Sunday, November 22, 2015

Day 1 at NCTE Minneapolis (where it’s very cold)

Getting ready for our packed session on "Teaching To
Kill a Mockingbird
 in (Not-So) Post-Racial Times"
We arrived bright and early in the morning from New Jersey. One of our first highlights was Brian Sweeney’s discussion of how his high school journalism student was able to turn a quirk in the New York City sexual education policy (teachers could talk about condoms but not actually show them) into a breaking story about policy change that was picked up by national media. Sweeney’s talk was part of a panel about writing forms beyond the essay and student agency. It was an inspiring way to begin our NCTE.

Next, we presented our work on informational text and Mockingbird. The panel, Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in (Not So) Post-Racial Times was the brainchild of Susan Groenke (thanks to her for that!). We were thrilled to talk to an informed and lively audience about ways to think about Calpurnia and Lula vis-à-vis an audio interview of Dorothy Bolden, who worked as a domestic for 41 years and founded the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968, and excerpts from “Growing Up White,” featuring the reflections of white women who grew up in the 1930s South, like Scout, on the nannies and sharecroppers of their childhoods. If you missed our presentation, our slides are available on our website, as is the unit we focused on, “What Does Scout Really Know About Calpurnia?”

Robert Prickett followed us, with wonderful examples of graphic novels featuring African-American characters and history. We can’t wait to read Jennifer's Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl and the many others. Our favorite takeaway from his talk: use just a few panels from these various text to fill in context, make connections, and enrich your classroom discussion of Mockingbird.

Next, Stacy Reece and Susan Groenke talked about their research on pre-service teachers and the teaching of Mockingbird. Their qualitative research on how these students had been taught to read and think about Harper Lee’s novel – Atticus as hero, for example – was so compelling, especially given how universally the students talked about the erasure of race in their experience of the novel in high school.

Their next task was to help these pre-service teachers design lesson plans that would foreground an anti-racist pedagogy. What was so striking about this work was how challenging it was for these young teachers to imagine this work. All new teachers worry about how to handle conflict in the classroom; inviting a politically challenging discussion of race into your classroom is no small feat for a new teacher. But if we don’t help these teachers to think about this work now, when will we? We need our new teachers to take on these challenges; we can ill afford another generation of students who read Mockingbird as an unqualified tale of white heroism.

Thanks also to a great audience for their feedback. There’s no question that Mockingbird remains a problematic text today. Yet we know it remains one of those universally taught texts, so our challenge is to teach it well in combination with other texts that allow our students to have the difficult and informed conversations about race that we need to have in our classrooms.

Finally, we closed our day at a session entitled, “Responding to College Readiness,” featuring Audrey’s colleague, Caroline Wilkinson, along with Susannah Kilbourne and Hollye Wright. This highly interactive session allowed for great discussion of the vexed and vexing topic of college readiness. We did not, as one disappointed audience member noted, leave with the “answers” as to what constitutes college readiness and how to achieve it. But we did take away a sense of the importance of continuing conversations about the academic and non-academic skills necessary for success in college, the academic and non-academic obstacles (particularly poverty), and the difficulty of ensuring real access and opportunity for so many first generation students.

All in all, a great day at NCTE, as usual.

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