to Jared’s question is that over time, we devalue creative projects in school. I know English teachers, for example, who think I waste time with creative writing in my classes. I don’t care what they think because I feel in my gut that they are wrong.

A good case in point: my last AP Lit class right before winter break. I didn’t have high hopes. They meet at the very end of the day. Some of the students likely wouldn’t be there or would leave early as the dorms closed at 5:00. We would wrap up our short unit on Love and Relationships after a great discussion about “Brokeback Mountain” the previous day. But I pulled out a great lesson idea from writer Jason Reynolds from NCTE 2016. I gave students Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and asked them to rewrite it in the idiom of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I brought them homemade gingerbread using Emily Dickinson’s own recipe. Wishing I had Jason Reynolds’s mentor text from that session, I plunged ahead anyway. I wrote with the students (I chose 1980’s Valley Girl slang). One student asked, “Is it okay if I cuss in my poem?” I grimaced and said, “Sure.” Another student asked, “Is it okay if I curse a lot?” Why not? In for a penny…

With around 20 minutes left, the students said it was time for everyone to share. We had poems in the voices of a robot, a pirate, a resident of Southie, and a more modern take. Honestly, I knew they understood it perfectly when I overheard one student reading the first line to another: “When bae swears that she ain’t lying…”

I asked the students what they got out of the exercise, and one student said, “I understood the poem a lot better because I had to in order to rewrite it.” No, she wasn’t a paid shill, I promise.

The students were still in the room at 3:30 at the end of the period. I practically had to kick them out. On Friday right before break. In senior year, no less. I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of fun creating together that day.

I often say that we make time for the things we value. I am asked a lot how I have time to read, to bake, to make soap, to do creative activities with students when there is just so much to cover. We can’t “cover” it all, folks. Students will not learn everything we think is worth knowing in our classrooms, and that’s okay because if we stopped to think about it, we’d realize we didn’t learn everything worth knowing in a single class or even in ten classes, or maybe not even in a class at all. But if we value creativity, we need to make time to create, to allow our classrooms to be maker spaces.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

NCTE Reflections Part Three

Gareth Hinds delivering the Sunday keynote

I reflected on Friday and Saturday at this year’s NCTE conference in previous posts. This post is my final reflection on Sunday’s events.

Session K started before the Sunday Keynote. I attended K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere, a roundtable discussion. The session included three roundtable discussions. I rotated among tables led by Jennifer Ansbach, Debbie Greco, and Camille Marchand. Jen discussed the shifting nature of language in the news, Debbie discussed memes as visual rhetoric, and Camille discussed using primary source documents (letters) to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Great first session!

After session K, Gareth Hinds delivered his keynote. I created a Storify to document my own tweets and capture highlights from other attendees.

I especially enjoyed seeing Gareth’s early work.

I captured a bit of video as he did a live demonstration, too.

I enjoyed Jim Burke’s session L.18: Seeing and Hearing Each Other through Nonfiction: For the Good of Kids and Country as well. Jim shared his resources and expertise. One big takeaway from his session:

We need to think about our students as users and design accordingly.

I couldn’t stay for all of session M because I was afraid I’d be late for my own session, but it was amazing. M.08: Breaking the Classroom to Prison Pipeline. The title might have been a bit misleading as it was really more about seeing our students and social justice. I was curious about the session because its leaders were Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson. I knew that Linda Christensen has done a lot of work in social justice in education. I recently ordered two of her books to read. It was a really great session with opportunities to write and turn and talk. I left it a few minutes early to hustle across the convention center for my session.

I presented N.18: Representing, Rendering, and Respecting Diverse Lives and Labels with Ruth Quiroa and Leah Panther. My topic was digital storytelling.

One more minor complaint: NCTE made a deal with the GO Shuttle shared van service, and it was a great discount. Unfortunately, as far as I could determine, the latest shuttle to the airport on Sunday left at 3:00 PM, which was in the middle of the last session. I tried lying about when my flight left to see if there were any later shuttles, and I couldn’t find any. Obviously, this means anyone taking advantage of the great shuttle deal had to leave early. I doubt this is NCTE’s fault, but I wonder if they took it into consideration when they made the deal with Go Shuttle. It was about three times as expensive for me to get an Uber ride to the airport, as I couldn’t take advantage of the shuttle deal. The last session of the last day is hard all the way around, but I felt bad for my fellow presenters who had prepared great presentations. I am glad I have friends who came to my session at the end of the conference on Sunday at the end of the day.

NCTE Reflections Part Two

The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski
The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski

In my last post, I reflected on Friday at last week’s NCTE conference. I decided to split my conference reflection into three posts this year, so this post will focus on Saturday at the conference, and the next post will concern the conference’s final day.

