Thanksgiving season kicks off for me each year with NCTE where I reflect on what’s happening in English education and meet up with friends from around the country to discuss best practices and current issues. Many of these teachers – including myself – paid or partially paid for this conference with their own money because we are desperate for professional development that directly benefits our classroom instruction. We are also desparate for time to brainstorm, think, and discuss what’s happening in our classrooms with other teacher leaders in the “industry.” The focus on NCTE 2018 was Raising Student Voice, but I left more committed than ever convinced that if student voices are going to be elevated, teachers must raise their voices.
After years of educators turning a blind eye to matters of race and equity in the classroom, these issues are now at the forefront of many conversations, and I am trying to learn as much as I can about them. I, a white teacher from a place of privilege, want to use my voice and influence to address this issue in education. #NCTE18, even though overwhelmingly white and female, continues to push educators to serve students who are often overlooked or misunderstood due to the color of their skin or the amount of money in their family’s bank account. Too often these students are asked to comply and act “white” instead of being engaged in learning. Chris Emdin’s (For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all, Too) keynote on Saturday was powerful. He encouraged teachers to break down stereotypes, elevate the voice of the marginalized, and rethink systems in our schools that oppress rather than truly educate. I have a lot to learn and do in these areas, but NCTE provides a place for me in the conversation of how we can work together to best serve all students.
The movement to include books that represent and reflect all students was a common thread at #NCTE18. #TeachLivingPoets and #DisruptTexts offered sessions that stressed complicating the canon with newer and more diverse voices in order to promote inclusiveness. Meeting people from #THEBOOKCHAT (an online teacher book chat) and #ProjectLITCommunity (a grassroots literacy movement) was a highlight for me; these like-minded teachers push to get students reading more not by forcing reading on them but rather getting the right book in their hands. Getting the right book into the hands of students requires teachers to be abreast with current books. Fortunately, there are so many great novels and poetry collections being published today which represent a variety of voices, but finding time to read can be challenging with our jobs extending long past the time school is officially over. These communities and NCTE in general help me stay current.
This conference was a break from standards, objectives, data and all of the other things that are thought maximize student learning and quality teaching but in do very little to move students forward and place a heavy burden on teachers. While I have been fortunate to be in schools where I am not micromanaged in my teaching, so many of my teachers friends are drowning in data, detailed lesson planning, and constrained curriculum that promotes lockstep teaching. I sat in a session with Three Teachers Talk and Cornelius Minor – teachers immensely devoted to equity in the classroom – and was so saddened to hear that teachers are often put in a choice of being a good teacher or being a good employee. These two things should not be mutually exclusive. We teachers are finding our voices and speaking up not only for education funding but for placing students above mandated curriculum that only serves to frustrate teachers and students and leaves little room for learning. Admins at the school level are under pressure from district personal and district people are trapped in a game to have schools score well so the district ranks well in the state and state department of education are pushing out initiatives for districts; we are all caught in a system that while framed in the language of a being pro student is anything but. This has to stop, and there was an undercurrent of teachers at NCTE who refuse to play the game any longer. Count me in with this group.
And while there is a restlessness in teachers and a desire to push back against a flawed system, NCTE continues to promote teachers doing good work in their classrooms. I love gathering new ideas and hearing what works in other classrooms. From Hattie Maguire speaking about research to Jessica Salfia presenting on Affrilachian poetry, my mind is full of ideas to take back to the classroom. Hearing Elizabeth Acevedo read her poetry and Chimamanda Adichie unpack the danger of stereotypes empowered me. Being with friends who teach all over the country in real life and bringing more people in my life who are wake up in the morning thinking about the same things I do fuels my desire to keep doing the work. My principal and department chairs (who are all really new friends for me at my new school) were there – their first NCTE – and I loved sharing this experience with them and talking with them about our school. Having coffee with a new educator who is learning to navigate the system without losing her voice gave me hope for the future. Watching people rally around a friend from Paradise, California who has not only lost her home but much of her community gave me hope in humanity.
I walked away from this conference with more questions than answers which to me is a sign of time well spent. What does an equitable system look like? What does an equitable classroom look like? What do good teacher ed programs look like? Do I most affect change from the bottom up or the top down? Those who know me know I am an optimist – sometimes to a fault – but staying positive in education is becoming more and more difficult. What keeps me in the battle though is closing the door to Room E225 and watching the magic unfold. And as long as the magic is there, I will be there wrestling through the questions, issues, and trying to move myself and my students forward.
Links to the sessions I was a part of which along with other presentations can be found on the resource page of my website.
Write This, Not That! with Adrian Nester
Teach Living Poets with Melissa Smith, Jori Krulder, Adrian Nester, Karla Hilliard, Sarah Soper
Textually Active Teens with Matt Brown, Roy Smith, Karla Hilliard,Jori Krulder ,Melissa Smith,