The first day of my summer break, I attended an English teacher conference in Texas with Gena, one of my besties. We drove down the night before, so we would be ready for a full day at the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA) conference, keynoted by two of my teacher heroes Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The topic of the day was speaking and listening, two important ELA skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to assess. (And don’t we need to teach one more novel or write one more essay?! Why make time to speak and listen?) But if we want our students to grow in their thinking, in their reading and writing, we have to create a space in our classrooms where students can also speak and listen.
For years now I have assessed my students’ reading by simply talking with them about the books they choose to read. I call these book talks, and I’ve blogged about them before. If we are really going to get to know our students and their interests, we must talk to them, and we must also listen. Penny and Kelly reminded us of this in their opening keynote.
In her session “Teaching Poetry to Transform Thinking About Writing,” Penny showed us a spoken word poem by Ethan Smith called “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be.” Give it a watch:
I was moved by this poem by a trans young man. I’ve taught spoken word poetry to my Creative Writing 2 students, and I’ve written an article about spoken word poetry for the Oklahoma Humanities magazine. (Look for “The Poet Has Spoken.”) I know spoken word poetry, but I hadn’t seen this poem before, and I was a fan. I began to think how I could use in CW2 in the fall.
We made it to the lunch break, and I saw I had a Twitter notification. I had been tweeting about the conference, and I had been getting some likes and retweets throughout the morning. When I opened the app, though, I noticed I had a direct message. I opened it, and saw it was from a former student, now finished with freshman year of college.
Hey Stevo! This might seem super out of the blue, but I just want to thank you. Your presence in my high school career was so helpful to me, and I can’t thank you enough. You were always so positive and fun while still teaching me so much.
If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m a trans guy and I’m finally coming out and transitioning (starting June 21!! woah!!) and the whole shebang.
You’d always been such a positive influence overall, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how, my sophomore year, we had a book talk in which I complained about straight people always getting what they want. You replied, “yeah! that’s so dumb. stupid straight people,” and for the first time, an adult was affirming to my identity, and it was so important to me after hearing years of youth pastors and parents saying otherwise. (Also, having a cool democrat as a teacher was always so refreshing).
So I’m going to school to be a teacher because I want to be there for the weird kids like me who need someone on their side. Anyway, all this to say, I can’t thank you enough for being such a great teacher and inspiring me to be one too.
I wept like a baby. I was filled with so many emotions: pride, humility, love, gratitude. It was like what I had heard that morning about listening to students and validating them, plus the video about the trans boy, had now combined full circle into my life’s reality. It was incredible. Neither the student nor I could remember what book we were discussing. And actually, I don’t even remember making that offhand comment to my student. It just goes to show that our students are always listening to us teachers, and that what we say matters.
I wrote back to my student, and shared how I proud I was of him and how I honored I was that he was would trust me with his story. On the off chance that he had not yet watched the spoken word poem “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” I sent it to him. He hadn’t seen it, so he watched it and told me sobbed and loved it.
I have more to write about the NTCTELA conference and what I learned, but I’ll save that for another post.
Teachers, how do you honor and embrace speaking and listening in your classrooms? What purposeful strategies do you use? How do you know your students are better speakers and listeners at the end of the semester? the school year?