Last week in Boston was my sixth NCTE convention, and I can’t begin to explain its value, importance, and meaning. But I’ll try.
This year’s convention theme was “(Re)Inventing the Future of English,” and that is remarkably close to what I felt a part of in Boston. The future is here, right now. Major transitions in our profession are taking shape, or have already emerged, and #NCTE13 provided insights on the challenges of making them work for our students, colleagues, and ourselves.
One of these challenges involves the intersection of technology and literacy. At past conventions, we heard a lot of talk about how to reach reluctant technology users, as well as variations of “Our school blocks Youtube.” I heard far less of that this time. The technology train appears to have left the station. Those who are on the train are now doing a different job than those not on the train, and their students are learning very differently. Technology discussions are now focused on how to use new tools to help students reach the rhetorical goals we’ve always had. As professor and digital learning expert Judy Arzt said, “Being afraid to use tools like Twitter in the classroom is exactly the reason why we should be using them.” Whether we’re talking about design apps, work flow problem-solving, or social media platforms, exciting teaching and learning is happening that will prepare students to use technology responsibly and effectively.
The emerging Common Core State Standards was another big topic of discussion all around the convention with three well-defined factions. The first faction is totally on board with CCSS, regarding the new standards as a positive development that will guarantee a viable curriculum for all students. The second faction seems to pragmatically consider CCSS as something that is here, for better or worse, and they are looking for ways to live with it and make it fit their students. The third faction is actively trying to stop the implementation of CCSS.
This “rebel base” is easily the most impassioned of the three factions as they make the case that these “standards” are poorly designed, corporate-based, untested measures that will harm students and create a generation of know-nothing test-bots. Novelist A. S. King–noting how CCSS narrowly focuses writing instruction–said, “Kids have things going on, and if they can’t get them out through writing, it affects their learning.”
One of the convention’s most poignant moments for me was a question from a new teacher who asked, “What can young teachers do who are struggling with Common Core?” I’ve been trying to formulate an answer to that question for the past week, and I still don’t quite have it. A young teacher who disagrees with CCSS is in a horrible dilemma, struggling to keep her job while resisting doing that job in a way that she believes in detrimental to her students.
Anyone who spent time in the exhibit hall knows that the future of YA lit is healthy. Young people are hungry to buy books (and read them), and their teachers are feeding their appetites. But speaking of factions, I think the dystopian literature craze might be trailing off a bit. The biggest books on the horizon for 2014 seem to be realistic fiction. Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is likely to lead the way in the new year.
The exhibit hall had its share of both generosity (authors, publishers) and bad behavior (book hoarders), but I also saw more mini-presentations from exhibitors than in past years. This has intriguing possibilities. Sure, there will always be a marketing angle to whatever happens in the exhibit hall, but if it’s handled well, the exhibit hall could easily become another learning venue for convention-goers.
On a more personal level, the future of professional development was on display at the session I presented with eleven (!) colleagues. We are from six different schools in four different states (Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and Montana.) Through our Writers Week concept, the subject of our presentation, we have collaborated online and in person to help put writing and writers in the spotlight at our schools. Beyond discussing what we do in our schools regarding writing, I hope we also showed that teachers have the capability to go beyond our individual school walls and schedules to work collaboratively with like-minded professionals.
On an even more personal level, I gained some clarity on my impending career change. I realized that “retirement” isn’t exactly the right word for my upcoming transition. Although the state will regard me as “retired,” I have never had the intention of stopping my work. Yes, I will be ending my employment at the school where I have worked for a very long time, but I will continue my work in new ways. This isn’t the place for details, but some ideas and opportunities of various scale came on my radar during the convention regarding “(re)inventing” my own future.
All in all, sessions I attended were inspirational and enlightening, but talking in the halls, restaurants, and even brief exchanges on escalators were also rewarding and enjoyable. This wonderful community of literacy leaders that gathers once a year provides incomparable professional development, as well as important perspectives on how we do our work.
Let’s do it again next year! The theme for the 2014 conference in Washington, D.C. is “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” and the call for proposals is now available.