Digital Tools, Narrative Writing, and Listening: Reflections on NCTE

At the recent NCTE conference in Boston, I heard Tom Newkirk say, “My original ideas are those for which I’ve forgotten the source” (and he may have even been quoting someone else!)  But it made me think about how much we all learn from each other.  In all my presentations for teachers, I always feel like I’m building on the works of others. Teachers are so willing to share ideas, thoughts, reflections about their practice, and when we listen to each other we are building our own understandings.

sharingSo, in the spirit of sharing, I’ll post some things I heard and learned about in three particular sessions at NCTE.

In a session called “Reimagining Literacy Workshop in the Digital Age” I listened with my not-so-techy-ear to the thoughts of three of my favorite teachers – Bill Blass, Ann Marie Corgill, and Franki Sibberson.  Bill built his talk around this question, “What does it mean to be literate in the digital age?” which switches our thinking from “What is digital literacy?”  We all want kids to become literate, but we need to add options to their repertoire. Kids can respond to texts using many digital tools like voicethread, educreations, making videos, etc. In addition to response logs or other old favorites, they can have conversations about texts by posting blogs and commenting on each other’s posts. Franki and Ann Marie were very clear in saying that we need to teach kids about the tools, i. e., how to post, how to consider your audience, how to comment, and so on. “Possibilities invite intentionality.” They shared charts they brainstorm with their students, such as, “Making comments to writers on their blogs” or “Possible blog posts.”  To me, the bottom line from this session was that the internet and new digital tools are not going away; they are not a fad; they are here to stay.  As teachers we need to make the best use of them without giving up what we know constitutes best practice for a literacy workshop – authenticity, choice, and ownership.

In another session (with Ralph Fletcher, Tom Newkirk, and Becky Rule), Ralph shared his concern that narrative writing is getting pushed to the back burner by the Common Core.  Of the 24 samples that CCSS gives at the 5th grade level, only two are narratives. The CCSS emphasis is heavy on argument and non-fiction writing.  Fletcher talked about how story is the way people think and view the world.  We retain information better if it is embedded in story. So much of informational text is composed of stories. Aren’t the best history teachers the ones who teach it with stories? Newkirk continued the talk saying that CCSS compartmentalizes writing into narrative, argument, and informational writing.  He felt that was a “category error” in that narrative is foundational to the other two. Newkirk read the Gettysburg Address and asked us to listen to it for the story it tells – the story of our country from the Declaration of Independence (all men equal), through the war, and on into the future. This session was concluded with entertainment from a most wonderful storyteller, Becky Rule, whose books I will be checking out soon!

The third session that got me thinking a lot featured Martha Horn and two first grade teachers she worked with on implementing writers’ workshop in their classrooms.  Martha showed a video clip of her modeling how to listen as a first grader told his story to the class. She encourages us to “listen with your eyes, ears, heart, and whole self” and she showed how to do just that.  This telling of stories that the children do is a rehearsal, a kind of planning, for the writing that they will soon do.  She’s there to help them “talk their way into writing.” She would retell parts of the story to give the child an opportunity to clarify.  She often said, “and then what happened?”  She didn’t assume to know what he meant or intended to mean, but rather gave him back his words in the language of books, so that he could confirm them or change them or add to them.  The two classroom teachers then shared their learning journeys of going from the whole class doing the same kind of writing to a true writer’s workshop with time, choice, opportunity, support, response and feedback.

I loved Martha Horn’s idea of bringing classroom teachers with her to share their growth stories.  I hope that many reading teachers and literacy coaches who are reading this are thinking about encouraging their teachers to put in proposals for next year’s NCTE.  AHEM, I’m especially talking to my local friends who work in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area (where NCTE will be held in 2014.) I know I’ll be nudging a few young teachers!


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