By Scott Storm
Many people binge on Netflix or mac and cheese as a way of experiencing a pleasurable and cozy sort of comfort. I binge on those things too, but I am also a teacher who binges on education research conferences. Some may groan at the thought of attending a research conference. Many may critique these events for using inaccessible language and being soporific experiences. However, I am drawn to these conferences because, like comfort food, they bring me joy. Sitting in a room where lots of thoughtful researchers are trying to puzzle out the fundamental tensions and problems of teaching is exhilarating. It can feel as if you are right on the edge of solving some big issue in your classroom, your school, or your nation. I have become addicted to making sure that I can hear--and be part of--the conversations that academics are having about our classrooms.
My first conference was the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention nearly a decade ago. I went with two colleagues and at first we went to some really terrible sessions where presenters would get up and lecture for the entire time about a short story that they taught one time. They would recount the plot of the story in tedious detail but never actually offer any ideas about pedagogy.
But then we started going to sessions marked “research strand” or to see people who colleagues had recommended. And the world opened up. Suddenly, we could tell that there was a sustained conversation going on with a particular group of people about what English was and should be in high schools, about what audacious things students knew and were able to do with literacy, and about how social justice and systems of unequal power played into all of this. Suddenly we felt awake.
I remember one of my colleagues asking, “why isn’t this room packed? Why isn’t everyone here?” as we listen to a researcher unpack issues in students’ reading comprehension over time. As we sat in this session, we were forced to think about the ways that our classroom talk before and after reading might build reader-identities in students and ultimately make our students more or less successful readers of school texts. For example, starting the class saying “open the text to page 200 and read the first paragraph” could potentially have a very different effect than saying, “yesterday’s reading made us question what it meant to be an ethical person, and today we are going to get to explore this thorny issue even more deeply.” The first way of opening the lesson assumed an ideology of compliance—the statement is a command and all personal pronouns are stripped away. Further, there’s no guiding question or reason for reading embedded in the statement. However, the second way of beginning the class uses pronouns like “we” and “us” to build the shared class community. It employs words like “yesterday” and “today” which situates this lesson as a step in a larger arc. And this opener ties the text to cognitively demanding and engaging tasks—puzzling out what constitutes an “ethical person” which is seen as a “thorny problem” without clear right/wrong answers. It sets students up with a guiding purpose for reading and invites them to do intellectual work.
Obviously, the way you frame a text before reading is not alone going to magically make everyone read perfectly. We still need the scaffolds, graphic organizers, and other supports as we go through the reading process. But listening to this talk at this conference made me forever shift the way that I teach reading. It made me realize that the language of the lesson matters and that how you frame reading experiences set students up for success or failure before any eyes even glance at text. Attending this session made me a better teacher and made me so excited to be thinking about my practice in this way. I remember sitting in the audience and madly scribbly notes to the colleague next to me—notes filled with exclamation points and emojis.
Attending that session was such an enjoyable experience that I never stopped conference binging. My colleagues and I go to several conferences each year and we still sit next to each other and wildly scribble notes and questions about our practice of teaching. Sure, we end up in some bad sessions sometimes, but we have gotten better at knowing how to pick sessions that will temper our insatiable curiosities. As time has gone on, we have more and more wanted to not just listen to the conversation that researchers are having about our classrooms, but to also be part of that conversation. We have conducted our own research projects and been presenters ourselves at the conferences. Unlike binging on mac and cheese or Netflix, which are primarily about consumption, conference binging has also become about production for us—as we actively try to help produce answers to some of the thorny questions and dilemmas of our professional practice. And while some may still find conferences useless or boring, for us a conference always brings excitement, practical ways to improve our teaching practice, and unbridled intellectual joy.