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What Challenges Might We Embrace, and How?

This guest post is from James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa. 

These are challenging times for teachers of reading, writing, and the arts of language—but then we’ve faced challenging times throughout our 105 year history. I’ve always prized NCTE for its unity in diversity.

Doug Hesse, in a November 12, 2016, post in NCTE’s Teaching and Learning Forum

My first NCTE Convention occurred in 1968 in Milwaukee, the year that both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was a buttoned down, formal affair (at least the general and business sessions were) but not without intimations, perhaps prescient moments, that alluded to what was going on in the world outside those walls. Beyond the Convention, and only two years after the Dartmouth Conference, we saw the reappearance of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration and publication of James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse plus the Squire & Applebee report High School English Instruction Today.

Most significant to me in that moment, as a third-year high school teacher and new department chair, was a preconvention (in those years, Convention started on Thanksgiving Day) study group who explored emerging high school English elective programs. I met Jim Squire, Ed Farrell, and colleagues from several states with whom I would share subsequent Conventions (our network) for years. I returned to Missouri and led our department in creating our own version of an elective program, characterized and introduced by one senior member as “English Needed a Miniskirt.”

We vaguely realized that our early devotion to learner choice would be difficult to sustain, would need to become increasingly nuanced in our classes—not just of them—and even then, in part a response to leverage toward behavioral objectives, was more political than we knew.

Similarly, apart from convention sessions I attended faithfully (my novice sense of responsibility compounded by limited understanding of the convention genre), serendipitous acquisition of a ticket from Ed Farrell sent me to the Marquette University campus one evening for an advance screening of Charley and bonus audience interaction with the star of the film, Cliff Robertson. A déjà vu moment during his Q&A was special; more important was the film’s attention to mental handicaps, not addressed by federal legislation for another seven years. Of course, I thought of my experiences as professional, not political . . .

In 1969, thanks again to the perks provided a department chair, I enjoyed the NCTE Convention in Washington, DC. My preconvention study group in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, offered first-hand exposure to early American literature’s backgrounds—lectures in the morning and tours on our own in the afternoons. Late Wednesday we bused to DC for a quite different NCTE Convention, a “Dreams and Realities” theme, where James Moffett’s address, “Coming on Center,” would rock many of us—the first time, I suspect, I heard a teacher-leader use the phrase military industrial complex!

Immersion in the revolutionary origins and ideals of our country hardly prepared me for Jim’s speech, so compatible with demonstrations by Council members seeking an NCTE resolution against the Vietnam War. NCTE President William Jenkins, who had publicly questioned NCTE becoming a direct political agent in the issue, presided at the business meetings, one of which had to be rescheduled and went into the early morning hours.

New to his role as Executive Secretary (of a Council divided but less diverse than it would become), Bob Hogan struggled to balance consideration for those who abhorred the idea of NCTE taking an overt political position with respectful treatment of those who adamantly, even aggressively expressed opposition to the war and who saw their professional organization as an appropriate agent for change. Ultimately, those assembled passed a resolution in which “the Council officially expresses its abhorrence of the Viet Nam War and its desire to see this divisive conflict ended.”

We were equally unprepared—even by our time at Colonial Williamsburg, though the threads were there—for a powerful CEE luncheon address by Alex Haley. Introduced as a writer for Playboy and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “currently working on another book . . .” Haley told the story of his research, of looking for ancestors in property records, and of his journey to Africa, from which he had just returned, to successfully locate his family and tribe.

A silent, awestruck audience followed his tracing through oral history of a few syllables in a native language and at the end gave the most spontaneous and sustained standing ovation of which I have ever been a part. I still ponder what would have occurred if Roots had been published under Haley’s working title, Before This Anger.

I have not thought of NCTE as apolitical since 1969, and in 1970 at the convention in Atlanta, Jenkins said, “NCTE is involved in politics by its very existence.” (Hook, 238) Then (as now?) the question was how and to what extent the Council should purposefully act.

In 1970, President Jim Miller, commenting on continuing confrontations, said they had “jolted organizations out of their smug complacencies and comfortable lethargies,” (Hook, 238) and Council activist Darwin Turner contended, “We must make our voices heard for love and justice, peace and reason.” (Hook, 238)

In the 1970s and since, NCTE has invested in resistance to censorship and of national scapegoating, even then, blaming teachers for educational decline, and of calls for a return to basics. Later, NCTE worked for professional standards, not constraints imposed by business and government.

Recent events pose a need to interpret newly divided constituencies both in and beyond our Council in order to reach students from all families, who are many and diverse.

To navigate this new era we need to engage—what are our common aspirations and how might we resolve differences?

These are the questions we should ask as we look to turn the page.

Hook, J. N. (1979). A long way together. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.