I recently was able to participate in the most major professional enrichment adventure of my career so far–the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention, held this year in Chicago, IL at the Chicago Hilton and Palmer House. It was the most gigantic gathering of English educators I’ve ever witnessed, and was a once in a lifetime experience in several ways. Since NCTE ’11 was such a rapid-fire, varied multiday experience, I’ve decided to post about it in a personal journal style, using snippets from my reflection notebook. It is my hope that I can pass on some of the useful ideas, resources, and inspiration gained from this professional adventure, and offer a glance into one teacher’s perspective on the NCTE Centennial Celebration.

DAY ONE (Thursday, 17 Nov 2011)

10:25 am: I am riding in a white behemoth of a van with two of my fellow English teacher coworkers, Ms. D and Mr. M. There is music steadily humming through the speakers and I’m offering  some backseat harmonies to the soft singing-along of my colleagues. It sounds idyllic, because it is–I have (what I know is) the unique luck of having a fantastic, supportive friendship with these two and Ms. J, who is already in the Windy City waiting to meet us! Compound the collegial love with the fact that our stellar principal allowed our voyage to be funded through school, and I feel like the luckiest teacher in the state. So thankful for this opportunity to see some of the best minds in my field do their thing.

2:30 pm: Featured Session, Talking Writer to Writer: Rediscovering the Power of Conferring (Douglas Kaufman, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief)

This session reaffirms the idea that the most successful writing conferences are often the most natural and the most simple. Sometimes as simple as identifying “This is what I heard/learned from your piece” and “This is what I still want to know about what you’ve written.” This all ties in to a great, prescient quote from Doug–“[Teachers] have to be a part of a small revolution where we go back to our roots and focus on learning events: learning, laughing, and listening with our students, and then acting accordingly.” Indeed, neither conferences nor teaching in general should be formulaic. Sometimes the best teaching naturally flows from our hearts and brains during true, human interactions. No list of questions can ever measure up to that. Also, Penny Kittle seems like someone I’d love to have lunch with! Book to investigate: Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing.

4:30 pm: Speaker Chris Crutcher, author of Whale Talk, and other well-known, well-loved, often censored young adult titles

Before Chris Crutcher takes the stage, there is an announcement about the launch of the National Student Poets Program. It makes me proud of our government to hear about a national step being taken to honor the creative achievements of our young people. It sends an affirming message that, yes, we need poets; they serve a vital purpose in our society that should not be overlooked. Listening to the announcement stirred in me the feeling of wanting to do more as an ambassador for the arts. It made me wonder if I am providing enough space (mentally as well as time-wise) for my students to just create rather than working to achieve the specific skill goals I set for them… In my heart I understand the power of creativity to change lives if it’s given the chance. But I also know that our world largely revolves around performance and evaluations. Art can transcend evaluation. Something to reflect upon…

Chris Crutcher: Chris is an amazing human being, particularly when it comes to thinking, and expressing those thoughts through story. Just listening to him makes my soul reach out like an open hand–it is clear that the man was born a storyteller. I was grateful for his outspoken support for English teachers–our “experts on stories” and those who help resist “creativity being institutionally squelched.” But I was even more grateful for his persistent championing of young adults: in particular, their right to read books that reflect the truth. Chris talked about how those who attempt to keep his books (which often deal with mature or troubling topics) out of schools, calling them “those who want to put philosophy ahead of humanity and think for people they’ve never met before.” He pointed out something that I’ve always believed and fallen back on in the event of a challenge to a controversial text–“When we ban stories where a kid is abused, where a kid is hurting, where a kid strays from the path, we not only ban those stories, but we ban those kids.” A rosy world is not always a realistic world, and believing that ignorance keeps us safe removes a thousand opportunities for growth. When educators acknowledge that through books we offer and ways we teach, we say “You belong here, too” to all students.

8:00 pm: Ms. J, Mr. M, and I found a table in the hotel lobby where we could compare, debate, and clarify our selections for the next day. Despite only being able to find the “wrong” brand of cola (in my opinion), it was a cheery, cooperative, and academic way to end the day, ready for sessions first thing in the morning!

DAY TWO (Friday, 18 Nov 2011)

The second day was an absolute blur, filled with many tidbits of inspiration. Here are the short responses to each of the five sessions I attended…

9:30 am: Session A- Art and Film: Reading Visual Literacy Models (Connie Booth, Jennifer Collison, Nick Kremer)

This presentation was broken into three separate sections, one per presenter, and each was especially eye-catching to me, since my PDP and personal interests tend toward visual literacy. There were some excellent practical ideas offered here–from using classical art of corresponding historical periods along with the teaching of literature to having students use documentary/storyboarding as a vehicle for creative non-fiction writing to teaching students about some of the theory behind comics (a la Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in visual literacy) so that they can more consciously use comics as a medium for storytelling, poetry analysis, or any kind of composition! This session rejuvenated my goal to incorporate opportunities for visual interpretation and authorship in my classroom, and provided me with some new outlets to do so.

