By Heidi Atlas, Co-Director of the Long Island Writing Project
(featured above with the one and only Ralph Fletcher)
When do you get the opportunity to meet Lois Lowry or S.E. Hinton? Or witness Sandra Cisneros make a surprise entrance into a Harvey Daniels’ writing workshop? While some people may have measured their lives in coffee spoons, I think mine is measurable in English teacher conventions. I have been attending the National Council of Teachers of English Conventions and National Writing Project’s Annual Meetings for much of my teaching life. What extraordinary speakers and workshops I have seen and heard! I urge you, if you’ve never been to an NWP or NCTE convention, to join me!
Keynote speakers at NWP annual meetings have included the hilarious poet Billy Collins, the beloved English teacher-guru Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. At NCTE, over the years, I have been inspired by Nancy Atwell and Donald Graves, two of my favorite writing heroes. I’ve seen the late great Frank McCourt speak, and enjoyed listening to Jacqueline Woodson and Linda Christensen present. Last November I was newly-inspired by a non-fiction reading and writing workshop given by Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Donalyn Miller. Esteemed speakers and meaningful workshops give convention-goers a plethora of unique and interesting strategies to consider and bring back to their classrooms.
So many new ideas have emerged and come to fruition as a result of attending these conventions. Pittsburgh 2005 was one of the most memorable. I really felt the need to take some concrete action when I came out of a particularly compelling Urban Sites Network workshop focusing attention on African American learners. It was from brainstorming with people from our site and other Writing Project sites that we decided to apply for an Urban Sites grant to create a Race Inquiry Group in my school district, where the increasing diversity of the student population was not reflected in the predominantly white teaching population. We received a grant for $5000 for the first year, and gathered together a group of teachers, assistant principals, and guidance counselors to dialogue about issues of race and equity in education. We read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and pieces by Lisa Delpit and Jonathan Kozol, and wrote, reflected, and shared. Engaging in this dialogue was powerful. Our group presented workshops within our district, included students in the conversation, and continued over three years. Our Race Inquiry Group even presented at NCTE when it was in New York City.
I presented at NCTE in 2012 with Melanie Hammer, the then Director of the LIWP, on work we did with the NWP’s “Literacy in the Common Core Initiative.” It was held in Las Vegas that year, a short time after Hurricane Sandy. I remember waking up on the morning of our presentation at 6 AM to prepare for our 8 AM workshop. It was odd seeking coffee in the casinos of the MGM Grand, where a few bleary-eyed gamblers who were still hoping to make up the previous night’s losses remained at mostly-vacant slot machines. That was quite the venue for an English teacher convention! Disney World in Orlando was another unusual site for an English teacher gathering.
One fun NCTE convention event was flying to Atlanta with my then 13-year-old daughter. We had been in a mother-daughter book group for many years, and my proposal “The Mother-Daughter Book Group: Engaging and Empowering our Daughters” was accepted. We bonded as we traveled together, presented about our shared unique experience, and scouted out authors and books at the exhibits. We met many young adult authors including Laurie Halse Anderson, Paul Zindel, and Ralph Fletcher, who all graciously signed books and talked YA literature with my adolescent daughter.
The Exhibit Hall showcases thousands of books and programs for perusal and purchase. You’ll find lots of free stuff – fabulous posters for every classroom K-12, free books, and as I said, authors signing everywhere. When I left my own children to attend these yearly gatherings, I would bring back many delicious, delightful new books for them. Throw a Kiss Harry became a beloved favorite in our house, as did Kevin Henke’s Lily’s Plastic Purple Purse and Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. Of course I would scout out the latest young adult books to bring back and recommend to my 8th graders. I loved meeting Ismael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone, who was signing books for his adoring English-teacher fans. I would do a book talk for my middle school students and tell them about Beah who had endured unimaginable pain in Sierra Leone. He witnessed his family and village decimated by rebel soldiers, and was then forced into becoming a killer himself by day and a drug addict by night. He was ultimately “rehabilitated” by the UN and brought to the US. And there was Ismael Beah – in the flesh - now signing books for elated English teachers, standing on a long line, waiting to meet this literary and real-world hero. And while on these lines, you can always hear enthusiastic recommendations regarding the latest and greatest books from dedicated colleagues in the trenches.
I enjoy one-stop shopping at the Exhibit Hall, since the convention is always held a week before Thanksgiving. One year Temple Grandin was signing copies of her new book on autism, and there was my present to bring home to my psychologist husband. I’d also bring home the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, fresh off the presses, to give to a middle-school aged cousin who devoured that series. In addition, the Heinemann booth as well as the NWP and NCTE booths are chock full of the latest professional books. There is something for everyone. This is Halloween ‘trick or treating’ for English teachers!
Perhaps one of the greatest things about attending NWP and NCTE is meeting people from Writing Project sites from around the country. I’ve had such rich conversations with Writing Project people from Oklahoma as well as Montana. One year at NWP and NCTE in Orlando, a group of us from the LIWP ran into Linda Christensen on the docks at Disney World, awaiting a boat that was to take us to a Yosemite-themed restaurant. We enjoyed an amazing dinner and meaningful conversation with Linda, author of Teaching for Joy and Justice, and other wonderful resources. It’s also a perfect opportunity to meet with our Empire State Writing Project Network (ESWPN) partners to share ideas and plan conferences together. Rooming with soulmates like Darshna Katwala and Andrea Kaufman only make these convention experiences more delightful.
NWP Annual Meetings take place on the Thursday before the Thanksgiving weekend, and NCTE begins Friday and continues through the weekend. Many school districts do allocate money for conventions, so it’s always a good idea to inquire if you can get some funding. This year’s keynote speakers include Diane Ravitch and Ta-Nehisi Coates! Hope to see you soon, perhaps in Atlanta, this November 17? Shall we say Pittypat’s Porch for dinner?
LIWP Guest Bloggers
Each month, an LIWP teacher will share some thoughts on teaching, writing, and life! If you are interested in being a guest blogger, please contact Kathy Sokolowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
Long Island Writing Project