The conference guide had a misprint that stated Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote began at 8:00, and even though the app was updated to reflect the accurate time of 9:00, I didn’t check it. I honestly can’t remember anymore how I spent that time. The exhibit hall wasn’t open yet, but people were lined up to enter it. Honest question: why? The exhibit hall will be there all day. What are people lining up in order to do?

Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote was great. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights.  I found Storify and Twitter to be a great way for me to take notes and capture highlights at this conference. I’ve used it before, but not extensively. Some important questions emerged for me from Woodson’s keynote: What can we do to make it easier for teachers of color to attend (and feel welcome) at this conference? The larger question: How can we encourage more people of color to become educators? Children need to see themselves reflected in their school faculty.

I have attended Tom Romano’s sessions for a few years now, and I went again this year. Each year he makes me more excited to do multigenre writing projects. This year, I picked up a few ideas I hope to be able to use with my freshmen when they do multigenre projects later this year. Romano remarked that he is noticing more of his college students have previously done multigenre work than in the past.

I didn’t go to a G session and opted instead for a yogurt lunch and for the exhibit hall, which was pretty much the only time I spent in the exhibits the whole weekend. I picked up the free Scholastic tote (my husband has a running joke about how many totes I have), and I bought Gareth Hinds’s new graphic novel of Poe’s short stories and asked him to sign it.

I attended my friend Jennifer Farnham’s session with Brooke Eisenbach, H.30 Creating an Environment of Social Justice in the English Classroom. Jennifer and Brooke hadn’t realized it would be a panel session and thought they would be at a large roundtable session, but you’d never have known it. We had time to discuss issues of censorship and social justice at our tables. It was an excellent session. Jennifer and Brooke shared some excellent tools.

Next, I attended I.20 Recapturing Assessment: Student Voices in Aiding Our Mission which was a roundtable session led by the #BoyTieBoys and their teacher Jason Augustowski. What an incredible session! Each of the Boy Tie Boys shared an Ignite-style presentation and then rotated to a new table. One big takeaway from their session is that we need to see more students at this conference. We can learn a lot from students themselves about what works with assessment and what doesn’t work. Some themes emerged from the boys’ presentations: students want choice about how they show their learning and they want to get to know their teachers in order to learn from them. I should add also that the Boy Tie Boys’ Twitter game was top notch. They captured some great ideas while attending keynotes and conference sessions.

My last Saturday session was J.37 Fake It ‘Til You Make It: Rhetoric in the Era of Fake News. I’d have been interested in this topic even if I was not friends with most of the panel of presenters, which included Deborah Appleman, Glenda Funk, Debbie Greco, Cherlyann Schmidt, and Ami Szerencse. The panel presentation focused on how to teach students how to think critically about the rhetoric they hear and how to evaluate news sources. It was a great session, and the entire panel generously shared materials and ideas.

I didn’t stay out very late on Saturday as I was nursing a cold and would be presenting and traveling the next day, but I did enjoy a brisk walk around the corner for some delicious pizza before I curled up for the night to read, transcribe some notes, and think.

On a completely unrelated note, I changed the theme of my blog again because it bothered me that visitors had to hunt around to figure out how to comment on posts. I hate anything that interferes with the user experience. I initially changed to a new theme because I discovered the one I used did not fill up the entire screen on devices with wider screens. I didn’t realize this problem because it filled up the screen on my old laptop. However, once I discovered it, it bothered me to no end, so I changed the theme. I never could adjust to the new theme. I tried to find other themes that would work, but I wasn’t happy with anything, so I finally sat down today and created a child theme based on the old theme I was using, which is Twenty Fourteen by WordPress. I think I have successfully made the changes I needed to so that the theme fills the screen, but let me know if you notice anything weird because I have never made a child theme before.

NCTE Reflections Part One

I anticipate needing more than one post to process my learning at NCTE this year. I had a great conference, and I noticed an improvement in a few areas I’ve criticized in the past.

One complaint I’ve had in the past is that materials were not posted online. Conference organizers made greater efforts (at least I noticed greater efforts) in encouraging participants to post materials online, and in sessions themselves, more presenters explained how to access their materials online. I think this is a trend in general because I have noticed it at other conferences as well, but I am grateful for the increased ease of access.

I have expressed fears that NCTE is becoming an echo chamber and that sessions from more well-known voices in the organization tend to leech away from other presenters. Efforts were made to highlight sessions by other presenters this year, and thank goodness, the “big names” were put in the theater where everyone who wanted to hear them could fit.

I decided to focus on going to sessions with a social justice theme this year. I went to so many great sessions that it will be hard to pick out highlights.

