NCTE this year was at Disney World. I had never been there and honestly, since I didn’t get out of the hotels where the meetings were held the entire time of my stay, I still haven’t been there. But I did see what people find attractive about the place — warm, clean, shiny. Not a bit like everyday life. Especially since we had an ice storm in Portland today which means a city-wide shut down. It felt like a long way from Mickey-town this morning.
But it wasn’t the weather or the smiling faces at every turn (even during a 2:00 a.m. fire alarm) or the fastidious grounds of Disney World that linger in my mind. It was the notion that here we were in this “magical kingdom” with all its wonders, surrounded by like-thinking people–a virtual love-fest for readers and writers–while outside that happy place, the ugliness of what happens in students’ lives every day as they are dished up dose after dose of mindless prompts and endless worksheets, is an everyday reality. The juxtaposition was jarring.
Thinking about that, sitting in the Orlando airport and waiting for a plane now two hours late in boarding, I spotted a young woman with her teaching colleagues, grading papers. Clearly, they were fresh from the conference, enthusiastically processing what they had heard and what they had seen. Bags of books and catalogues from every educational publisher were strewn about. I eavesdropped shamelessly as they talked. The teacher with the papers was grading five-paragraph essays. She defended the practice by telling her fellow teachers that if she didn’t tell kids what to write and how to write it, they wouldn’t do it. Where there had been excited chatter a minute before, there now was the pallor of reality. The others hung their heads and muttered in agreement. The after glow of the conference was only an hour old and already these young teachers had stubbed out their metaphorical cigarettes.
It’s powerful, that dose of reality. I know it is. And it’s ironic. Yes, motivating kids to write and write well is challenging, but they never get there when we don’t inspire them. Five-paragraph essays are the antithesis of everything we’ve learned makes a difference for student writers. Yet sitting in the airport, a group of teachers who will be teaching and influencing generations of students have already decided the old ways — the ones that never worked in the first place — are the best we can do. And why? Because they don’t know anything else to do on Monday morning.
All the rhetoric, the debate, the philosophical posturing that accompany a conference such as NCTE, all the fabulous sessions, the memorable authors, and inspirational speakers mean nothing if we can only hang onto the audience’s heart and mind for an hour. We will die never realizing our fondest hopes and dreams of bringing literacy into the life of every child at this rate.
The last twenty years I’ve been trying to reach out to those teachers in the airport and give them help with what to do on Monday–and the rest of the week, too. They are the ones to reach first. They came to the conference; they want to learn. And though I know developing the writing program that consumes my every day and night is a less than perfect thing, it’s light years from a five-paragraph essay. I don’t have the all answers, I never will. But I have the desire to help and ideas that work. And so tomorrow, I will be back at the keyboard, working and thinking of those teachers in the airport in Disney World–which has to be the strangest place in the world for an old hippie like me to find inspiration.