Slice of Life: Holding Hands to End A Conference

Yesterday morning, I gave the opening keynote address at Alabama’s Red Mountain Writing Project. My topic was writing, technology and the Common Core, but really it was about paying attention to and celebrating the many multiple literacies in the lives of our students, in all of its myriad forms (with an emphasis on the ways that technology is transforming our definition of writing). I told stories of some students, trying to craft¬† a narrative of learning and observations. I had plenty of great conversations afterwards, touching on topics such as the digital divide, access issues, finding meaningful ways to use technology for learning, and stories of successful and not-so-successful projects. I gave encouragement and resources. I commiserated at times. You never know when that one idea, or that one little chat, might help help a colleague transform a classroom experience.

But I really want to write this slice of life about the ending keynote, by novelist Sharon Draper. Her conversation, which is what it was more than a keynote, was inspiring in the many, many ways. She reminded us not to pigeonhole kids as learners, and to understand the whole child (inside and outside of school), and to put the right book in the right hands at the right time.  She even shared a touching digital story, with images of students off all abilities and all races, put to the voice of Louie Armstrong. Draper was funny, candid, heart-wrenching at times, and very engaging. She is a very natural storyteller. (Plus, she gave away free books at the end of her talk)

Draper ended the conference, and her talk, by having the entire room hold hands with each other, and then we repeated an uplifting pledge as teachers to celebrate our students and to nurture them from whatever place they come from, and not to undervalue them as learners. We pledged to be supportive, and help each other, too, as fellow teachers. I’m not from Birmingham and my chances of crossing paths with most of these teachers seems slim (other than the few I know through my National Writing Project connections), but I felt a powerful emotional connection to that hall filled with other teachers in that moment. It was like a prayer meeting, without the religion. Our voices in unison, and our hands clasped together, united us in a wonderful way that focused our attention on our very important roles in the lives of young people.

Thank you, Sharon, for reminding us of what matters in our classroom.

Peace (in the connection),


  1. I am currently reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. He writes about the flexibility of our brains through life. People have the ability to try new ways, make new paths, and practice until the the path is a habit. If we think of this along with Draper’s comments we know all kids can achieve. Perhaps not the same way, not to the same degree, but never the less achieve. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is no longer acceptable because science does not support the statement. You are always positive when you write about kids and I love to read your posts. Yesterday I tried to comment but for the life of me I could not read your anti-spam word:)

  2. I heard Sharon Draper speak many years ago and it was also wonderful. Thanks for sharing and bringing that memory to mind.

  3. Sharon M Draper did this same thing last week at the Dublin Literacy Conference to wrap up her afternoon keynote speech. I couldn’t agree more about the power of those words in the room, as we all held hands. I’m so glad to hear you had the same reaction as I did.

  4. One of the great things about this writing community is that we hear about experiences and messages that remind us what is important. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I was lucky enough to hear Sharon speak at Dublin Literature Conference last Saturday-she ended her talk in the same way. The power of joining hands as one community is something that I am still reflecting on. Thank you for including this in your slice of life.

  6. I am not familiar with Sharon Draper, but I am moved by her message (and I am going to look her up as soon as I finish this comment!)…I believe so much in the uniqueness of each child, the importance on not pigeon-holing. Thank you for sharing about this conference! So great to know that educators are gathering in such powerful ways.

  7. Thanks for sharing Kevin. Like Maria and Karen before said before, I was moved by Sharon at DubLit2012. You did a much better job of describing the power of this moment than I would have. It may have been just a little to gushy for me to write seriously about the power of the moment.

  8. I feel I can hear the digital story being told to the beautiful music of Louie Armstrong. I imagine it was “What a Wonderful World.” It is wonderful when we as educators can suppport each other, celebrate our students together and be a learning community, rather than just closing our doors. How you take time to listen to teachers is very powerful and you are right, you just don’t know what conversation may move someone forward!

  9. It sounds like you had a wonderful time both with your presentation and all the rest, including that final speech by Sharon Draper. It sounds so inspiring to think that she would take the time to make that kind of difference. I am in awe of the ways people try to give support. Thank you for sharing some of that with us Kevin. Lovely words!

  10. What a unique and interesting way to end. Perhaps we need more of this. It seems like the outside world wants to knock us down and we need to lift each other up!

  11. I had a visceral, New England yankee reaction (as in, I instantly crossed my legs) to the hand holding! I like the distance of a good punchline between people myself. (They say awareness is the first step to dealing with issues…)I did love Sharon Draper’s novel Out of My Mind, so I’m sure I would have survived the sweaty palms. Thank you for reminding us to be vulnerable and open. And for all your tech, music, and writing wisdom!

  12. Tears came to my eyes when she did this last week in Dublin. Holding the hand of my colleagues (two women I respect deeply), watching the faces of other teachers, I realized the power we have as educators–together.

  13. Kevin–I hate I missed seeing and hearing you yesterday, but I thank you for this post and thank you for bringing me back home to Birmingham to experience what you guys experienced with Sharon Draper. Wow. Those teachers were so fortunate to get to learn with both of you. Hope our paths cross in person soon.
    Thanks for all you do!

  14. Isn’t that what we do a bit, virtually, as we read each other’s slices and encourage one another to be better people and better teachers? Aren’t we holding a virtual hand out and saying ‘let’s do this together’?

  15. You all (y’all?) are blowing me away with your kind comments and insights and the way you are adding your voice to the mix here and at Two Writing Teachers. Thank you for taking the time to write a few words. I appreciate it.

  16. That ending really moved me, too. Just picturing you all holding hands and pledging to give that support to your students was really powerful. It sounds like a great conference … had to be if they were smart enough to ask you to give a keynote address!

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