My thoughts on the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Las Vegas this past weekend. 

As you stroll from one end of the main strip to the other, which requires about an hour because of the maddening array of escalators and crosswalks, here’s what you might see: 
(1) people dressed in shabby costumes, such as Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert, for no apparent reason. They’re not collecting money or promoting a show or posing for a photo. They’re just standing there. Sometimes they talk to friends, which I’m pretty sure is against union rules for this kind of job. I was a little disappointed by the unprofessionalism. And I’m still wondering about their purpose. (An aging and bloated Elvis and Marilyn were particularly distressing.) 
(2) Short, tee-shirted Mexican men, sometimes women, flicking nudie cards with phone numbers at you. If you tried to straddle the curb to avoid them, they’d reach behind and still flick away. The premise, I think, is that you’d call the number, and the woman on the card would show up in your hotel room. With a burly guard in tow, I’m sure. Actually, I’m not sure because I can’t begin to imagine the transaction, the precautions, the niceties (So, how you doin’? Been doing this long?). With each flick of these cards, I thought, Really? 
(3) Cashmere-coat-wearing, slick-haired men with their own upscale nudie cards, promising limo pickups to and from strips clubs where the same transactions would presumably occur. Really? 
(4) Young girls with skin-tight dresses balancing on 8-inch heels, usually on the arm of some man. Going clubbing, I presume, whatever that entails. Is there some sort of height restriction at these clubs, which would explain the stilettos? 
(5) Older women with skin tight dresses and tight faces balancing on their high heels. 
(6) Homeless men sleeping on sidewalks or sitting with cardboard signs begging for help. 
(7) Street performers, some of them quite good (an electric cello duo playing Beatles medleys), others embarrassingly bad (an accordion-playing girl with a scratchy voice who was actually sweet and who appeared lonely and who would later make you feel awful for not placing a buck in her case that held about 75 cents). 
(8) Spray-paint artists, one guy with about 25 cans mesmerizing the crowd with his rushed spraying, followed by meticulous scratches with his metal scraper. 
(9) Babies in strollers at midnight, pushed along by parents…going where? 
(10) Magnificent hotels, reminding you of rat pack days and those guys strolling this same strip when what they saw must have seemed more glamorous than crass. 

Inside, slot machines with too many windows had catchy names like Cougar-Licious, Mystical Unicorn, Jumping Jalapenos, Gold Fish, Jaguar Princess, and Renoir Riches (for the visiting French artist gambler?).  Here’s an amusing thought: someone had to sit at some desk and think up these names and build a theme around them. When I was younger, I imagined players with arms outstretched in celebration over three lemons in a row, which seems quaint now and complex enough, but the faces playing the slots were grim and weary and bored. They didn’t even get to pull a lever; they pressed a button, which doesn’t take as long to bet. I put a $10 bill in a Superman machine, hoping the gambling gods would reward my obsession with DC comics, but the money disappeared in a short leap. I did consider playing a live game with a real dealer or with that guy with the wooden hockey-like stick who raked in chips, but I couldn’t figure out how to play and shuffled away feeling stupid. 

I did go see Love, the show featuring Beatles music, which was weird and wonderful and amazing. It felt like a 90-minute dream. 

After each NCTE, I travel home with two overwhelming impulses. One, I feel inspired, but since I now have no classroom to return to, I’m not sure what to do with this feeling. Two, I feel radical, because as keynote presenter Sir Ken Robinson argued, education requires not evolution (because it’s a broken system) but revolution. At each session, heads nod and teachers mutter, Yes, this is how to get kids excited, this is how schools should be run. They will return to their schools and implement what they can, but much of their energy will be splintered by the demands of a school system that values data over true learning, which can’t always be measured of course by a test score. And the demands become harder and harder to ignore (I spent a career ignoring them) and more and more deadening. 

