“It’s Like English Teacher Comic-Con!”: WVCTE Members Reflect on Attending the NCTE ConventionNovember 22, 2016
Jessica Salfia, WVCTE President:
Spring Mills High School, Martinsburg, WV
Being involved with NCTE has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. And I mean this literally.
Since my first NCTE Convention in 2013, the ideas, collaborations, and inspirations I have brought back to my school and my state have changed not just my teaching, but my classroom and community for the better. Our brand new affiliate, The West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, now exists after over 15 years of being defunct because of a conversation Karla Hilliard and I had with an affiliate leader at the DC Convention in 2014. I am not ashamed to say that every great idea or “best thing” that has happened in my classroom over the last three years has been a direct result of a connection, collaboration, inspiration, or conversation that I have had at an NCTE convention.
This year’s theme of advocacy was especially significant. One of the driving factors for our affiliate work has been the need to establish a voice for West Virginia English teachers and students. Listening to literacy leaders like Kylene Beers, Ernest Morrel and Penny Kittle, talk about the importance of putting the right books in the hands of the right students affirmed that the work of WVCTE is more important now than ever. Having the opportunity to thank Kwame Alexander for The Crossover and listen to the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates were both once in a lifetime opportunities.
And that’s what NCTE is all about: opportunities. Chances to reinvigorate your teaching, your writing, and your identity as an educator.
One of my favorite opportunities at NCTE is the opportunity to connect with other educators. This convention we happened upon some incredible teachers from Morgantown, WV who were thrilled to find out about our revived state affiliate. They were energized and excited, and Karla and I had a chance to meet with them about the future of our affiliate.
Connecting with other affiliate leaders was another important part of this convention for me. We want to create in WVCTE an organization that does for WV English educators what the NCTE convention has done for us over the last 3 years, and there are many amazing and active affiliates across the country doing that very thing in their own states. Attending the affiliate leader meeting was eye opening, and I came away with so many ideas for the direction of WVCTE. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that I it wasn’t immensely self-satisfying to stand up in that meeting and see the eyebrows raise when I said “West Virginia,” and talk about our WVCTE work. It’s been over 10 years since anyone at this convention has seen an energized and active WV affiliate, and we repped the Mountain State loud and proud all weekend.
(And if you don’t know the story of our hero’s journey to reviving this affiliate, it involves our very own Obi Wan Kenobi. His real name is Bob Dandoy and he is a retired educator, a PCTELA member who works with new affiliates, a teacher rockstar, and all around awesome human. He has been instrumental in WVCTE’s existence, and we had the opportunity to here him speak about teacher advocacy at NCTE. I wanted to throw him a major WVCTE shout-out because his guidance has been critical in the successful launch of this organization. He is pictured below at the podium. Also in this incredible session, to his right is 2015 National Teacher of the Year, Shanna Peeples, Lu Ann McNAbb, and Matt Skillen. -JS)
Karla Hilliard, WVCTE Executive Vice-President:
Spring Mills High School, Martinsburg, WV
It’s difficult to pin down the best, most-inspring, sessions, speakers, or moments from NCTE ’16. This convention is hands down the best professional development possible for an English teacher. Not only are you surrounded by like-minded people, but you’re in the company of some of the country’s best and brightest teachers and teacher leaders.
This year, I attended some truly good sessions. I watched brilliant and moving spoken word poetry performed by students from Chicago, learned about going gradeless, heard some validating news from The College Board about the AP Lit course and exam with its focus on “text not terms”, heard our friend Bob Dandoy and National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeplestalk about advocating for our profession and our students, and listened in awe to one of our greatest contemporary intellects and writers, of whom I am a serious fan, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But nothing compares to the connections I made at this year’s convention. The #aplitchat on Twitter has been an important part of my professional life these past few years. AP Lit chat is lead by Brian Sztabnik of Talks With Teachers, and I’m lucky enough to chat with not only Brain, but dozens of other AP Literature and literature teachers (like the lovely Susan Barber) from all over the country. Some weeks we chat about poetry, some weeks the test, other weeks we’ll talk strategies, but no matter the topic, there’s one constant: a collegial professional community of teachers who genuinely want to improve their craft. This awesome Twitter chat lead to a Voxer group, and the folks on this group and I chat on a weekly basis about best practices, and the highs and lows of teaching.
Last weekend at NCTE, I finally got to meet some of my “internet friends” face-to-face.
The icing on the networking cake? Connecting with these wonderful, talented, and down-to-Earth fellow West Virginia teachers from Morgantown High School. Tiphanie (second from left) and I met a few years ago at an AP workshop, and serendipitously we bumped into each other in Atlanta. This crew, Jess, and I spent an evening chatting about teaching and education in West Virginia, and we are so excited by our collective potential here in WVCTE.
