This post was written by NCTE member Linda Rief.
Don Graves and Don Murray, both mentors of mine at the University of New Hampshire, have been gone more than a decade. Yet their influence on me continues in so many ways—as a learner, as a teacher, as a reader and as a writer. Their greatest impact, though, was introducing me to NCTE.
Don Graves and Jane Hanson invited me to join them as a presenter in a session with them at my first convention nearly 40 years ago in San Antonio, Texas. I hesitated. A national convention. . . I’d love to attend—but to present? What do I have to say? Nancie Atwell has said it all in In the Middle.
Both Don Murray and Don Graves urged me to accept the invitation: You are not Nancie. Your students are not her students. Your experiences and your constraints are unique. You have lots to share—and just as much to learn.
Indeed. That first NCTE energized me, inspired me, and invigorated me as a presenter, but most importantly, as an attendee; as a teacher, but most importantly as a learner; as a speaker, but most importantly as a listener; as a colleague, but most importantly as a collaborator.
NCTE is my professional home. It has been that way for my entire teaching career.
The Annual Convention has always been the highlight of the year, providing the rich rewards that sustain me for the rest of the year: inspiration from the keynote speakers (keynote speakers in 2021 are reason enough to want to attend: Michelle Obama, George M. Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Amanda Gorman!); practical applications in the classroom from the numerous sessions; insights from authors about their writing processes and their thinking behind their books.
A few of the memories that resonate most with me from previous NCTE Conventions:
- In the Exhibit Hall, Don Graves waving me over to meet Ted Kooser, who stood with Don and Georgia Heard, talking about poetry.
- Arriving too early in a large room set for lunch, sitting and talking about books and writing for 30 minutes with another woman who had also arrived too early—only to find out who she was before the luncheon began: Judy Blume.
- Jason Reynolds admitting, “my 16-year-old self seeps into my writing.”
- Waiting to write poetry with Tom Romano, in a packed session sitting arm-to-arm, thigh-to-thigh, notebooks open, pens poised, 45 minutes before he was scheduled to speak.
- Laughing as S. E. Hinton confessed that she kept writing The Outsiders because she wanted to read it. “I didn’t even think about publishing it. . . . But I did ask my mom, ‘If I sell a book, can I get a car?’ “
- Laura Halse Anderson reading an excerpt from Speak and talking about the importance of telling our truths through our stories.
- Standing beside young colleagues in an audience of hundreds as they rose to their feet with thunderous applause to honor Louise Rosenblatt, who at 98 years old was still attending NCTE to offer her thinking about Literature as Exploration.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminding us that “there is something wonderful and reaffirming about reading about yourself, but I also want to read books about people not like me. . . . I want to see the world in ways that I don’t see the world.”
So much to take away that fills your head and heart as you step back into your classroom. Yet, the greatest benefit of the NCTE Convention is making connections and renewing friendships with other educators from around the country and the world. If you attend Convention—whether virtually or live—you quickly realize that this organization will become your professional home, too.
Once it goes live again, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, pull up a chair, discuss, share, question, argue. . . with other classroom teachers, researchers, university professors, authors. . . with strangers and old friends you only see once a year. . . think deeply and sincerely and, perhaps differently, with others who share your commitment to students. Come as a team of teachers-administrators from your school, so you can reflect on all you heard and thought about. This is learning at its best.
NCTE is a professional home for so many of us, filled with many voices, who don’t always agree, but who always encourage respectful conversation. NCTE lets us see the world in ways that we don’t always see the world. NCTE is a good friend, who puts their arm around your shoulder, looks you in the eye, says how glad they are to see you, and means it.
Linda Rief left the classroom in June of 2019 after 40 years of teaching Language Arts with eighth graders. She misses their endless energy, their curiosity, and their powerful voices as readers and writers. She is an instructor in the University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute and a national and international presenter on issues of adolescent literacy. The author of many books, including The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing (2018), she was the coeditor with Maureen Barbieri of NCTE’s Voices from the Middle during its inception and for its first five years, and continued to write a column under the leadership of future editors. For three years Rief chaired the first Early Adolescence English/Language Arts Standards Committee of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In 2020 she received the Kent Williamson Exemplary Leader Award from the Conference on English Leadership, in recognition of outstanding leadership in the English Language Arts. In 2021 she was honored with the NCTE Distinguished Service Award.
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