One of the best things that my undergraduate professors did for me was to emphasize the importance of joining professional organizations and going to professional conferences. I haven’t always been supported in going to the annual NCTE Convention—my previous school often gave me little to no money and required that I use personal days. My present school supports my professional growth through fully funding my attendance at this conference. As a result, I have been able to go every year since 2014. Prior to that time, I think I went maybe three times.
This year, I made a concerted effort to build in time to reflect. I usually push myself too hard to do too many things at this conference because I want to pack in as much learning as I can. This year, I prioritized sessions and essentialized time in the Exhibit Hall to one author signing (I tried for two, but I didn’t make the line cutoff). It’s a place I generally try to avoid.
I was going to try to wait for George Takei to sign my copy of They Called Us Enemy after his keynote, but in order to make that happen, I had to purchase a wristband. I already had a copy of the book. I understand some kind of gatekeeping needed to be done when a celebrity of George Takei’s caliber attends this conference, but that was frustrating nonetheless. Still, he signed it the next day in the Exhibit Hall, and I was fortunate to get in line before they cut it off at, I think, 100 people. I finished his graphic memoir on the plane and was determined to put it in my Social Justice course curriculum, which I shared with him. He said to me, “We’re partners, you and I.”
As a Star Trek fan since I was a teenager, meeting Mr. Takei was a real highlight for me. He was very gracious. If you haven’t read his graphic memoir, check it out. It’s a wonderful book. He has a beautiful autograph, too.
Another real highlight for me was hearing Tommy Orange’s keynote and having an opportunity to meet him. I am teaching his phenomenal novel There There in my Social Justice course. I told him I would be teaching it, and Mr. Orange said, “Thank you for teaching it.”
His keynote was critical listening for all English teachers. One statement that resonated with me was “I don’t think I was ever handed a book because a teacher thought I would connect to it.” That is a stunning rebuke, and something all literacy educators should address. How many students like Tommy Orange are sitting in our classrooms, never seeing themselves in books?
The wonderful #DisruptTexts folks Julia Torres, Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, and Lorena Germán shared this graphic in their session. (Click to see a larger version.)
It would be more remarkable, given the statistics shared here, if Tommy Orange had been given a book that his teachers thought he would connect to, and that is injustice. Tommy Orange also shared that “We’re so steeped in white male authors, it’s a really exciting time to be thinking about other books to teach in English classes.” It is, indeed, and English teachers should be thinking about it. If you are not sure how, I recommend checking out the resources on Twitter shared at #DisruptTexts, #THEBOOKCHAT, and #TeachLivingPoets. We need to be the generation of teachers that changes this outcome for students. We are fighting issues in the publishing industry, for sure, but students need to feel they can connect to the texts we use in our classrooms.
I presented with Sarah Westbrook from the Right Question Institute and Lauren Carlton from Foxborough, MA on the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Our presentation was a workshop session, and in order to attend, participants needed to purchase an additional ticket. I believe that participants walked away with some great techniques they could bring directly into their classrooms. I was excited to see we had a cross-section of teachers at all levels because the QFT works for all grade levels, and sometimes I feel that NCTE can be fairly focused on secondary education. This suits me fine as I am in that target range, but elementary teachers might find it more difficult to find sessions that are pitched at the elementary level, and while no conference can be all things to all people, we should work to be more inclusive of ELA teachers at all levels. Resources from our session are available here. I believe that participants walked away with ideas they could implement in their classrooms as soon as they returned. QFT is a great technique, and the Right Question folks are happy to share their resources for free on their website.
One recommendation I have for folks attending for the first time is to think strategically about which sessions to attend. I tried to focus on sessions that would help me address gaps in my curriculum or that would help me develop my Social Justice course. The sessions I attended that I found most helpful:
- Becoming Readers: Reading to Renew, Repurpose, and Resist. Carol Jago, Robin Bates, Glenda Funk, Carl Rosin, and Jennifer Fletcher presented. Carol Jago said, “We’ve lost sense of what we want students to be… readers.” The presenters graciously shared their slide deck. I wish this practice were more common. I understand people’s fears that their work will be co-opted, and yes, presenters are taking a risk when they share their work at conferences that people will simply steal their ideas. I understand but at the same time, it is much easier to focus and take away the learning if I know I do not need to scramble to take photos of slides at the same time as I am taking notes.
