I feel like I overuse the word “mind-blown” in my everyday life, and people who know me well are unphased when I hand gesture and raise the volume of my voice to describe whatever happened that elicited such a response.
But trust me when I say, this time IT IS NOT A DRILL.
My first-ever experience with NCTE can only be described in one–though overused by me–word. You guessed it.
MIND. BLOWN. Okay, wait. Two words, with necessary periodic addition for dramatic effect.
In order to fully communicate this mind-blown state, I should tell you that my NCTE experience began with sitting in the airport and seeing Jason Reynolds walk right in front of me as I froze like a teenage girl.
Then, I redeemed myself by attending a panel with Jason Reynolds and getting a picture. I also awkwardly told him, “Hey, I saw you yesterday, but I tripped on my way over to you and got embarrassed and then sat down.” Good story, Jess. He said, “Oh, you should’ve said something!” He’s probably used to crazies.
Anyway, aside from my intense awkwardness and wondering whether or not I should walk up to people I know from Twitter and say “hello”–like the friends I feel we are–, attending NCTE for the first time was an invaluable experience for a few reasons.
First, it helped validate that I’m–we’re–fighting the good fight. To be honest, our profession is so steeped in what Carol Jago calls “literacy activities,” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only teacher just letting her kids read and providing space for them to write. Anyone else? Feeling like The Lone Ranger can also cause me to question: If this is different than the way almost everyone is doing it, is there a chance I’m wrong? That insecurity causes many issues, one of which results in the frequent depletion of my chocolate stash. However, NCTE took all that wondering away, and reaffirmed the Workshop Crusade during every session:
Kelly Gallagher said, “I am a teacher of literaCY, not literaTURE.”
Jimmy Santiago Baca, “In working with students who hate education, we need to make it look a lot less like education.”
He also said, “Make your classroom as individual as you can to affirm your own spirit.” And I would argue, we need to do so in order to affirm the spirits of our kids, as well.
Second, as a result of an amazing session led by Tricia Ebarvia (who is my bestie, but doesn’t know it yet), Anna Osborn (who I want to be when I grow up), and Kate Flowers (who is not afraid to tell the truth of data), I obtained a litmus test that will challenge me for the rest of my teaching career.
Kate Flowers’ Rule of Assessment: Do no harm.
As I really let this three-word, doozy of a sentence sink in, I started running a list of what I would deem “assessments” from the past three months. I teach three very different classes: On-level Seniors, AP Lang Juniors, and All-level Creative Writing. I can honestly say the only class I can say I’ve “done no harm” in terms of assessment is Creative Writing. Do I know where they are? Absolutely. Do I know their strengths? Interests? What they had for breakfast this morning? What they dream about for their futures? Absolutely. Do they love and support each other as classmates? To a fault.
So, the tough question is, why do I run my other classes any differently? Truth: Because of assessments. Because of administrative checkpoints. Because I feel as though I have to justify community-building and students being seen to align with state and district standards. Finally, because I have not completely let go of control.
Kate asked, “Is this about your need to control? Or are you serving your students’ need to grow?”
This question also made me think: How many times do our educational practices do more to breed liars than learners?
Those questions should keep me busy for awhile.
Do no harm.
Finally, NCTE made me even more angry at the conversations that permeate the teacher work rooms, the hallways, the classrooms with doors closed and hands thrown up in the air.
I constantly hear, “My kids can’t do this, and they can’t do that. Why have they not been taught this before?”
Cornelius Minor said, “Your lack of understanding is not a symptom of something wrong. It just means you’re in the right place.”
I am a teacher. I’m not an assigner. I’m not an assessor. I don’t throw something against a wall, hope it sticks, and then blame the wall for not having been told to grab onto it because it will be useful in the future.
As I said in my portion of our Three Teachers’ talk, maybe kids have been told, but they haven’t been taught.
So, my current plight is trudging through the constant overwhelm of asking people to be open to change, trying something new, doing things differently. My volleyball coach ALWAYS reminded us of the definition of insanity–but he called it “stupid,” instead. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So I will continue to toss up the idea that we should let students show us who they are, and then plan a learning experience around that. We might even set some learning in place that might help them discover a piece of themselves they didn’t know existed, or a person they were blind to before they knew their struggles were the same.
I remember what Tom Newkirk said, “Story is compelled by trouble.” So maybe this is part of my story, maybe this is my trouble. Maybe I was meant to push through the difficulty and the seemingly impossible–at least without a steady stream of caffeine and sarcasm–to get to what truly might save our world, beautiful words and the connections they fuse when we encounter them.
Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX. She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is overjoyed to be in a graduate program because that means she has access to a better library. She is currently twiddling her thumbs as she waits for the next books from Sabaa Tahir, Sandhya Menon, and Jason Reynolds. Also, you can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans.