Thinking about Connections: #NCTE20 and #CEL20

It’s been a long year. That was the consensus this year at the 2020 Annual Conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. I also joined the Conference on English Leadership, which appends the NCTE conference each year, for the second year in a row.

Each year I try to pause and take a moment to reflect on the highlights of my conference, which often have taken place in coffee shops and hotel lobbies, hugs in the hallways outside of conference rooms, twitter conversations that are on fire, and listening deeply to my many dedicated and passionate colleagues across this country. I always come away knowing that English teachers are truly the best.

A screenshot of a tweet from November 22, 2020 that shows a living room and fireplace with snow falling outside the windows. The tweet reads: Amazing session with  @Nicole_Mirra   @anterobot   @remikalir   @wargojon  and others in my pjs (whoops lost track of time) with the snow and a fire. Love #NCTE20 !

Of course, given COVID, there were no hallway hugs this year. Instead, we had a streamlined program, including webinars, on-demand sessions, and even interactive Meeting style sessions (which I, full disclosure, was not expecting when I logged on in my pjs. Thank you to everyone for pretending not to notice my bed head).

I don’t know if it was because of the extra discernment on sessions or just the hunger to connect, but I found that every session I attended was incredible and inspiring.

I began attending NCTE in 2005 and I had absolutely no concept of what professional organizations were or what a conference was like. It was all so strange to me–there were all these norms and ideas that felt like traveling to another country: I was truly a stranger in a strange land. I think back on that year when a group of us drove to Pittsburgh from Lansing, and how overwhelmed I was by the incredible energy in those rooms. Thanks to the network of National Writing Project teachers, Ning, and later Twitter, I was able to forge and build friendships that have lasted since then. Friendships are a garden, and many of these relationships are watered when we are together, talking about teaching or reading or writing or creating, and just knowing we are with the people who understand our weird, English teacher hearts. It wasn’t the same this year, but I am walking away from this year knowing that our garden is thriving.

I have so much more to say, but I deeply appreciate my Higher Ed colleagues who work with pre-service teachers to expose them to these networks and ideas well before they enter the profession. Where would I be if I hadn’t been plucked from my classroom with a “hey, I think you might like this Writing Project thing.” I have had too many generous mentors to name here, and I hope I can also be that person for those coming behind me. To quote Jason Reynolds, the way I keep my spot is to usher new voices into the arena.

A tweet from NCTE reads: “I’m supposed to be ushering in new voices, young voices, to shake Ghost off the table. Everybody is so scared to lose their spot–the way you keep your spot is to user new voices into the arena.” –a quote from Jason Reynolds.

I know this was a conference unlike any other: complicated by our collective grief at the pandemics of COVID and racial injustice, our own individual grief at the blows 2020 have dealt us. But what I come away with is the deep well of resiliency in our profession and the way all of these remarkable professionals hold one another up in order to amplify the voices of our students. Thank you for letting me be a part of this and I’m deeply grateful to the conference organizers at NCTE and CEL for making this happen.

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