I was fortunate enough to present at two sessions with buddy Gary Anderson and several other talented teachers from around the country, and I hope something we said will be useful on Monday. That’s a pretty good yardstick, I think. If you can (and want to) implement an idea the next day, the idea probably has merit. 
From left: Amy Rasmussen, Me, Sir Ken Robinson, Leslie Healy, Gary Anderson.

Nothing I write here will do Robinson justice, so I will include a Ted talk link below, and I’ll list a few ideas I remember.

1. Education today (and for the last 150 years, which in itself is quite revealing) values CONFORMITY, COMPLIANCE, and LINEARITY.
2. We have to move away from the idea that all children are the same. Every child in front of you is on a unique journey.
3. ADHD is a subjective diagnosis. Forty years ago, no one was ADHD because the diagnosis didn’t exist. Maybe kids today are bored or are suffering from the condition called childhood.
4. You can teach people to be creative. (For more on this, read his book, 
The Element, which I devoured on the plane.)
5. Math and science are necessary but not sufficient.
6. CEOs prize people who can adapt, but schools don’t teach or encourage this.
7. More money is being spent on prisons than on education. (I may be off on this one. He may have said within a given span of years. I’m not sure.)
8. Teaching is an art form, not a delivery system.
9. Teaching needs to be less like an engineering model and more like an agricultural one. Teachers provide climate control. They provide a nurturing climate in which everyone has a chance to thrive in his or her own way. 

I’d like to believe that I was one of those teachers who provided a nurturing climate (though I can think of examples to the contrary). One year I had a talented singer / guitar player, who wasn’t shy about playing for class. He wasn’t the most diligent student, so I made a deal one time. Instead of writing an essay about Huck Finn, maybe he could write a song and sing it for the class. He did, and everyone loved it, and I was able to manufacture some grade for his efforts. The next year, when assigned an essay by his English teacher, he asked if he could write a song instead, and the teacher laughed at him. We all had a good laugh over it, in fact. I didn’t fault the teacher for demanding an actual essay. He needed that skill as well. And I don’t think he fell behind because he didn’t write the essay for me. Kids are resilient and adaptive, and they need to learn to adjust to the demands of different teachers and bosses. It was a good lesson for him. Years later though, I was sad to learn that he wasn’t playing much or singing. He was trying to earn a living selling real estate, not a job he was passionate about. Which makes me speculate, as Sir Ken Robinson does: what would happen if schools began to value diversity more than conformity, compliance and linearity? Good teachers of course value this diversity. If only they didn’t have to battle with a system that vaunts test scores above all else, at the expense of curiosity and wonder.


11/19/2012 5:32pm

Oh, thank you for this post!

I am currently in parent/teacher conferences (well, not at THIS moment), and I am very appreciative of what you wrote from Ken Robinson. First, however, let me tell you that this was very entertaining to read, and I love your style of writing! (As you'll see from my comment, I'm still a developing writer...) I've never been to Vegas, and your descriptions had me chuckling.

I wish I'd read this post before a certain parent came in today. She is concerned that her daughter is not learning as much this year in my class (ELA, 7th grade). She would like worksheets, lists of spelling words and root words to memorize, grammar, and study guides for books we're reading in class. She'd appreciate more homework, and more structured... everything.

I am currently on chapter 2 of The Element, and it is validating what I'm doing in my Genius Hour (first day of each week with students). What I need is more literature to help me communicate to parents that what I'm doing in class this year is actually more difficult than what students will probably be doing in class next year. I'd like a manual to give to parents of my students. One that explains (in nicer words) that any student can fill in a worksheet. One that explains how connecting more with a text through your own notes and reactions to a book has more potential than answering MY questions of things I think are important.

Do you have anything like this? I will be using some of your words here to support my ideas. I am aware, too, that you and Gary Anderson have authored a book together. I don't own it yet, but I'm sure I will at some point - will those ideas help me speak to parents in a civil manner and get my point across?

