We write to live
And live to write
Our eyes on the prize
It’s still in sight
We got something to say
And we won’t speak quietly
We come from the heart
We’re the Red Poet Society
“We have to read the hard stories because how will we know what life is really like?”
“This is the first book I have ever read.”
“Really like? How will we know if the literature we read is real to us and how and where we live if we don’t read it?”
“Will Jacqueline Woodson be able to see us ask our questions?”
“Our teacher helps us to understand.”
“Do you read like that character?”
“We have a voice and we think.”
“Do you find yourself when you write?”
(Students to Jimmy Santiago Baca)
“Shakespeare wrote that character wrong!”
“Do you think racism is in the DNA? I mean, can anyone ever really leave the family and change?” (Hartford Students to Chadwick)
While the symbolic theme of the 2017 Convention is The Next Chapter, what inspired that symbol and image is the overall theme and the call for proposals: “Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission.”
We find ourselves at an interesting moment in time and history in that education—anchored in lifelong literacy—as an imperative for ALL children. We who are privileged to teach ELA, with all of its myriad iterations, find ourselves on a newer, different path of teaching and learning from our predecessors. The key factor in this new and energizing teaching context lies in our STUDENTS, as the Red Poet Society makes quite clear. I continue to be in awe of their energy, passion, and belief in what you and I know so very well: the absolute power of language. This blog update aims to provide our membership with a snapshot of what we will experience at Convention, yes, but I am also seeking to distinguish between our well-seasoned perceptions of today’s students—those post–9/11 and post—Great Recession—whose perspectives and tendencies do not always fit the oft-cited norms. Consequently, the more I have worked with these students, the more I am adapting and learning with them. Essentially, a kind of blending has occurred—I still see the literature, composition, rhetoric, and other ELA components in front of me—canonical and modern—but I “arrange,” “style,” and “deliver,” reading my new audience constantly. This new reading and adapting and delivering now includes NCTE—all of us.
I have always found secondary students to be interesting and dynamic because I began my career as a secondary teacher. However, since 2012, I am finding elementary, middle, and secondary students to be uncodifiable, unstereotypical, probative, opinionated, boundlessly energetic, deliberative, skeptical, and yet, fearless. The students exhibit all of these traits, I have surmised, because for so many of them, regardless of where they live, how they live, what they look like, our time, events, and present upheavals have forged them into an entirely different generation, as research by so many sociologists and psychologists indicates.
Rural, urban, suburban, wealthy, poor, variegated ethnicities, religions, geographical regions, languages, and more, public school, private school, charter school—these are the students with whom I and our keynoters have been spending our time. I have been in classrooms with students around the country in person and virtually, collaborating with administrators and fellow teachers. Oakland, Houston, Hartford, Belmont, St. Louis, Denver, Fredericksburg, New Kent, Cambridge, Hardwick, Sterling, El Paso—these are cities with schools where I have spent the greater part of last and this year, meeting with students and collaborating with their teachers regarding curricular resources and my presence for our 2017 Convention. Along the way—long before I was even nominated for vice president and during the actual preparation for Convention, our teachers, their students, and many administrators and communities have all had a most profound effect and affect on my understanding of why I teach and for the first time, a profound impact on me, personally. Differences, similarities, anticipations, expectations, assumptions, surprises, and much elation and learning has taken place—and not one of us has been left the same. This effect is a keenly good thing.
The students have not only accepted me into their classrooms, but more importantly, these students have privileged my sharing with them and their sharing with me through literature, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, listening, and technology. They have much to express. They do read; they will read when we help them connect the dots they require—relevance to who they are, where they are, and when they are. The text can be Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry, Jacqueline Woodson’s prose, Mark Twain’s historical novels, Gareth Hinds’s graphic texts, or Leland Melvin’s autobiography. Texts can be the music of Duke Ellington, a letter of Malcom X’s, a speech of Dr. King’s, a play of Shakespeare, or Beyoncé’s Lemonade. They will read. And they have opinions with hundreds of questions. I know. This has been a significant portion of my life since last November.
What has also struck me has been how many of our students today have what I describe as old eyes—they have already seen and experienced and, some, are constantly surrounded by so much, while still so tenderly young. They have dreams; they have aspirations; some are more voiced—others a bit furtive at our beginning. But to a one, each student expresses initial disbelief that we, NCTE, do care, that we do see them. They ask me why I care; I tell them. They email me; they have an open inquiry forum when we are in class—we are symbiotic.
These students know, and now believe beyond a shadow of doubt, that I will continue to be there with them and their teachers long after Convention. They know that NCTE will be there, too. In so many ways, these students, since 2012, are teaching me that they require more—they require our listening and responding in ways that may at this time not be in books, articles, white papers. Making myself available to them under different circumstances—text, email, looking at their videos, sending questions to answer and I respond—these are different learning/instructional pathways that for me that technology is making possible. The personal touch, too, is still very important. In my case, an African-American-woman-scholar-southerner, now northerner, who wants to listen and interact, learn, laugh, and be curious with them—this is important.
As ELA educators of every ilk, we must rethink, re-envision ourselves, and see our students: listen to them, confer with them, inquire with them, explore and discover with them, thereby, disrupting and exploding the notion of schools as prefabricated prisons from which they will never escape. We must revel in knowledge with them. We are the best and most sustained models they have in education. NCTE holds this place, represents this real ability to recast our classrooms, recapture our agency, enable our students’ agency for life. Our taking up this twenty-first-century mantle individually and as members of NCTE is our mission for the Next Chapter.