I attended Jimmy Santiago Baca’s keynote on Friday also, and I made a Storify of Twitter highlights.

I only swept the exhibit hall once during the conference, and that was to get Gareth Hinds’s new Poe book and the Scholastic tote. Hinds graciously signed my book for me, too. I also stood in line for Angie Thomas to sign a copy of The Hate U Give for me. I recently read and reviewed that book on my book blog. I wish I had made time for Jason Reynolds to sign something, but I would have had to buy books anyway as my copies of his books are currently in the hands of students.

I walked out of some sessions when it became clear that they were not going to be interactive. If I have one suggestion I hope NCTE will consider for future conferences, and it’s that presenters who plan to read papers be required to explicitly state that they will be reading a paper in their session. I hate to be sitting in the front row and leave once I realize the session description was deceptive. I also hate to avoid sessions by college presenters on the chance they will be reading a paper. I’m sure many of them are exactly what I’m looking for, but it’s taking a risk. I don’t think I’m alone in that I attend this conference to learn and interact with teachers, not to hear papers. I am sure others DO attend to hear papers. Why not make it easier for everyone to figure out this information?

NCTE Pro Tip: For the first time this year, I made a concerted effort to rank my choices in order of preference and write those numbers next to the session abstract in the conference book. By Sunday, I had adopted a scheme that worked great. I used post-it tabs and wrote the room number for the sessions I’d bookmarked at the top of the tab, so I could see the room numbers without flipping through the book. It made my travels Sunday a lot easier, and I only wish I’d thought of doing it sooner. It’s probably just as easy to rely on the app, but I found this to be an even quicker way to double-check room numbers than the app. If I had to leave my first choice session, it was easy to flip through the book and find my second choice.

As a side note: This conference is expensive. The conference fee itself is over $200 for members, and that doesn’t include hotel and travels. I have been in the position of having to pay for it out of pocket in the past because my previous school didn’t value the experience. It has been fairly difficult for me when I’ve had to pay for it myself, too. Many people mentioned how cost-prohibitive the conference is, and how it might be preventing especially teachers of color from attending. I am fortunate that my current school has covered the costs for me to go each year I have wanted to go. If you do go to NCTE, always remember this is YOUR conference. Either you or your school paid good money for you to go. If you are not going to learn from or enjoy a session, by all means, LEAVE IT. There are so many great sessions scheduled each block. You are doing yourself a disservice if you stay in a session that is not going to help you or your students or your school. Don’t feel bad about it, either.

I’ll focus the remainder of this post on the sessions from Friday alone, and then write posts about Saturday and Sunday to make it easier for readers to digest.

Neither A session I attended was memorable, sadly. I walked out of one (reading a paper), and the other was just not executed well, though I didn’t leave it. I probably should have, but by the time I’d already left one and transversed the conference center to a second and stayed long enough to figure it that it, too, wasn’t going to be as helpful as I’d thought, a lot of time for session A had passed, so I wasn’t sure I’d get as much out of my third choice after so much time had passed.

I enjoyed hearing from Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick about teaching the Vietnam War. O’Brien signed a few session attendees’ copies of The Things They Carried. My rookie mistake? I knew he’d be at the conference. I planned to attend his session. And I left my copy of that brilliant book of his on my shelf at school. I am appropriately mad at myself, don’t worry.

Author Tim O'Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick
Author Tim O’Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick

O’Brien and Novick presented in session B.51: The Vietnam War and the Power of Storytelling. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights from the session.

I didn’t realize the C session was at the same time as the CEE luncheon with Angie Thomas. Oops. So I wound up not doing a C session, but Angie Thomas’s keynote at the luncheon was great, and I also created a Storify of Twitter highlights from her keynote.

I left my first choice D session (which didn’t turn out to be what I thought it would be), and went to the featured D.01 session “Queering English Studies: Navigating Politics, Policies, and Practices in ELA Learning Spaces.” It was a good roundtable session. I was late, so I only went through two roundtables, but both were helpful.

The E session I went to was fantastic. It was E.30: The Fire This Time. The presenters shared a wealth of materials. They were incredibly generous. Their discussion revolved around the core texts of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (which I finally read on the plane to St. Louis, and… wow). I particularly loved the assignment they presented called “Suckage,” and I plan to steal it for my students. Here is Coates being interviewed at the school of one of the presenters as part of his book tour; you’ll see what Coates means by “Suckage.”

via ytCropper

I am so incredibly glad I attended that session. I not only got some great ideas for writing assignments out of it, but also a great discussion about teaching Baldwin and Coates, as well as how to teach students to discuss writing in general.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how my Saturday went.