Slice of Life at NCTE15: Engagement with Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene

I sat on the ground charging my phone just outside the Exhibit Hall at NCTE with Halley, a pre-service teacher from Iowa.  I had 30 minutes until my next session located around the corner with Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene.  We talked about her program, professors, her hometown, how she couldn’t wait to start teaching.  Loved this kid!

“Hi, Julieanne!”

I look up, and there is the lovely and brilliant Gravity Goldberg.  Amazed that she remembered me from a workshop years ago, I jump up and give her a hug.

“I’m hoping to get at seat at the Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene session,” she says.

“Yikes, it’s that late.  Me too.” I wish Halley good luck and walk with Gravity down the hall.

A line had formed outside.  Lucky me.  I’m here.

The doors open and I find a seat next to Lisa Eickholt. Wow.

I look across the aisle. There are my Long Island friends Jenn Hayhurst, Jill DeRosa, and Ryan Scala. Hugs are necessary.  I return to find Katherine Bomer and Vicki Vinton next to me. OK, if Newkirk and Keene don’t say a word I would have gotten my money’s worth.

Newkirk calls us to order and starts in talking about narrative.

Regardless of common core definitions, any and all good writing has a narrative element. There is an ever-present need for narrative.  We humans relate to and remember stories. They connect to our humanness, our emotions.

A question might begin your work, but the tension keeps us reading. Even in academic writing you must have a plot; there must be tension. Readers must have a purpose to read on.

Our brains are devoted to the visual therefore we need a sense of the visual to comprehend.

I think of the nonfiction books I’ve loved. They were stories about people.  I remember these people and the scenes the author created for me to enter. They live with me.

Then Newkirk says something shocking, yet sensical.

Reading is an act of forgetting. The details anchor us.

I thought it was my weak brain. And, this explains why students cling to those fascinating facts after reading nonfiction.  Apparently, I’m beating myself up for a natural occurrence.

He hits us again.

Do we really read informational text for information?

What do we retain? We hold on to the journey, the story. We stay for engagement and emphathy.

And I thought it was just me.

Then he tells a story: The story of his experience reading The Emperor of All Maladies with his wife who was fighting cancer at the time. He ends this story by reading a reflection written by his wife on the book.  We are in tears. We will remember.

Keene stands. She starts with questions (giving us purpose, creating engagement).

How do we know children are engaged in what they are reading?

How do we know they are understanding?

What do we know about how they retain and reapply?

Do they use their conceptual understanding over time?

She had us. The studies show low retention. Low levels of learning.

Engagement we know is necessary, but what does it look like? When students appear to be “on task.” Busy. Is it engagement? Or compliance.

Picture a quiet classroom.  Books are open; pens jot in notebooks and on post-its. Is this engagement?

Keene describes another setting. Students  are working collaboratively on a project. Each student busily takes on a task to complete the work.  Is this engagement? Or a kind of parallel play.

Keene asked us to consider our moments of engagement. “When have you found yourself lost in a learning experience? What were the conditions that led to that level of engagement?”

To ground us in reading she asked, what needed to be present to have that “lost in learning” level of engagement with a nonfiction text?

Ideas came up.

  • The text was written just for me
  • A need to puzzle something out.
  • Beautiful words
  • A surprise
  • Something that changes thinking

These are times when we find ourselves engaged.

Can we find these conditions in our classrooms?

Keene then outlined four key ideas

  1. Engagement is born of intellectual urgency – the need to know
  2. Engagement is born of emotional response to ideas
  3. Engagement is deepened by perspective bending
  4. Engagement is connected to our sense of the aesthetic

All of these made sense but the most intriguing to me was the aesthetic. Many young students aren’t necessarily connecting to what I understood as “aesthetic.” Keene went on to explain.

Students need to learn and know who they are by identifying their beliefs. This may boil out of the aesthetic. When you feel it.  When something made for you.

I think of my student who is capable but disengaged in school.  Last week I handed him The War that Changed My Life, and he changed. Completely. Nothing could distract him from this text. His mom even commented. Did I finally find something that spoke to him? Did I connect to his sense of aesthetic?

Imagine what you could do next to create engagement in your teaching. How can we connect to the aesthetic in our students?

Yes! We need to model, model, model and ask students: When have you felt lost in learning? What do you believe in? And listen.

Thank you, Two Writing Teacher for Slice of Life Tuesdays: A place to reflect and share with like minded souls. Find more slices here.


11 thoughts on “Slice of Life at NCTE15: Engagement with Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene

  1. Julieanne,
    So glad that you wrote about this session. Last year I stood in line to hear Tom Newkirk so this year (faced with 450+ session choices) I went a different route! Love Ellin Keene’s points about engagement and also thinking about the fact that her daughter was Sally’s daughter’s roommate. The world gets smaller every day!

    • I was thinking of Sally too! Last year I missed Newkirk so I made it a priority this year. The sessions I chose were very different from the selections last year. Funny. Choice matters!

      • I know! I wanted Tara and Allison to particpate so that was behind two of my choices and then some others were “just because”! Liberating, isn’t it?

  2. Have to get over my jealousy to read NCTE posts and glad I did. I have been pondering this comprehension bit a great deal lately. Engagement — sliding into that deep reading zone, having a reason to grapple with text — all the reading strategies: developing fluency, summarizing, predicting,etc. have little power in the face of student beliefs.
    Thank you so much for your post.

  3. You set me right down in the seat next to you. Thanks for taking such good notes (you must’ve been engaged!) and sharing them with us.

  4. I love reading all of the posts from NCTE but I am so jealous! This sounds like a wonderful session. I remember reading tweets about it but it is so hard to get it all from 140 characters. Your post is so much better! One of these I will get to one of these.

  5. Wow–much food for thought in your writing via your session. Searching for the aesthetic as a way to engage kids in NF. Not an easy task with an easy answer–not found on a worksheet but found in reality, a reality that is different for each learner/reader. Hmmm…

  6. Julianne –
    Thanks for posting this. Definitely large ideas to think about ! I’m always trying to get my kids engaged in learning…it’s a daily challenge for sure! One of my biggest challenges is dealing with a few parents who seem to only think traditional busy-work is best teaching. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful posts.

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