"Those things you learn without joy, you will forget easily." -- Finnish proverb
When I first started attending NCTE, I stalked the footnotes. I made sure I was up early to claim a front row seat to listen to Nancie Atwell, hoping she’d help me figure out that one part of my workshop that was still rough. I pushed through the crowds to listen to Donald Murray, yearning for that one nugget that would move those reluctant writers. I searched for the specific activity, the practical idea, the thing to do on December 1. I was in search of the tip and trick, the cool activity that would hook my kids.
Times have changed. Now I’m not stalking the footnotes in search of the practical; I’m no longer pushing through crowds to get that last handout. Yes, I still get up early to listen to the keynoters and make my way through the crowds to listen to Tom Newkirk or Jeff Wilhelm or Vicki Vinton. But the aura surrounding the famous has faded, and I don’t gasp when I see Lucy Calkins. Now I’m stalking for a different purpose: someone who will provoke me, nudge my thinking, make me think in new ways. Now I want to stalk the idea. It’s the idea that lures me back each year to NCTE, ideas swirling around the heads of those most prominent in our field, ideas that are about to – or should be about to – catch on fire, ideas that like the wind force the skyscape of my mind to be a bit brighter, look a little different.
And what were the ideas that most grabbed me this year?
Bring on the joy and the pleasure
No, no one said it exactly like this, but joy was in the air. When Ellin Keene talked about engagement, she was talking about joy. Engagement, Ellin argued, is “born of emotional response to ideas.” Isn’t that joyfulness? When Jeff Wilhelm challenged us to reflect on whether or not “we would do the crap that we assign students,” he urged us to think about the role of pleasure. Why wouldn’t we think about pleasure as we nurture our readers, our students? Why wouldn’t we remember that pleasure exists in the world of play, work, the intellect, and the social? And when Penny Kittle advocated for students selecting their own books 75% of the time, she too was talking about joy and pleasure. What if, she asked, students didn’t fake read? What if it were otherwise? After all, if our kids don’t love reading, they’re not going to do it when we leave the room.
Oh, yeah, bring on that joy! Invite pleasure into the classroom!
Eliminate the great divide
Tom Newkirk warned us that we are plagued by a category problem. Yep, it’s CCSS’s three categories of writing: narrative, information, and argument. Good writing, he reminded us, crosses that great divide and blurs the lines between categories. All writing that we want to read is told by a narrator that we want to follow and that kind of writing leads us through surprise after surprise. Yes, the writing might convey information, but it’s the story that carries the day.
Linda Hoyt and Seymour Simon disabused us of the notion that good nonfiction writing is devoid of voice and style. Instead beautifully crafted sentences belong to the both the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. The beauty and power of a well-crafted sentence ushers us into the factual world of the gorillas and nudges us into the fiction of Joseph Conrad.
And, by the way, how is it that we have the categories of fiction and non-fiction? Doesn’t fiction contain truth, and doesn’t non-fiction carry us away through the story? Perhaps that’s another divide that we need to close.
Sessions on inquiry filled the conference docket, and Steph Harvey, Smokey Daniels, and SaraCuriosity is the engine that drives achievement. Inquiry doesn't just lead to a cool project at the end of a unit; instead, it's how we should live our lives. To illustrate the importance of teachers living a curious life, Sara Ahmed showed us images of Syrian ruins in the desert and of beautiful Syrian children, images not often seen in popular media. Smokey nudged us to develop an inquiry question that emerged from studying those provocative images. For about 10 minutes 100 educators or more engaged in inquiry, and when Smokey and Sara tried to call us back, a good share of us tried to ignore them so that we could continue exploring. Inquiry is addicting.
Carol Jago's message at CEL dovetailed Smokey's and Sara's work with visual images and inquiry. After showing us a few images from Gordon Park's A Harlem Argument, she invited us to talk about how those stunning images build a visual argument. Our job was to figure out that argument and determine who the argument was for. After showing us beautiful and provocative paintings by Kehinde Wiley, she juxtaposed Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” and invited us to write. Those images promoted curiosity and heightened our response to the literature she had paired with them.
Even though I was ready to head home after the conference -- already I had been away for over a week and a half, I left refreshed and so glad that I had stalked the idea makers. The skyscape of my mind had altered. Already I’m planning for next year, curious about what joy will look like in 2016 and what ideas will dominate.