#NCTE12 — Glimpsing the Future

I’m writing this on Monday morning, back at school after an exhilarating time at the 2012 National Council of Teachers of English conference in Las Vegas. That conference provided me with several glimpses of the future. Those glimpses are in sharper contrast for me this morning as I re-join my school. What happened in Vegas is absolutely not staying in Vegas as I think about applying what I saw and heard. How will my school look in five or ten years? Although my job here ends in June, 2014, I’m wondering how my school will adapt to the needs of the future, a future that has already arrived in some of the nation’s most progressive schools, and that my own school and many others are moving steadily toward.

What follows here is my understanding of how English teaching will look in the very near future. It’s an exciting time to be in this profession.

The English classroom of the near-future will be student-centered, focused on individual interests and abilities, not on meeting a prescribed set of highly specific checkpoints. As the standards movement settles and evolves, our attention will go back to the needs of students. What does this mean for English teachers and our classes?

When it comes to writing, we need to be thinking far beyond words, sentences, paragraphs, and paper. Expression today means much more than that. Students need to express themselves correctly, clearly, and quickly. That’s not new, but creative, image-based thinking and expression will be more important than in the recent past. Every word that we associate with composition instruction will have more complex meanings in the very near future: audience, purpose, organization, persuasion, etc.

Reading instruction is changing very quickly with enormous implications for English/Language Arts teachers. The classics will never go away–they are classic–but they will shrink in the proportion of classroom time devoted to them. I’m not sure where the tipping point is for that, but the trend is clear. Self-selected reading is helping students become better processors of all kinds of written text, including the literary classics. This is kind of ironic. Students will be better readers of classic literature if we take some steps away from that classic literature and put the emphasis on reading rather than on the literature. Publishers know this and the YA market is booming.

Again, I think there might be a point where the YA market jumps the shark. We’re seeing lots of copycat books. Some of them might be artistic and worthwhile for students, but it also indicates that publishers, and some authors, are writing Harlequin-style, placing the inclusion of certain story elements above original creativity. As I left the exhibition hall on Saturday, a publisher’s rep was conducting a survey about what kinds of story elements we thought should be included in stories. This is how we make politicians and sausage; this is not how we create art.

Technology is here, and it’s not going away. In a recent conversation about writing, a teacher told me, “I hate technology.” I was dumbstruck. I had no response. As instruction becomes more and more individualized, and as literacy comes to mean something beyond paper and ink, there is no question that students will use individual devices as a central part of their school experience. Of course, this is already happening in many places. In a very few years, it will be standard practice.

Social media is an integral part of students’ lives. I’m not just talking about Facebook and Twitter. Those are their toys. Today’s students are comfortable manipulating images, communicating globally, and creating simulations for all kinds of human experiences, some of them healthy and some not so healthy. That is the new starting point for teachers and schools.

A few years ago, I said that I was seeing high school students who considered themselves tech-savvy, but all they really knew were cell phones and video games. That has changed. Students come to high school now with the ability to work with all kinds of tech elements. The kids have more than caught up. The digital babies are now approaching adulthood.

Ten or fifteen years ago, schools created the first wave of social media and technology policies. Most of those were drafted with the primary goal of keeping kids away from online predators, a worthy goal. Things have changed. Those policies are now keeping kids away from everything. If your school’s social media policy hasn’t been re-visited, it’s time to do so. The new wave of social media policies looks very different from those originally created a decade ago.

We hear it over and over from all kinds of sources: Our future citizens will need the ability to adapt quickly, are more likely to work independently than for any umbrella organization, and will operate in a highly global environment. It’s an invigorating time to be an English teacher. Are we using English/Language Arts classrooms effectively to prepare the next generations of citizens for this kind of world?

What does this mean for English/Language Arts teachers?
• We need to be the lead learners in our classrooms as we model intellectual exploration.
• We need to keep up with new digital possibilities, especially as they affect the way students experience reading and writing.
• We need to keep up with new publishing that is marketed directly at our students’ hearts, minds, and money.
• We need to keep expanding our definitions of what it means to be literate.
• Most importantly, we need to prepare students to develop their individual intellects so that they can adapt quickly, choose and use the right tools to solve problems and explore opportunities, and make ethical decisions in a complicated world.

Thanks to everyone at #NCTE12 who pushed my thinking and clarified my understanding of what the future looks like and the interesting possibilities it provides for my colleagues and me.

So, what did I miss? What other future-shaping elements are hovering out there? Please feel free to add comments!

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8 Responses to #NCTE12 — Glimpsing the Future

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections. It is both a challenging and exciting time to be in the classroom with kids, and places like NCTE and the National Writing Project give us space to think, connect, collaborate on what these shifts mean for us and for our kids.


  2. Glenda Funk says:

    There’s an ever-swinging pendulum in education, specifically in language arts. I attended school when the classics were considered passé. We read popular fiction, including some works now considered classics, but we also read books like “Willard,” a novel that became the basis for the movie “Ben.” You might recall the Michael Jackson song by that name. I’m not ready to give up on the classics because I know how my own education suffered from their absence, but I do think technology, interactive activities, and other new ways of making the classics accessible to our students are things we need to embrace. I don’t think I want to teach in an educational world that refuses to learn from the literary lessons of the past. That’s as dangerous as a world that doesn’t learn the historical lessons of the past. BTW, always good to see you, if only for a few minutes! 


  3. Can we please not talk about that June 14th date? I am not ready for an English office and a school that does not include Gary Anderson.


  4. Pingback: English teaching’s mid-life crisis? « degrees of fiction

  5. LMH says:

    Great thoughts Gary. I am going to share with my admin–my school is still in “protecting the kids” mode and I do not want to become irrelevant…what a great week–thanks. Already thinking about digital dossiers and online newspaper presos for next year…


  6. CBethM says:

    I can’t help but smile when I think about how digital tools are bringing our students to some of the classics that they might not have otherwise given a try. For one, they are out of copyright – and students are free to download them to try out ereading. For another, they have realized that there are tools embedded in ereader apps to help them better understand the story. I don’t go look every word up that I’m unfamiliar with – unless it keeps showing up. My students are realizing that finding the definition takes but a split second with ereaders. They are more likely to annotate and discuss the text with others if it’s digital. Or at least my students seem to be.
    It’s more about teaching what tools are available, why we’d want to use them, and then test to see what works for the current project. I love that I’ll continue to learn with my students as new tools, new texts, new opportunities present themselves over time.
    The future of education will be an interesting place.


  7. tamaraeden says:

    Adding you to my blogroll. I have yet to do a reflection on NCTE. I have my pile of handouts and notes on small note pads, in my iPad, all over. I so wish I had brought a functioning laptop! Live and learn. I can say that NCTE is inspiring and a great energy boost; however, coming back to school and counting the number of missing essays today was daunting.

    I’m curious, why are you leaving your school in 2014? Retiring? Moving on?

    I’ll be adding you to my blogroll. The blog is more or less dormant but I’ve redesigned it and, well who knows, perhaps my revival post will be on NCTE. I can assure you that my reflections will be very different than all of the awesome teachers I’ve met via Twitter networking.


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