I had the awesome opportunity to attend NCTE for the second time this year. At the time of the conference in 2013, I was in the earliest stages of pregnancy, and the flight to Boston was both miserable and exhilarating. I had never been to the annual conference: it was awesome to see so many people in our field together, passionate and motivated to get new ideas and do their best for students around the nation. This year, I was fortunate that it was in DC, which is close enough for my family to drive up for the weekend as well. Balancing professional responsibilities with raising an infant can be quite the challenge; having her close by during the conference was a big relief.
The NCTE annual conference is such an amazing, invigorating experience. I also found that when teachers really pushed to attend, we were able to get not only approval but also some funding to help cover the costs of the trip. Go ahead and start planning NOW for the conference next year! It's well worth the time it takes, and you might be surprised to find more financial and professional support than you might have anticipated.
Here are some tips for first-timers at NCTE:
Here are some of the ideas I took away from NCTE in 2013 and from the conference this past November:
Exploration of identity issues:
o Give kids a way to explore their “brand”
o Kids need space to figure out their identities through reading and writing
o Kids have the power to take things that could be negatives and to make them into positives
o Romance novels sometimes let kids explore their own identities (Ex: Elizabeth Eulberg)
o Students MUST have a reflection of themselves (Something that really resonated with me: Matt de la Peña quoted Junot Diaz, who said, “The quickest way to create monsters in our cities is to never give them a reflection of themselves in the mirror.”)
o Students need to read to imagine and practice for issues that might come up in their lives (ex: romance novels, horror novels)
o The power of story is that students can imagine worlds and people who are different; they can begin to relate and empathize with situations different their own
o This issue came up as part of the defense of story (why we can’t just teach informational texts)
So what? Question:
o de la Peña: Genre books are not just about that genre or subject; they are books that include those subjects to draw readers who can then explore the larger issues in the text (and in the world)
o Gallagher: You’re not just teaching the topic; you’re teaching about larger issues and connections to the world today
o Revision must be built into the writing process
o Feedback needs to be meaningful and needs to go both ways (student to teacher as well as teacher to student)
o Feedback must be TIMELY or it is ineffective.
o Students must have choice in their writing, and they must have an audience bigger than the teacher.
o Lower level readers/ students do NOT need lower level questions. They just need a text that they can read.
o Use dialogic questions to make discussion meaningful and to keep conversation going.
o Texts that are too difficult (ex: giving someone a 200 pound weight to lift) are NOT rigorous. They are impossible to reach.
o Bob Probst: “Rigor doesn’t reside in the text but in the quality of our attention to it and the way we engage to it.”
The MAIN thing that I took away from NCTE these past two years was the simple affirmation that I'm doing what matters most to help kids: I'm helping them become better readers, writers and critical thinkers. Rather than talking about test scores, percentages, and AYPs, all discussions focused on how to best reach students and how to make them better readers and writers. That is, after all, why I went into this business, and it was inspiring to get ideas about how to do that more effectively.
May we be the teachers who make this statement by Laurie Halse Anderson (I MUST write a book review for her soon--love her works!) true: "English class is not the study of literature. English class is where you get the tools you need to survive."
First of all, if you haven't read Eudora Welty's lovely short story, "A Worn Path," take the time to read it. Although it's a "traditional" text often found in textbooks, it is one that resonates with students and results in good engagement and strong discussions.
Welty opens with a vivid depiction of the main character, Phoenix Jackson (seen in the great image to the left that I got from this blog). The story then moves into an account of Phoenix's long and tumultuous journey on foot to the closest town to get medicine for her sick grandson. It's short enough that most students could read it comfortably in one day with time to do some other activities (if you're on block schedule with around 90 minutes per class), but if you want to break it up over two (or more) days, there's plenty to do to supplement the story, and you can work with the first half of the story on the first day. It works well to break it after her encounter with the hunter when he departs (stop before the paragraph where Welty writes, "She walked on").
For those who are teaching English 11 through the literary movements, this piece fits into Modernism. (A brief tangent about the teaching of literary periods for those who are interested: once we finally let go of that style of teaching in English 11, a world of possibilities unfolded before us. We were able to group texts (even traditional, canonical ones) into much more engaging, approachable units that focused on relevant skills and riveting essential questions rather than struggling through early American literature and losing students right there at the beginning of the year when buy in is so crucial. If you have the freedom to break away from that mold, I encourage you to try it--we've done lots of different kinds of units, and ALL of them have been more successful than the chronological approach. If you've never taught that way or left it behind long ago, you may disregard this whole tangent.) When we taught units focusing on different archetypes, this story fell into the "journey" archetype. It would also fit nicely in a unit on determination, love for family, selflessness, or the need to help others. With the current "social issues" style of unit creation that we're using (see the post on social issues for more info about that), I'd place this in a unit focusing on issues addressing class or race. There are many subtleties in the text that could be explored including class issues, social structure, racism, finding meaning in life, and identity.
The way I have taught the story, we explore the way that Welty uses literary techniques to create a theme. The activities has three parts: (1) An overview organizer that looks at Welty's life, reviews the literary terms, and examines some vocabulary from the story (2) An individual organizer that is differentiated to suit different students' comprehension/ skill levels. These organizers focus on SETTING/ CONFLICT/ CHARACTERIZATION/ and SYNTAX and SYMBOLISM. The students will only focus on ONE of the devices; there are basic plot questions at the bottom of each organizer to ensure that the students grasp the story while they are looking for their specific literary technique. (3) A group organizer that requires students to come together who have the different literary devices; that organizer focuses on creation of theme statements and lets the students explore HOW the devices create the theme that they see in the text.
The first day, we work our way through the pre-reading activities and get into the story. The students work on their individual parts of the story, finding examples and completing the organizer as they read. They can certainly work in groups for this, but it would work best if they worked with people who were looking for the same literary device.
The second day, we focus on theme creation and proving HOW the literary devices reveal the theme. We talk about theme statements and the fact that they are not simply single words but instead complete statements about life. They work to analyze how the different elements reveal a specific theme statement. The groups then share their themes and how the devices reveal them. (Posters are always a wild success on theme days; I often let students make them using the big sketch pad paper and markers--I have them place the theme statement in the middle, surrounding it with the support, which would be the devices and examples here.) I like to start with a warm-up and end with a wrap-up activity (which I call exit slips--a term that I'm sure was drilled into me at some point in my teaching career, but that is not universal). For this story, I typically do journal entries at the beginning of class, and the activities at the end of class focus on theme creation within a poem as well as analysis of the story.
There's a fascinating essay by Welty concerning Phoenix Jackson's grandson--namely, whether he is, in fact, alive at all. Check that out here if you're interested. (This is an essay I've used at times with classes--it leads to great discussion and debate.) She sums up her ideas when she says:
"In the matter of function, old Phoenix's way might even do as a sort of parallel to your way of work if you are a writer of stories. The way to get there is the all-important, all-absorbing problem, and this problem is your reason for undertaking the story. Your only guide, too, is your sureness about your subject, about what this subject is. Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning--using inventions of your imagination, perhaps helped out by your dreams and bits of good luck. And finally, too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what you are working in aid of is life, not death.
Ah, yes, that's a lovely sentiment for all of us, writers and teachers. Aren't we eternally working tirelessly with nothing more to guide us than our own internal compass, an assumption and a bit of hope?
If you're interested in the materials that go with this set of lessons, check out my page on TeachersPayTeachers. (The materials are not there yet, as of 2/9/15, but they will be there ASAP!) I'm just now getting it going, so I'd love any feedback and support that you can offer!
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.