Rhonda Foreman, NBCT, WVCTE Executive Committee
English Dept. Chair, Martinsburg High School, Martinsburg, WV
Fine Tuning My Guide Skills
On most days, teaching is a solitary profession. We see our colleagues on the way into school, for brief moments in between classes, for a few additional moments at lunch, and then again on the way out at the end of the day. We spend our days surrounded by young adults who look to us for guidance as they navigate their way through all things English. I truly believe that the absolute best way for English teachers to fine tune their guide skills is to attend a national conference. Powerful, awe-inspiring, and rejuvenating are words that reflect what the #NCTE16 Conference in Atlanta, Georgia meant for me. For three full days I was surrounded by thousands of English teachers from across the country who all voluntarily came together to learn from one another and strengthen our profession.
I met Kwame Alexander and listened as he told us how to bring poetry to life for our students. I was inspired by Sharon Draper as she challenged us to “Write that book!” I was moved as Ta-Nehisi Coates described why he wrote Between the World and Me. I made numerous trips through the exhibition hall to fill tote bag after tote bag with free books, posters, and supplies. I stood in line to get books signed by their authors. I attended sessions with titles such as “Challenging the Five-Paragraph Essay: Advocating for Change without Alienating Our Colleagues,” and “Texts Not Terms: Teaching AP Literature and Composition for Student Success.” I enjoyed free wine provided by the Atlanta Shakespeare Company as they entertained us with the wit and puns of Shakespeare. I loved every moment!
I am so excited to share all of my experiences with my students as well as my colleagues now that I am back in WV. I firmly believe that teachers should never pass up an opportunity to learn new things. We owe it to ourselves and to our students to be the absolute best that we can be!
Jeni Gearhart, WVCTE Executive Committee:
Hedgesville High School
I always feel refreshed (and simultaneously exhausted) after an NCTE conference. This year was my third and I am already thinking about when I can go again. Being surrounded by so many amazing, passionate, world-changing teachers has a way of reminding you how important this job is.
I left with two very important things: 35 lbs. of free books in my carry-on luggage, and a renewed sense of passion about teaching English and advocating for the needs of my students.
The theme of “Faces of Advocacy” was a provocative and timely choice. I enjoyed a few days out of the classroom, but I couldn’t help but think about the faces of my students all weekend. What needs am I not meeting? What voices are not being heard? What can I do more? What can I do better?
Vocabulary.com (a cool tool that I learned more about during one of my sessions) has this description along with their definition of the word advocate:
As a noun, an advocate is a person who represents another person’s interests . . . it’s from Latin advocare, to “add” a “voice.” To advocate is to add a voice of support to a cause or person. An advocate is anyone who adds that voice by representing another person in court, or by supporting or working toward a particular course of action.
When we are advocates, we literally add our voices to a greater cause. Teaching and advocating for our students shouldn’t be whispering into the abyss, complaining about what is wrong, or what is not working. It is adding our voices with other passionate individuals. Advocating is the act of adding our voices together to make change happen in our world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said it perfectly in his keynote speech on Saturday, we ought to “train whatever little bit of light you have on that one thing that you are meant to do”.
Our job is to help our students find their voice, and speak alongside them as necessary.
Melissa Elliott, WVCTE Executive Committee
Martinsburg High School, Martinsburg, WV
Mr. Alexander decided to talk about love poems. He shared that he wrote a poem a day for his wife as a way to win her heart. I unabashedly wept when he read a poem about his daughter. I saw myself and my relationship with my dad and I saw my daughter and husband. I was reminded what poetry can do for us. One of my favorite techniques he used was during the Q&A period. People would ask questions and he would respond with a poem. He asked us to be vulnerable when we ask our kids to be vulnerable. There was a great discussion on the use of “authentic” language and how profanity is a short cut. It is harder to not curse.
I also ran into my college mentor several times. We had a similar conversation about the use of the N word in A Raisin in the Sun in the food court of the CNN building. And she told me I would forever be 20 years old in her mind.
Jess and Karla:
As you can tell from these reflections, NCTE is an experience that can transform your life. And our work as a state affiliate is to create these types of experiences for WV teachers in our own state. If you haven’t gotten involved with WVCTE, now is the time. Think about events and experiences you wish you could have right here in WV that would make your teaching stronger and more inspired. Send us an email, a Facebook message, a Tweet, and let us know what you would like your state affiliate to do for you.Karla:
Here’s the thing: there are passionate, talented, caring English teachers all over the country. We saw thousands of them last weekend in Atlanta. But we KNOW that passionate, talented, and caring English teachers are right here in West Virginia, too. WVCTE’s mission is to connect, empower, and serve WV educators so they can, in turn, serve WV students.Please join us and learn more about WVCTE at our holiday book exchange! Or reach out! Connect with us on Facebook, send us a Tweet @WVCTE, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!