- High School Matters: #DisruptTexts. The presenters were Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán. This was a high-energy session that included a mix of #DisruptTexts’ philosophy and author discussion. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take down the names of all the authors. I usually take much better notes than that. However, I did jot down some book recommendations. I’m definitely picking up This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was already on my radar; I have started reading Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and plan to pick up How to Be an Antiracist. I am really grateful to the #DisruptTexts crew. I know I am teaching better because of what I have learned from them.
- Words from a Bear: The Importance of Native American Literature and Documentary Filmmaking as Inquiry-Based Storytelling. I don’t think a lot of folks realized Tommy Orange was presenting with Kristina Kirtley and Jerry Palmer in a session after his keynote. His name was not in the print program, but it was in the online version. I was interested in this session as part of a unit in my Social Justice course, and I was not disappointed. Jerry Palmer created a film about N. Scott Momaday. One topic that came up when Tommy Orange spoke was the blood quantum. I had heard him mention in interviews before that his son cannot enroll in as a member of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes because of the blood quantum requirement. Orange explained that he avoided mentioning the blood quantum in There There, but said “it’s so the government can track when we run out” because “it’s tied to funding.” I don’t have any words. Jerry Palmer added that “it’s an assimilation policy.” Palmer’s film could make a great addition to my curriculum. I am hoping to figure out a way to view it over the break. By the way, Dr. Debbie Reese is a great resource for those who are looking for indigenous literature at all levels from picture books on up.
- Creating Queer-Affirming Literacy Classrooms with Teaching Tolerance. Cody Miller and Christina Noyes presented this session. Teaching Tolerance has such great resources, and this presentation was engaging and helpful. I honestly wonder sometimes how many teachers who identify as allies attend these sessions. It has been my experience over the years that allies really need to step it up in terms of affirming LGBTQIA+ youth in our schools and making sure they have “mirrors” in the curriculum (see the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).
- A Sense of Belonging: What Ethnography Offers about Ourselves and Others. Josh Thompson and Katherine Lynde presented on a classroom project involving ethnography. As an action researcher, I have done some ethnography myself, and it is a natural for my Social Justice class. I really liked the interactive nature of this session. I felt like Thompson and Lynde did a great job walking us through how to do this work (and demonstrated how they did it). Resources like Humans of New York were an inspiration for their project, but if you are interested in this kind of work, be sure to check out Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi.
- Reading as an Act of Resistance. Sonja Cherry-Paul, Julia Torres, Samira Ahmed, Zetta Elliott, and Ibi Zoboi presented in this session, and it was incredible. Truly. There was a wonderful mix of music, poetry, activism. I took so many notes in this session. It was a can’t-miss session for sure. Empowering students as readers is critically important. This was quite a thought-provoking session with which to end the conference.
I was finishing up a lot of graduate school writing after the conference, hence the weeks between the conference and this reflection. Honestly, this conference has become so important for me not just because of the intense learning, but also because I have an opportunity to see friends I interact with regularly on Twitter but only see once a year. I also had another chance to hear Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo read their poetry. I had on my Counting Descent shirt, which made Elizabeth Acevedo laugh.
They are both excellent poets, and they belong in your classroom if they aren’t already. Smith read some of his new poetry about being a father. I’m not sure if Acevedo remembered me from the NEATE conference, but she was really kind when I mentioned it.
The first thing I did when I got to my hotel was walk over to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and who did I run into there but Susan Barber, who exclaimed something to the effect of “We’re such nerds!” I hope Susan doesn’t mind if I share the selfie she took documenting our geekiness. She has already shared it on Twitter. By the way, it was really windy. This hair has nothing to do with being in the presence of Poe.
Next year, the conference is in my home town—or close. Aurora, where I grew up (and was born) is a suburb of Denver. I hope to see you all there. I’m thinking about proposal ideas.