Last month, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the 2023 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Being a newer educator, this experience was one that I cannot recommend enough! That is not to say that educators (or just the general English lover) of all years of experience would not benefit from attending this conference. From the astounding number of vendors and authors in the convention center itself to the hundreds of breakout sessions over the four days that it took place, this was a fount of knowledge!...
Names have been changed to protect the identities of minors.
Last month, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the 2023 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Being a newer educator, this experience was one that I cannot recommend enough! That is not to say that educators (or just the general English lover) of all years of experience would not benefit from attending this conference. From the astounding number of vendors and authors in the convention center itself to the hundreds of breakout sessions over the four days that it took place, this was a fount of knowledge!
During my time at the conference (which was unfortunately only Friday November 17), I got to engage with educators from all over the country in breakout sessions like Inviting Imagination, Joy, and Creativity in the ELA Classroom through Play-Based Strategies, chaired by Stanford University Associate Professor Antero Garcia, and Moving Away from Fear and Towards Purpose: Overcoming Grammar Myths and Folklore to Communicate, Collaborate, and Create in Powerful Ways, which was presented by the authors of Grammar to Get Things Done, Dr. Michelle D. Devereaux and Dr. Darren Crovitz of Kennesaw State University.
Along with the immense number of breakout sessions to participate in, NCTE attendees were provided with a smattering of fantastic keynote speakers throughout the weekend. Friday morning’s keynote speaker was Jacqueline Woodson–recipient of the 2023 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a 2023 E.B. White Award, the 2020 MacArthur Fellowship, the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the 2013 Astrid Lindgren Award, and many more! Woodson read an excerpt from her newest book, Remember Us, a story of 7th grader Sage, going to school in mid-20th Century Bushwick, reckoning with the pain of missing things that time leaves behind.
Sage experiences the push and pull of growing friendships, the feeling of belonging that each and every middle schooler craves, and the strength it takes to move forward. Woodson spoke of the homes our students return to after their shifts at their full-time jobs of being students; how the ways in which we refer to their homes, how they spend time in their homes, and how we view their homes must be in a respectful manner, always. She went on to mention how each of our students has a gift that may not be immediately apparent to us, as educators, at first glance, in the settings that we see them in.
“Unless we embrace the ‘we,’ there is no ‘we.’” - Jacqueline Woodson
For instance, students who finish their school day just to hurry to the elementary school down the street to pick up two siblings, then get them home–safely–and ensure that they are fed and taken care of when the adult(s) are working to make the money to buy the food to put in the house that shelters them all. While we may not see it in action, that student has a gift for caring for the safety and protection of others–who wouldn’t be thankful for a gift like that?
After I attended Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote speech, I was quickly combing through the 297-page conference program to find a breakout session that I could readily apply to my own teaching when I returned to school after Thanksgiving Break. Out of a wild 53 sessions to choose from for the next block, my adolescent-teaching eyes wandered over one of the few sessions that was marked exclusively with the red Middle Level ‘M’ category: Managing the Monsters: When Middle Grade Literature and Trauma Intersect.
Of course, all of the factors that worked towards my session attendance decision began racing through my head; Am I in the right wing of the building? The right floor even? Who’s presenting it? Do I really care–they’ve got to be an expert in their topic or they wouldn’t be presenting, right?
Then my mind returned to the applicability of what I’m learning at the conference, how I have a dutiful feeling within me to make use of everything that I soak up at this conference in order to justify my place as an educator of value.
Trauma. My students have trauma–surely we all do.
I thought of Trace, my student who was a late-Quarter 1 transfer student from the other school in town, who was already labeled as a ‘behavior issue’ in the system, who was already struggling with more monsters behind his heavily fortified emotional walls than some adults I know, who was painted as someone with an immense issue with authority. When I met Trace on his first day of school in my building, I said hello to him, told him that I was happy he was here today, and was met with the stare of a pair of ambiguously-colored, forlorn eyes that absolutely broke my heart.
Throughout our time together, I have become in close contact with Trace’s mom as he and I have grown closer. She informed me that since 2019, Trace and his family have lost nine family members; including Trace’s dad. [Author’s Note: since beginning to write this piece, Trace and his family have experienced the clutches of death-related grief two more times, and his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She has received some treatment and is expected to recover.] This is a student who knows trauma, this is a student who will benefit from the research the presenters did to create their presentation and the professional development done in the field by his teacher who cares about him.
Decided. I’m attending this session.
Managing the Monsters was presented by Adam Wolfsdorf, Ph.D., author of Navigating Trauma in the English Classroom. Alongside Adam were three tradebook authors: Chris Baron (The Gray), Jessica Vitalis (Coyote Queen), and Ellen Hopkins (Crank Trilogy, What About Will). This group spoke on the types of trauma that people experience (impact, relational, and daily traumas). Using top trauma psychologists’ data, Wolfsdorf traced the throughlines of trauma and its varied impact on the human brain in these three authors’ works, noting that no trauma is small trauma–as they all have effects on our brains. Trauma is a physical imprint of our psychic wounds. Trauma, they mentioned, is a leading cause in the adverse behaviors our students exhibit.
These students may not know that they have been traumatized to the point where they are affecting others–in the classroom, or in their own lives. Unfortunately though, our students are not to a place where they can process and heal from this trauma; that healing comes later with love and support. This reminded me of what Jacqueline Woodson said about speaking of the students and their shared and private lives with respect. We can’t ever be sure what our students are going through outside of our classrooms, thus it is crucial that we do our best to speak to them about life topics with genuine respect.
It would take me years to chronicle and apply every beneficial and learning-conducive thing I learned at the NCTE Conference. However, I’m hopeful that these teachings stay with me, allowing me to best support and encourage my students to make connections, to create, to collaborate with those around us. I’m also hopeful that students, faculty, staff, parents, administrations, and the like will sooner realize that when we embrace the ‘we,” we become stronger together.
by Caleb K. Thornton
KATE Pages Editor
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