11:00 am: Session B-  Literary Criticism: Tackling Texts from Multiple Angles (Daniella Bonanno, Tim Gillespie, Lisa Mitchell, Jason Parris)

Literary criticism is something I wasn’t even aware of until college, but as soon as I was introduced, I was hooked. For me, it was a sign of meaning within fictional pages, a justification for reading the written word with the passion and voracity that I was compelled by. Reading didn’t just have to be preparing for a quiz. Rather, it was a participation in important metaphysical conversations about power relationships, identity, history, justice, religion, war, and all manner of human concerns. Attending this session provided me with resources and a reminder that the literary lens approach to teaching texts helps to elicit student responses that may never have occured otherwise. It gives students a focus and a point of view that is specific to a task, and it can yield sophisticated, varying interpretations. I’m going to use the handout from this session and revisit some titles from my professional library to brush up: Literary Criticism by Charles Bressler and Critical Encounters in High School English by Deborah Appleman. Maybe the most important thing about literary lenses? Using them gives students authentic preparation for the reading experiences they are likely to encounter in college.

12:30 pm: Session C- Art, World Literature, and Human Rights: A Humanities Journey (Karen Cunningham, Kerry Galson, Nicholas Timmer)

This was my favorite session. It was one that truly spoke to things that I feel are important. The presenters were the creators of an English class where students study English/Humanitites through a reflective, demanding curriculum that highlights human rights issues, activism, creativity, and world cultures along the way. I was so grateful to receive a thick packet that outlines the course syllabus, bibliography (including articles, short films, poems, and short stories in addition to books), and handouts for major projects. I found nearly everything about this presentation fascinating and unique. Major things I was intrigued by: *A response sketchbook in which students keep annotations, notes, and writing (but also sketches, collages, and visual experiments).   *A project that asks students to truly research, comment upon, and shape their own educational experiences.   *Literature circle discussions surrounding social justice including action components related to the reading.  *A fantastic set of guiding questions for the entire year to prompt student thinking.  *Manifold opportunities for students to express and create in a focused but unconfined way. I expect to be blogging more about these ideas as I try them out in my own classroom.

2:30 pm: Session D- The Multigenre Approach to Research and Composition (Tanya Sepela and Kate Shanklin)

Mr. M and I are planning to do a multigenre approach to teaching Shakespeare this semester. How perfect, then, that we stumbled into this session after being turned away from the filled-to-capacity “Zapping Apathy” session! We walked away with some practical examples of implementing multigenre projects as a way to assess reading comprehension, extraction and application of theme, writing in different modes, research skills, and critical thinking in a way that’s fun for all. The secret ingredient seems to be choice amidst variety–students get to self-direct, leading to higher motivation and achievement. Meanwhile, teachers get to guide writing instruction at a variety of levels in a way that’s tailored to each student. Especially interesting was the implementation of endnotes and annotated bilbliography to a multigenre project. This keeps things academic and rigorous, even when students are having fun imagining journal entries, eulogies, or recipes related to their topic.

4:00 pm: Session E- The Neglected Rhetoric: Discovering and Developing Humor in Writing (Kaye and Terry Hagler)

Let’s face it: the classical literature that so many of us immerse our students in is… well… depressing, sometimes. These presenters reminded us that humor is a crucial and perhaps underutilized aspect of rhetoric that deserves to be privileged right along with tragedy. There wasn’t much new information here, but it still prompted an idea pathway regarding text selection and the goal of making reading and writing enjoyable through humor when possible and appropriate. (Personally, I feel that humor is one of the best natural things that happens during teaching when one is doing it well. A classroom without laughter won’t bond or achieve in the way that a classroom with laughter will. That’s something that remains despite new standards and new expectations.)

All in all, the convention experience was wonderful and eye-opening. Just the experience of being in the city along with so many likeminded souls was rejuvenating. My mind is baffled and my heart is humbled when I think about number of smart English teachers across the country that will be, just like me, unlocking their classroom doors tomorrow morning. There are so many of us, and so many who aspire to be great educators, who look forward to the possibilities of each day. Teachers are always becoming and building. That’s what makes this career exciting. I can’t wait to start incorporating some of the new ideas sparked by NCTE 2011. Some of that work was already starting as we busily chatted our way back northward in the big white van!

P.s. With this being my first convention on the national level, I do have to say that the annual state convention here in Wisconsin stands up very well in comparison. I highly recommend that Wisconsinite teachers check out the WCTE convention next year. I’ve gone twice, and I have learned many very eye-opening things here in our very own cheese state. 🙂