Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.
Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.
Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.
The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity. In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?
Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.
In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.
And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.
The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.
Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”
An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:
“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”
So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.
So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.
The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.
If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.
“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
–Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)
“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”
-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)
If they wrote books for teachers, the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.
“When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
–Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)
“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)
“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
–Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)
“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
–Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)
And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:
“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)
“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
–Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)
The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:
Read. Write. Think.*
The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:
In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.
Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.
So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17)
when the real reason for the story is revealed. Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.
For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice” and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!