Profound: What Literacy Can Accomplish For Life - National Council of Teachers of English
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Profound: What Literacy Can Accomplish For Life

Dear members,

The NCTE statement posted yesterday reflects our commitment and deliberate intent to assure and inform you that the Executive Director and Presidential Team were gathering, processing, and conscientiously apprising you of our initial attention and concern about the NAACP’s travel advisory.

What follows is my response to the membership, not explaining why we must continue on into Missouri; rather, what follows illustrates and describes why we must move forward not only to Missouri but also to all states in this Union. Our leadership has made and will always make every effort to assure our safety. Be assured, our visible presence supporting teachers and students must never stop for any iteration of exclusion, oppression, or special interests.

Jocelyn A. Chadwick, PhD
YOUR Program Chair, NCTE 2017

There are many Missouris, many places where our children and educators live and work and must traverse sometimes harsh, difficult, and ever-changing milieus. NCTE’s mission and vision of providing learning pathways—moments and opportunities—to foment lifelong literacy dare not slow down, dare not stop, dare not be daunted by anything, ever. We move forward.

I’d like to offer an example from work I’ve been doing with Missouri teachers as part of this fall’s Annual Convention. The project described below will form the core of one of our keynote presentations, bringing the voices of students into the room with one of our beloved authors—a dialogue that will illustrate the very reason why all of us gather each year to grow in this work.

The following quotes are from four classes of Missouri 6th- and 7th-grade students, most students of color, whose amazing teacher and school allowed me to collaborate and work with 60 students as they embarked on reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. This same reading and discussion/writing session will occur again in October with different Missouri students and their teacher reading Another Brooklyn.

The Objective: To focus on sustained critical reading, thinking, and writing skills, utilizing a piece of literature. To encourage students to complete the text.

Until we began this instructional learning approach, the students had not completed an entire novel.

The Process: This summer, every Friday for five weeks, the students and I discussed what they had read, what questions they wanted to ask me—any questions regarding the text itself, and peripheral connections. Prior to each week, I prepared a PPT with primary sources illustrative of historical events, figurative language, vocabulary, geographical locations, even botanical references: The Negro Motorist Green Book, the Great Migration, Johnny Pumps, the dangers of lead poisoning, birch trees, South vs North, poll tax, civil protest, benign/benevolent racism, dialect, the American Dream, and Woodson’s panoply of writers, thinkers, and literary genres, especially, poetry, for example.

Literary Themes: the power of words, writing, reading, using ones imagination.

Social/Cultural Themes: family, sense of self, looking beyond ones own uniqueness and difference to explore and experience new relationships/cultures, death, nuclear and divided families, the import of names.

During the week, prior to each Friday, Mr. Devitt, their teacher, working with reading and analysis tools I provided coupled with his amazing instruction, the students read and discussed. The students sent me videos of their collaborative conversations and responded to questions I posed about the text—verbally and written.

Example of students’ comments:

“Has anyone close to you died?

“What was your family life like in the South?”

“Do you lower your eyes when a white person talks to you?” Why not?

“What was growing up in the South like for you?”

“Do you read a lot like Jackie? “Do you write, too?” Show us some of your writing.

“I guess bad things happen to all people. Maybe that helps us learn?”

“We had a debate and talked about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.”

“Americans are nice people but we just have to get better at what we do. Her grandparents do alot for their taking care of the children. I think I like it.”

“They called their grandpop daddy because there is not the father in their life.”

“It [the novel] doesn’t relate to any parent I know because Jacqueline’s mom is selfish.”

Result: The students not only read and utilized the Socratic method of inquiry and deep analysis, but also they completed the entire text. For many of them, Woodson’s novel was the very first book they completed. These students, and the ones to participate in October, created questions to ask Ms. Woodson. Woodson, her style of narrative, and her keen ability to weave so much into a text mesmerized and inspired the students.

Assessment: PROFOUND. Over the many years I have been teaching high school and college students (undergraduates and graduates), I have never, never described any experience with students as profound. And I have had the privilege of working with phenomenal teachers and students. That said, the students in this first phase of collaboration on a Woodson text, dug deep; they read, discussed, reflected, inquired, wrestled with the text and its implications as they viewed its relation to them. Metamorphosis transpired among us all.

This is what NCTE does best. The Missouri Affiliate, Mr. Devitt—and the teacher to come in October—the students and we worked together. The students were most assuredly not the same as they were at the beginning of the session. I was not the same. Mr. Devitt was not the same. And we are the better for it.

Not many educational organizations, like NCTE, in our contemporary climate claim to operate in this fashion. The Missouri Affiliate, two willing and invested teachers, and NCTE embarked on a journey along an instructional pathway few had ever experienced. My first attempt at such an approach occurred at Harvard on two occasions—but for a single day. This learning opportunity evolved over weeks.

As Mr. Devitt stated more than once, his students expressed to him their awe of our earnestly caring about them, listening to them. I promised the students I would come to visit with them on 13 November. That is a promise I cannot wait to fulfill.