Sunday, November 25, 2012

NCTE and ALAN 2012, part I.

This year's NCTE took place in Las Vegas. I thought I'd be smart and go to work on Thursday, catch a flight there, and be ready to go to the Friday morning general session. If I was 20 years younger, that would have worked.

As it was, I realized I was approaching 23 hours without sleep when I arrived at my hotel near 11:30 p.m. local time, as it was 2:30 a.m. on the East Coast. So, I missed Sir Ken Robinson's 8 a.m. keynote, which many are citing as highlight of the conference.

Still, this conference drove home for me that it's not really about the names, though I did see some of the rock stars of the English teaching world. It's about the connections and thoughtful reflections. Oh, and the books. It's always about the books. But, more on that in another post.

So, Friday was a fairly light day for me.

I made it to two fascinating presentations that forced my jetlagged brain to consider what I hadn't before. Probably the most thought-provoking for me for both Friday and the entire conference was "Teaching Adolescents As If They Already Knew What They were Doing," a panel chaired by Randy Bomer that featured presentations by Katherine Bomer, Deb Kelt, and Allison Skerritt.

Randy Bomer began the session with a story of a former student, Craig, who was also an assistant manager at a local Pizza Hut.  Craig came alive when talking about his work, but became defeated when faced with typical literacy tasks in the classroom. Bomer began to wonder how he could bridge the gap between Craig the defeated student, and Craig the animated manager. Thus, it was Craig who began to illustrate for Bomer the difference between appreciative and deficiency stances toward literacy practices. Really, Craig already had many of the skills he needed to be a successful student, though some weren't fully developed. But, instead of focusing on what kids like Craig already know and can do, we tend to focus on what he can't do now or must do in the future. Instead of treating education like an apprenticeship that buildings on existing structures, we tend to focus on filling kids up with the requisite knowledge and skills.

The rest of the panel built on Bomer's ideas.
  • Katherine Bomer brought up Stephen Colbert's interview technique, an improvisational rule called "Yes, and..." that posits the work of the classroom as building a scene together. To build a scene in improv, everyone has to accept what's going on, pay attention, (Yes) and build the scene together (and...).
  • This is the second time this year that the idea of using improvisation-based thinking as a way to build skills has come up. The first time was at the Journalism Education Association's Adviser's Institute last summer. Mark Newton led a session called "Yes, and..." which focused on using improv techniques to get student media leaders to establishing a community of trust and creativity.
  • Allison Skerritt shared how much she learned by giving students cameras to document their literacy practices. By opening up literacy as something more inclusive than simply reading and writing in class, Skerritt invited students to share their interests and expertise. This became the foundation of class practice.
  • Deb Kelt, a 9th and 10th grade teacher who works with the lowest achieving students in her building, also shared practices geared toward appreciative thinking. She used texting as a way to discuss inference skills with kids. Kids GET inference with texting, but panic with books. By using texting as a way in, she was able to let them know they already had the skills they needed to succeed as students.
Honestly, this idea of deficit thinking versus appreciative thinking got to me.  I watched Katherine's writing conference accept and celebrate student interests and strengths; I saw how Allison Skerritt students' demonstrated their literacy practices in a way that allowed them to express their cultural identities; and I heard Deb Kelt's story of a student who told another to hang his dreams right over his head in the classroom so he could always reach for his dreams. This session made me realize I need to seriously consider "Yes, and..." as a philosophical approach. Sure, I've read Penny Kittle's work on writing, and I subscribe to a significant place for choice reading. But, how much more can I do if I assume that although I'm the lead learner, I'm not the expert? Isn't that what "yes, and..." is? What do I exclude in my focus to get students to a specific place or a specific skill? How many students have I closed off with a "No, but" instead of opening up with a "Yes, and..."

And that was just the first session of the day...

Then I got to see the rock stars: Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Tom Newkirk. As I expected, each challenged me and the session seemed to have been designed to build on the discussion I had just left.

  • Kelly emphasized reflection as a writing territory that's vital to kids understanding of themselves and extending that understanding to the world; again, we start where kids are. Our classroom literacy becomes an imaginative rehearsal space for the world (with credit to Kenneth Burke). We, as the lead leaders, guide discussions where we read, analyze, and emulate writing. We do, I do, you do, you reflect. Really, how much more straightforward can that be? And why am I not doing it all of the time?
  • Penny Kittle described a research writing elective where students used story as a springboard to in-depth research. Again, she started with student interests and allowed them to build text sets of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, informational writitng, charts, graphs, tables, infographics--a wide variety of media--to begin to write from data. I loved her idea that writing becomes a duet of you and your sources! Kids need to be able to tell the story of the data rather than just regurgitate it, and that story becomes the duet.
  •  Finally Tom Newkirk talked about the idea of narrative writing as being at the core of all other forms. Newkirk, who I'd read but never seen before, had us laughing at his stories and thinking as he discussed how we are hardwired to see the world in causal terms.Stories help us form the patterns we need to make the abstract concrete. To hold information and to expand our range of sympathies, we need stories.  He specifically mentioned Kristoff's op-eds in the New York Times, which made the horror of the sex trade real for readers by bringing to light individual stories of girls sold into prostitution. Also, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address gave listeners a narrative on which to base the reconcilliation of a nation. But what really had us rolling with laughter was Newkirk's inclusion of an example of how narrative brings informational writing to life. He displayed at read the opening from "The Big Heat," a New Yorker commentary on the drought of 2012 by Elizabeth Kolbert. If Kolbert's description of corn sex doesn't make you see pollination in a more vivid way, I'm not sure anything I can say can impress upon you the power of story to help us make sense of our world.
Honestly, by the end of these two presentations, I was ready to connect with some of my Twitter friends. I ran into Jen Ansbach and together, we spent the next 3 hours cruising around the exhibit hall, gathering ideas, buying books, and getting advanced reader copies of upcoming titles. I left the hall $30 poorer (it would be much more than that by Sunday), but richer for the conversations I had with Jen, Gary Anderson, Tony Romano, and several others who I met along the way.

And that was just day 1 before dinner...

Is there any question why I spend my own money and take personal time to travel half way across the country?


  1. Your post reminded me of a fine article I read some time ago called 'Getting out of deficit: pedagogies of reconnection' by Comber and Kamler. It's such a simple thing (as you say), but so easy to forget!

  2. Steve, I think Bomer may have mentioned that article. I'm not familiar with it, so it didn't stick. Thanks. I will certainly look it up.

    you were missed this year. I know it's not possible to make such an extraordinary trip each year, but know that we thought about you. Next year is Boston and the following in DC. I'm not sure if those are easier or more difficult.

    Until I see you again, take extra good care.