Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Pays to Attend NCTE's Annual Convention

On the elevator ride to Kylene Beers’s presidential address on my last day of Convention in Philadelphia, I was joined by someone whose apparel told me he was in town for the other big event of the weekend—the Philadelphia Marathon. Noticing my tell-tale signs of convention attendee, he confirmed that I was one of those English teachers here for the meeting. “There are so many of you here! Is this a national thing?” he inquired. I told him a bit about NCTE, and as he started to exit on his floor, he said to me, “I can’t believe all of you are giving up your weekend for this. I hope your schools are paying you well for the extra time!” The doors closed before I could tell him that not only were none of us being paid to be there, but many of us were in fact paying part or all of our way to attend. This runner’s fundamental misunderstanding of what convention is all about prompted me to reflect on some of my most valuable moments of the experience:

  • Hearing author Junot Diaz’s talk at the Opening Session A good friend and colleague introduced me to Diaz’s collection Drown after I admitted that I didn’t really like short stories that much. I became an instant fan of his fiction and enjoyed his recent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well. What a pleasure it was to hear him reaffirm the notion of reading as a fundamentally compassionate act in the midst of a culture that prizes hierarchy and competition. It was also encouraging to hear him share the importance of framing learning as a process of discovery, not merely approval. (My blandly sanitized recap doesn’t really do the talk justice, believe me).
  • Seeing a teacher demonstrate a reading workshop conference with high school students I’ve been inching toward the workshop model with my struggling readers, but with so few secondary examples out there—in print or otherwise—I’ve been too timid to make the leap. Having the chance to see a very skilled teacher demonstrate her response process with four students from her class (with a page from Diaz’s Oscar Wao, no less) was just the confidence-building model I needed.
  • Learning with teachers at Bruce Penniman’s session I finished Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success on the way to Philadelphia, so I was pleased to see that the author, Bruce Penniman, was presenting on one of the topics he writes about so well in that book: differentiation within a heterogeneous classroom. In the session, Bruce came across just as he does in the book—wise but down-to-earth, experienced but still energized and enthusiastic about the very difficult work of teaching English.
  • Meeting a “stranger” on the train In a bizarre stroke of luck, seated next to me on a train ride was another convention attendee, a former librarian who had just spoken at the Secondary Section Get-together. After a few minutes of small talk, she shared with me that she was Nancy Pearl, author of the Book Lust series! I’ve certainly never had a more richly rewarding conversation with a new acquaintance, as we spent the ride swapping dozens of book recommendations. In fact, you might look for a few of mine in her forthcoming book on works about or set in specific memorable locales.
As I look back on this list—and all my memories of the convention—I’m struck at the mix. Some of the highlights were precisely what drew me there in the first place; others were completely serendipitous moments. But they all share the common threads of connection, conversation, and collaboration—the kind you can only get at a big “meeting of the minds” such as annual convention. Never mind that some of my bills for this one might not even be paid yet…I’m looking forward to Orlando in 2010. Until then, be sure to share some of your highlights from Philadelphia here or in the Annual Convention Ning.


Anonymous said...

i'm glad someone else had a hard time putting into words the brief and wondrous opening night presentation (wow--that was REALLY bad. sorry!) i attended for the first time--with my own money, on my own time (i took personal days) and found it to be better than i'd even expected--and i had high hopes. my feeble attempt at recording it is posted here:


i'll be in orlando next year...somehow!

bleckb said...

The Junot Diaz presentation was likely the highlight of the conference for many, well worth the price of admission. Julie Andrews had a tough act to follow in Diaz, and she fell flat with her cliche ridden and scripted speech read from the teleprompter. That was maybe the only disappointment of the weekend except a session I entered where four people read four papers. Yawn. But a couple downer sessions over the course of three days is hard to avoid in a conference as large as NCTE. I certainly returned home with ideas to use and projects to plan. I'll be busy putting what I learned to use.

Mr. B-G said...

Thanks for sharing this. I just ordered Bruce's book. I've talked with him a few times at various New England Association of Teachers of English conferences. Your assessment of him is spot-on.

I also teach less than 30 minutes away from Amherst Regional High School, so the fact that he's a neighbor makes the book even more meaningful.

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