More thoughts on Literacy for All Conference

This morning’s keynote speaker for the Literacy for All Conference was dynamic. Lester Laminak is a tour de force storytelling and he wasted no time in bringing us on a journey into the Wizard of Oz, playing all the parts, singing (repetition is key to learning, he reminded us) and dancing. While it was enjoyable (he was without notes), Lester slipped into teaching mode — reminding us that, like the journey to the unknown Oz, we must remember that our students must also be centered on a message of Home, the Mind, Courage and the Heart. And us, too. The teachers.
He asked us, provocatively, “What is your Oz?” and ventured to ask: “Is what you do in your classroom tempered by the heart that beats in your chest? Do you care?
It sounds schmaltzy on the screen, but it hit a nerve with us in the audience. At least, it did in the seat where I was sitting.
Lester then read through his own Declaration of A Dream for Schools and urged us as educators to become a more forceful voice in setting the agenda for school in our country and not let politicians and government officials set the agenda for the next ten years. “Use your literacy. Don’t just teach it. Use it,” he half-whispered, half-shouted from the stage.
At one point, Lester said teachers must also stop talking so much in the classroom and listen. “Let the babies speak,” is how he phrased it, and I held on to this phrase for much of the day, finally letting it form the opening of a poem.

Let the babies speak, Lester
says in that accent of his — eyes afire —
and voice clothed in such urgency that I sit
on the edge of my seat.

Today, I open my eyes
to their voices again and feel them
pushing in through the cracks of the window pane
like spring airm rustling after a closed-up winter —
fresh and strange and full of something wonderful.

The only other session that I attended (before hitting the road for the airport) was on Guided Writing, led by Lori Oczkus. She is a literacy coach and works with many schools around writing. I found her engaging and fun, if a bit too fast with her overhead sheets (yep, most presenters at this conference were still shuffling around folders of laminated sheets). Here are a few things I took from her session:

1. Use what she calles “cool tools” — which are just motivational concepts beyond writing on a piece of paper. She talked about using hand gestures to signal the kind of “start” a writer uses (such as the pantemime of a paint brush for using a description). Cool tools engages the interest of young writers, she said.
2. Use drama and acting during the writing process. Have students act out scenes as others read their stories. Give life to the words on the page. I like that and used to do it more than I do now. I don’t know why. Thanks Lori.
3.Integrate poetry throughout the entire year. Don’t wait for Spring! She showed how students use short poems to show knowledge of non-fiction text and how to move a piece of fiction in new directions with poetry. She put the emphasis on free-form poetry, and if you read my poems, you know she was talking my language.
4. Center specific lessons on how to start and end stories by looking at many sample texts.
5. Use what she calls a “Live Rubric.” This is a set of colored papers with words like Dialogue, Description, Action and other ideas that the audience holds up as a reader reads their work, giving visual clues to strengths and weaknesses of a piece. I love this idea.

All in all, the Literacy for All Conference was decent, not great. One of the organizers slipped me a note after we had been talking, asking if I might submit a proposal for next year. I guess we’ll see. I don’t have too many laminated files (ha).

Peace (in RI),

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