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English Teachers as Contemporary Shamans

I am always behind in my reading, so today, I finally picked up the Winter 2017 edition of The ALAN Review. The issue’s theme is “Story and the Development of Moral Character,” and it begins with the printed words of Jandy Nelson’s 2015 ALAN Workshop Keynote Address.

I need to stop here and say that I hope you’ve heard of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE), NCTE’s first assembly and the sponsor of that two-day book and author extravaganza on the Monday and Tuesday after the NCTE Annual Convention each year.  If you teach adolescents, you’ll want to join this group, and if you’re lucky, one day you’ll be able to join 499 other book and author loving English teachers for the ALAN Workshop, schmooze with YA Authors, and build your muscles carrying that 40-pound box of YA books you’ll receive.

But back to Jandy Nelson who started off her address by explaining “this belief I have that English teachers are our contemporary shamans: the wakers of sleeping souls, the planters of dreams in heads, the imparters of some of life’s most valuable gifts: compassion, empathy, humanity, ambiguity, wonder, joy.” She went on to describe a few of her own deep learning experiences with English teachers.

There was her 14th year of

“Man’s Inhumanity to Man”…books that explored genocide, poverty, oppression, racism, human cruelty and brutality, existential angst, social alienation, loneliness, moral bankruptcy, spiritual impoverishment…

“Audre Lorde said, ‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.”

Words worth contemplating this week before NCTE Advocacy Day, and all the weeks of your years as shamans for students preK-16+.

By the way, please enjoy the columns from this issue (and others) of The Alan Review. To read the full and future issues, join ALAN.

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