Conference of Revolution

“Kids can change the world when they are given the chance.”

These are words from the keynote address of Olivia Van Ledtje, otherwise known as Livbits, that set my very first NCTE conference in motion. It was at this moment, that I knew I was in for something special.

The NCTE conference has always been an event I’ve wanted to attend. Thousands of educators from across the country come to this four-day conference to hear the best and the brightest authors and literacy experts. This year, I was finally one of those thousands. Ralph Fletcher, Donalyn Miller, Jennifer Serravallo, Kylene Beers & Bob Probst are just a few of the many “literacy gurus” that I was ecstatic to see and learn from.

However, I quickly learned that NCTE was much more than just literacy conference. For me, it was a call to arms. I arrived in Houston expecting to gain some strategies and best practices that I could take back to my classroom. Instead, I experienced, among the 7000+ attendees, a collective consciousness of equity, justice, and freedom. I entered NCTE ready for professional evolution. Now, I’m ready for revolution.

I find it virtually impossible to share all the lessons I learned and highlights from the weekend. Instead, I wanted to share some of the most profound moments that have changed my thoughts about my students and my classroom community.

Opening Keynotes
Friday morning began with a series of six youth speakers who shared their stories of how they started raising their voices. After Olivia Van Ledjte started us off with her message about “being for humanity,” we were introduced to Jordyn Zimmerman, a student at Ohio University who had previously been unable to express most of her thoughts verbally. Now, using an iPad, she described her schooling with this, “I was desperately tired of being silenced…Every student should be given a chance. Students should succeed by design, not chance.”

Next came, other youth such as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Marley Dias, and Zephyrus Todd shared their voices that inspired me in so many ways. Yet, when Sara Abou Rashed stepped on stage to perform her poem I Am America, I was profoundly moved. This multilingual poet and author (and student at my alma mater, Denison University), took command of that room and took us to the depths of her soul.

“I am America, oh dear, America, I love you. Even at times when you do not love me…I am not ashamed of you. I am ashamed of what they have made you. America, they do not know you like I do.”

As she walked off stage to thunderous applause, I stood there wiping tears from my eyes completely transported.

I implore you to experience this yourself. You can find a performance here.

Why is Reading Is Important?
This is the question that Kylene Beers asked her fellow panelists Kwame Alexander, Pam Allyn, and Ernest Morrell. What seemed like a simple question turned into a rallying cry to save our democracy. Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Kwamé Alexander – “Reading is a connection with the source. We can access a part of our brain that allows us to imagine what’s possible. TV imagines it for us.”

Pam Allyn – “As a reader, I am changing, but the text itself is permanent. Text is permanence and transience. I can read myself into the world. Reading is about reading yourself into being.”

Ernest Morrell – “Reading provides access to worlds that are beyond your front door. We are lucky to have the texts we have, and reading the master authors…are like Beethoven in words. Reading is an expert describing the human condition.”

Kylene Beers – “If you’re watching something, or listening to an audiobook, what you’re reading is filtered through someone else. Literacy in this country has always been about power and privilege. The person who wrote the words has typically been empowered. Literacy has always been related to power. We are handing that power over to pundits on 1-2 TV stations. Letting them tell us how to think. Our democracy is now about what 4-5 people tell us to think. Reading for information is about saving our democracy.”

How can you listen to this conversation and not be forever changed? How can I not return to my classroom with a new sense of urgency and determination?

Schooling vs. Education
Saturday started off with another general session by Christopher Emdin, New York Times bestseller For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . . and the Rest of Y’all Too and creator of #HipHopEd. His keynote challenged the audience to rethink and remix our jobs as educators. Christopher Edmin took the entire NCTE audience to church. Every single person in the room was locked into him. As for me, I can honestly say that it was one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Throughout his talk, he floored me with statements such as:

“Our students need to know that the only person better than them is embedded in them.”

“A curriculum that is devoid of the recognition of the genius already in your kids forces kids to perform miracles and resurrect themselves to be present every day. If you don’t recognize that there is genius in me, you will feed me a curriculum that will make me invisible. I will need to perform miracles just be relevant.”

“Be a teacher, not a curriculum follower. Teaching is all about the remix.”

“Our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within them to be able to become present.”

Throughout his talk, as my mouth hung agape, I kept thinking returning to this idea that the current construct of “school” and a “classroom” is getting in the way of true education. Emdin states that “our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within (our students) to be able to become present.” Is my classroom community getting in the way of the learning? Does our classroom allow my students to feel that they only person better than them is embedded in them?

The theme of this year’s NCTE conference was Raising Student Voice. Having a classroom community is not about rules and structure. Classroom community is about having those difficult conversations. It is about innovation. It is about a disruption of the way it’s always been done to ensure that learning is not impeded by the schooling.

Classroom community is about asking the question to our students: “Am I serving you the way you need to be served?”

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