Monday #31: Laughter, Literacy & Lucy

In the wee morning hours of this past Saturday, educators from all over the country were getting ready to crowd into the Riverside Church near Columbia University for the 82nd Annual Teachers College Saturday Reunion. This free professional development event is a mobbed, packed wall-to-wall, standing room only affair with headlining keynote authors like this year’s Pam Munoz Ryan and Sarah Weeks.

That it begins in the nave of this massive and awe-inspiring, gothic building is a tap for attendees to open their minds to the ideas of the presenters and to approach the day with a sense of wonder about the profession of teaching. The energy of a church brimming with educators who come to receive this day full of thoughts, theories and ideas is palpable.

This year, I attended two workshops and two lectures. They were all wonderful. Author, Pam Munoz Ryan gave a terrific opening keynote that revealed the soul of a writer who, against a few odds, was called to a career that was as appropriate as it was inevitable. With empathy for the frustration and weariness that educators feel over burgeoning requirements toward the Common Core Standards, Ryan acknowledged what she calls “the tyranny of now” and encouraged teachers to hold tight to the reasons they came to education as they move forward in this evolving landscape.

Kathy Collins, national speaker, author of Growing Readers and Reading For Real, and former leader of the Project’s K-2 reading work, delivered an inspiring and funny lecture on using songs and jokes to teach literacy in her signature, quirky way. She began her talk with a simple but powerful message: The backbeat of all my ideas about teaching is to recognize the importance of having fun every day. She encouraged teachers to do three, crucial things. First, laugh out loud every day. Second, have a colleague who makes you laugh and, third, feel OK about making fun of your life, your profession and the people in it with a loving spirit. This was my third time at one of Kathy’s talks and each time I see her I wish that every child in every school could have a teacher like her.

Colleen Cruz, senior staff developer for the Project and author of Independent Writing and Reaching Struggling Writers, gave a fascinating workshop on using kid culture to teach inference and interpretation in fiction writing. After most of us flunked a quick quiz on the current number ones in kid culture (top song, video game, movie and TV show) she encouraged us to find out more about what kids like and to use this knowledge to both engage children as well as ease our own efforts to teach them required material. Cruz showed how teachers can utilize the video games, song lyrics, music videos and television shows that children adore to teach complex literary concepts in just a fraction of the time it would take to do so through more traditional instructional methods. Honestly, I found that the 45 minute long session wasn’t nearly long enough to pick the brain of a person who has made huge headway in how a tiny bit of extra effort to connect with one’s students can make all the difference in the world.

Trent DeBerry and Christine Boyer, fifth-grade teachers in NY public schools, demonstrated how to set up a wiki-space and a blog in your classroom. Now in their second year of using a wiki, these two open-minded teachers found that an easy to set up forum like this was not only a powerful way to get their students to write about what they are reading, but that it also spurred meaningful conversations about their work outside of class. Additionally, it gave the shier students a place to voice their opinions and allowed an exchange between students and teachers that all could participate in. Interestingly, the initial concerns they had about parents being freaked out by this online forum (that is password protected) were unfounded and they’ve seen that the practice actually changed the lines of communication between parents, kids and teachers as well.

The other lecture I attended was by Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project and author of many books on the teaching of reading and writing–most notably her Units of Study books, The Art of Teaching Reading and The Art of Teaching Writing. She is the Queen Mother of this whole place. In a speech that appealed to my preference for a “glass half full” mindset, Calkins encouraged teachers to make an effort to approach the Common Core with new eyes; to see it as a wake up call that our nation’s public schools needed and to look how far we’ve come as a country when it comes to education. In response to universal grousing  by educators nationwide, Calkins reminds us “what you see on the outside is what’s in you on the inside.” This echoes the thoughts of Wayne Dyer that I wrote about recently— “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Her talk was a call for everyone to get down to the business of real reform and a challenge to begin working together in our schools to take the best of what we’re doing and make it better.

Sarah Weeks, author of many books and known for her light-hearted speeches and rollicking sense of humor, was the closing keynote for this year’s reunion. With a humble heart full of gratitude to the teachers and librarians who have put her work into the hands of so many children, Weeks made us all laugh with the stories of her path to authorship and the collection of child-born anecdotes that have come from a lifetime of working in schools with kids. I could have listened to her for the rest of the afternoon; she is a truly gifted speaker and a storyteller’s storyteller. It was the perfect ending to a day that highlighted an objective of a more positive, upbeat outlook to the future of teaching and learning.

Before I became a visiting author/illustrator and an artist in residence, I taught high school. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned over the last 20 years is how much kids are kids, regardless of their age, and how much their success in the classroom depends on my truly wanting them to succeed. It’s not perfect right now;  nothing ever is, and education is tricky business. But, I am most myself when I am in schools sharing my ideas about writing and art with children and I would return to the traditional classroom without a second thought if my career took that turn. If you are a teacher, do you still feel most yourself in your school? And, if not, is there a way back to that for you?



About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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