Thank you for this post. My comment is almost as long, and says half as much, but I read this at a crucial point in my day today, and I wish I had you online during that parent conference so you could feed me what to say...

I'm so glad you contributed to the learning at NCTE12, and that you, too, got something valuable from it!

Joy Kirr

11/19/2012 9:53pm


Thanks for the thoughtful response and the kind words. On being civil: we can't always change what others think, but at the very least, we should be civil--and assertive--so that we leave the conflict having expressed ourselves. And I think we end up feeling better about the situation in the end when we take the proverbial high road.

Our text includes many creative worksheets to engage students, all of them focused on writing and helping students find their own particular voices. We are proud of the text because it was a very personal endeavor for us. It's quite satisfying to hear from teachers who use the book and who attest to the results they get back from students. But no, I don't think the sheets will help you talk to parents! For that, you need a tranquilizing dart.

Hang in there.

Thanks again.


11/19/2012 11:55pm

I share a lot of these perceptions.

My hotel room was on the first floor. At the end of the hallway was a security door; on the other side of the security door was the casino. The most surprising thing for me was when we would arrange a meeting early in the morning, and I would open that security door expecting to see maybe a lonely janitor vacuuming an otherwise empty casino. But no, at 6:30 in the morning folks were sitting there smoking and feeding those slots, all accompanied by the soundtrack of that ubiquitous 70s music (Elton John, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac).

For what it's worth, my #NCTE12 reflections are on my blog.

As always, thanks for the adventure.

11/25/2012 1:20pm

I am still reeling from the disconnect between NCTE and LasVegas. What was I doing there? The surreal existence of this city rising out from the sand just did not compute with my English teacher was I to function when getting morning coffee was a 30 minute ordeal every day? Just finding a place to sit and plan our presentation indicated how unprepared LV was for us, I think. And walking 15 minutes inside every morning just to arrive at the conferences center, which did not even offer snacks and convenient water for learning folks. Boston will be much better...I am already planning my assault on the history and architecture.
Even in LV, though, it was world class learning with world class colleagues. Great to meet and work with you!

11/26/2012 12:38am

Great to work with you as well. I admire your passion and enthusiasm.

11/26/2012 12:29am

I had to laugh at your description of Vegas. You summed it up pretty accurately. I think you and I must have walked the same sidewalks. We went to see Jersey Boys at the Paris Theatre. We enjoyed the show and felt it a much better way to "lose our money."

As I was reading your reflection this caught my attention, "They will return to their schools and implement what they can, but much of their energy will be splintered by the demands of a school system that values data over true learning." You are right there is a danger that we let data make our decisions instead of looking thoughtfully into the eyes of the children we sit beside each day.

Conferences like this remind me of the significance of what I do every day. They remind me that each child in my classroom should be discovering something daily about himself/herself. They help me to find the energy to do what I know is best for kids and continue to have the conversations that matter.


11/26/2012 12:40am

I like your last line: ..."continue to have conversations that matter." Wisdom will come from these conversations, with students, not from state mandates regarding scores. Thanks!

12/13/2012 7:20am

Hello Tony,

I am currently writing a finals essay on a necessary educational paradigm shift with our universities. My professor was also at this conference, went to Sir Robinson's talk, and provided me with her notes on it, as I am a lowly college student in Missouri and was not able to hear was Sir Robinson had to say. Her notes helped me incredibly in my research, but I have just stumbled across yours and they have complemented the information that I already have very well. So, I wanted to thank you, kindly, for recapping the conference on here, how you've taken it introspectively, and your teaching experiences that relate. It has aided me greatly as I was going through a small bout of writer's block. So, thank you, again! It's back to writing for me.


12/13/2012 11:30am

Your title, "Necessary educational paradigm shift" scares me. I'm glad you're the one who has to write it. I'm also glad to hear that young people out there are listening to Ken Robinson so that the shift happens in the direction it needs to happen. I'm glad my blog was helpful. Thanks for letting me know. Good luck.


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