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Field Notes: Gathering to Grow

A hallmark of the NCTE community is gathering every November in cities across the United States. NCTE’s Annual Convention is a historic and treasured opportunity. Literacy educators, authors, and advocates come together to learn, draw strength from one another, express solidarity, and renew their commitment to serving students with the very best instruction possible. Hallways buzz with supportive conversation. New initiatives are born. Emerging research gains attention. Teachers pursue access of books for their students. Bestselling authors share conversation with literacy educators. This all happens nearly 24/7 over just under a week.

The same thing happens on state and regional scales among NCTE’s 65+ state and regional affiliate organizations. From coast to coast—New England to California—states and regions gather every year in addition to the national convention. Some affiliate conferences have a thousand or more attendees; others gain their footing as newly formed organizations and attract a couple hundred.

NCTE’s 14 assemblies span journalism, research, adolescent literature, and beyond. The gatherings delve into the specific topics and bring the foremost scholars and practitioners in the specialty areas together to learn, grow, and share.

COVID-19 continues to challenge us to find new ways to foster support community amongst our members. Gathering is what we know. The rituals of our gathering sustain us as individuals and as a community of professional literacy educators.  Our gatherings sustain and grow our profession.

We gathered with 45 individual affiliates in May to discuss what was unfathomable six months ago: How can we continue to gather despite the presence of coronavirus and financial disruption? A quote I shared during the discussion was from J. R. R. Tolkien: “Still round the corner there may wait a new road or a secret gate.”

In the spirit of discovering new gates and drawing from our community, I referenced the groundbreaking work of author Priya Parker. Ironically—or perhaps very appropriately—I first learned of her work from a colleague from the American Council of Learned Societies, a society with which NCTE gathers twice per year and sustains connection with the other 50 weeks of the year online. Thankfully, Warren Hoffman, executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, recommended the book early in 2019 and I followed his advice. 

Priya Parker writes about the art and science of why we humans gather in the first place. Under normal conditions, it was an insightful read. Since the descendance of COVID-19, Parker has pivoted her mantra to think about how we can creatively gather at a distance. Together Apart is her new-ish podcast, produced in partnership with the New York Times. It’s worth a listen—a weekly listen. One of the first podcast episodes I listened to was during the time in which a couple of members and I were envisioning what has now become the weekly ritual of NCTE Member Gatherings.

Leaning into our gathering practices, we will hold a summer book study for NCTE state affiliate and assembly leaders to explore more about why we gather and how we can do so differently to fit the present times—and perhaps long into the future.

Any NCTE affiliate or assembly leader is welcome to attend. We’d love to hear if there’s interest beyond our affiliates and assemblies, too. Perhaps we can widen the circle of conversation around this topic. With any luck, we might also welcome Ms. Parker to join us in conversation.

Long-time NCTE affiliate leaders Bob Dandoy (Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts) and Shanetia P. Clark (Maryland Council of Teachers of English Language Arts) will host the sessions. If you already know Bob and Shanetia, you know that we’re headed into smart and energizing conversations.

We invite you to discover more about the book study at this link.

We often marvel at the complexity of and depth within NCTE. Bringing our affiliates and assemblies together in conversation shines a light on the breadth of the literacy education community represented. That’s something to admire and celebrate, and it is deserving of discovering new ways to gather in solidarity.

NCTE is on a path of continued growth and service to our field. If you have ideas of opportune topics to explore, I invite you to email me at executivedirector@ncte.org.