The title of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference was “Story as a Landscape of Knowing.” A thought-provoking concept and it was enhanced by the perspective of the opening panel. They all dealt in someway with the notion of story as a window and/or a mirror. When we read (or write) a story, are we looking out at the world to discover, learn, and explore (a window) or are we taking a self-examining stance and looking more deeply at our lives and decisions (a mirror)? Either way, stories give voice to an experience — either the author’s or the reader’s.

One voice that was emphasized at the conference was that of multicultural authors. Matt de la Pena was on that original panel and I ended up following (almost stalking) him during the conference. I wanted to know more about this distinctive perspective that I had not yet read. He, and the other panelists, had challenged me to re-think my choices around texts I use in class — and to use my choices to promote more texts that lift up the experiences of people of color.

So I attended a luncheon (sat in the back in the extra seats for those who hadn’t paid) where Matt was the guest speaker. I heard his story of struggling to read in elementary school. And how one book (The Color Purple) sparked his love for a character and he began to appreciate the relationship between author and reader. He talked about how being of mixed race initially made him feel he couldn’t choose either race because he felt he would be choosing one parent over the other. He spoke of his silent, traditional Mexican father and his father’s amazing transformation when books opened his mind. I agreed with Matt’s statement that “You can never be a great writer until you are a great reader” — both in amount read and ability to read. The story of his journey to become an author engaged me, in part, because I was learning so much new information about culture, writing, and his life (looking out the window) and hearing my own story of coming to books and the difficulties of the father-son relationship (seeing into a mirror). I was able to get my photo taken with Matt…

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I wanted to hear more about the way Matt approaches the stories he writes, so I went to another session that featured both he and Jacqueline Woodson, the poet (she had just won the National Book Award the day before). I was intrigued by the round-table sessions after their talks, so I came early and sat at Matt’s table.

An aside…
a couple days earlier, I suddenly lost my voice. I was fine when I went to bed that first night in D.C. and then the next morning, it slowly disappeared until I had no more than a bit of an annoying crackle sound. This was troublesome for at least two reasons: part of what happens at these conferences is that we network with other teachers and authors, which is easier with working vocal chords; and also, the next day, I was supposed to present/talk for around 15 minutes as part of a panel. My lack of ‘voice’ made me a listener much more than usual and necessitated my choosing my words very carefully (not bad effects really). Fortunately, my voice came back, briefly, and I was able to present. However, by Saturday afternoon when this round-table session occurred, I was back to a whisper.

I did have a few take-aways from the talks and the round-table discussion. Matt mentioned that though the session was about multi-cultural texts, it all starts with a good story. These books should be read, not because the main character is a person of color, but because the readers can identify with the characters and plot; it’s that notion, again, of holding up a mirror to the reader’s life — and it just so happens that at the same time, the window is open and the reader gets a glimpse of a culture with which he or she is not accustomed. As teachers, we need to give a voice to that main character of color for those students who may be of that same color, but that it’s so much more than that, too. We are letting the characters remind all of our students of our commonalities across cultures. Of our universal story.

Here’s a link to Matt’s talk at the session

Here are some other photos I took on the trip

The session in which I sat as part of the panel was titled “Integrated and Innovative: Five Stories of Technology-Rich Instructional Partnerships.” The link will take you to our slides for the session. My part had to do with our recent “Humans of Greater Lansing” unit. That unit was partly about giving a voice to the nameless faces we see everyday and don’t have a chance to get to know. Most of the students (including Dean Hanton and Jeremy Hyler’s students) were glad to have the opportunity/excuse to get to know more people from our communities. Fashioned after the Humans of New York website, this endeavor/experiment/unit was a semi-risky and powerful step toward community-building, which we plan to repeat later in the school year. We also hope to have our students discuss their experiences with it via an online space. I definitely pushed our students to use skills they don’t get a chance to use often: approaching quasi-strangers, asking questions, listening, asking follow-up questions, and using their phones for school.

Here are some other highlights from my trip:
* At one of the National Writing Project (NWP) sessions, I learned about a website that uses a video game to teach argumentation. It is geared toward middle school students and is sponsored by the Gates Foundation and MacCarther Foundations. GlassLabGames uses its Argubot Academy game to get middle school students to understand the parts of an argument (things like a claim and evidence) and use that knowledge to “win” the game. They are on the cutting edge of engaging students while giving those students immediate feedback (which games do well) in a safe environment. I really like how games are failure-tolerant environments. We need to let students risk more while they are learning; I’m hoping to pilot their work later this year or next year.

* At another NWP session entitled “Teaching Young Men of Color,” I was very impressed with the speakers and their messages. One of the speakers, Sam Reed, was from Philadelphia and spoke about teaching young men of color to code-switch (using a different set of behaviors to deal with the different contexts in which they find themselves). I think young men of color (and all of us) could be empowered to know that code-switching is a smart, survival skill instead of some sort of cop out. I also appreciated Sam’s “asset versus deficit” approach. He suggested we do an asset analysis with all of our students: focusing them on what they do well and building on those skills. He called their assets their “kung-fu,” which I loved. Sam’s use of the Genius community, especially Rap Genius (though more geared toward high school), his use of humor as in-the-moment story, and his strong message of leadership from youth, I found inspirational.

* I was lucky to get an invite to a free breakfast that Chris Lehman had suggested via twitter. The session after the breakfast was about how to use Wonderopolis in the classroom. It seems like a good way to promote curiosity in the classroom on an on-going basis. It leads to inquiry and more research on the question of the day. I made a new friend, Dalila E., from Pennsylvania who uses it and loves it at the elementary level and I hope to find a way to get my classes on board too. It reminded me of the DoNow inquiries, but without the social justice layer.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll end here. I felt lifted up by the stories I heard and the voices I heard on this trip. I thank the Red Cedar Writing Project and the East Lansing Public Schools for making this trip financially possible. There is really no way to fully share the information and energy that comes from attending conferences. If you haven’t taken the time, money, risk, and energy it takes to do it, I highly recommend you do so soon. There are no guarantees, but (especially if you go with a group of awesome colleagues like I did) it can re-energize you for the exciting, challenging job and magic-act we do daily.

2 thoughts on “Voice

  1. I appreciate your reflection! It was a joy to be there and to be re-energized by awesome teachers like you.

  2. Likewise, I’m sure, Dawn. Conferences have helped me feel competent and challenged as a teacher over the last 10 years. And I would feel like an island at them if it wasn’t for fun, intelligent folk to help me think about all of it (hint, hint).

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