Saturday, December 1, 2018

Conversations about NCTE18: Finding (and defending) student (and teacher) voice, part 1

Over the course of this past week, Audrey had the occasion to have two conversations about the NCTE Annual Convention. Do they ring true for you?

The first conversation was with George Salazar, one of the winners of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English’s Teachers for the Dream Award, whom Audrey spoke with in her capacity as president of NJCTE. The NJCTE Teacher for the Dream Award affords (in collaboration with NCTE) support for the two winners to attend NCTE. George had asked what to expect at the convention, and Audrey found herself gushing about the opportunity to be in a community of teachers sharing ideas and seeking inspiration. For those able to afford attendance at NCTE (which isn’t everyone), the convention represents a unique opportunity to get outside the bubbles of our classrooms and schools and connect with teachers from every level and every part of the U.S. (and even abroad). We (Audrey and Susan) always leave feeling empowered, invigorated, and excited. Speaking with George and thinking about his plans to attend his first NCTE in Baltimore in 2019, Audrey was reminded of the power of the convention.

Audrey’s second conversation was with Lauren Zucker, a new NJCTE board member and an active member of NCTE. We (Audrey and Lauren) found ourselves commiserating about how the inspiration and excitement of NCTE seems to slip away, in part because of the convention’s timing. Leaving behind our institutions for the convention, only to return for those hurried few days before Thanksgiving, to then turn away for the holidays, we finally return again to our schools in the waning days of November as the crush of the end of the year weighs down on us. Despite whatever planning we attempt, those days away – for NCTE and Thanksgiving – always seem to come back to haunt us: to make us feel overwhelmed, discombobulated, frazzled. It’s hard to hold onto the inspiration and excitement of NCTE, to remember those new ideas we wanted to try, strategies we hoped to employ, tools we were thinking of experimenting with, as we try to catch up and catch our breath.

Surely, the answer to the latter predicament is to take good notes at NCTE and to spend some time during and after the convention writing – putting our thoughts, ambitions, and inspirations onto paper or the computer screen. That way, we can return to them, but at a later date when we have the space to breathe.

So here are some of our thoughts from NCTE 2018:

For us, the convention was an odd and tenuous combination of hope and anxiety – perhaps reflective of the state of our nation. The first session Audrey attended on Friday morning seemed to capture that: “Awakening and Activating Hope in Divisive Times.” 

Even the theme itself of the convention – "Finding Student Voice" – seemed to reflect that conflict: a focus on finding voice seems to admit the loss or absence of voice. How did we come to be in a place where we need to pay attention to finding student voice, especially in the English classroom of all places? How did student voice come to be submerged, repressed, or absent in a discipline all about ideas, voices, and expression?

The issue, even tenuousness, of voice – of free and open debate and discourse – however, is so omnipresent at this moment. We face issues in the media about fake news/truth and our NCTE convention was taking place during the fracas about the revocation by the White House of CNN’s Jim Acosta’s press credentials.

We ourselves had a tiny taste of this issue of voice and free discourse. Just prior to NCTE, we presented at the New Jersey Education Association’s convention a session called “Teaching Inequality to Encourage Students to Speak about Justice,” which was in keeping with the social justice theme of the convention.

As we previously wrote about here, our session was called out as part of an editorial against the NJEA convention published on the NJ101.5 website by Jeff Deminski.

There we are, from 9:45-11:15, talking about teaching inequality and justice. Thankfully, we were not called out by name or institution. And we are both employed with relative security. But is this kind of public condemnation for doing the work of our profession as educators what we all have to look forward to in the future?

Are these the times we face? Deminiski’s critique - why not just teach language arts? – is underwritten by a threat (you aren’t entitled to your voice) about the legitimacy of our work (you aren’t doing the real work of the discipline). These sorts of threats have serious consequences in our current climate, and they diminish all our voices.

Amid these undercurrents, the NCTE convention was, as usual, a soothing balm, a calming oasis, and an energizing infusion. More about that in part 2 ...

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