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Inventors of the Future: A Vision for NCTE and Our Affiliates

2012 NCTE Affiliate Breakfast Address
Ernest Morrell, Teachers College, Columbia University
2012-2013 NCTE President-Elect

Inventing the Future
Thank you, Teri Knight, for that wonderful introduction and thank you NCTE Affiliates for having me. Greetings colleagues, I come to this talk, to this impending presidency with the idea that we as individuals and as an organization are inventors of the future. This is partly inspired by a life where I have seen movements end segregation, overturn apartheid, occupy Wall Street, topple regimes in the Middle East, and transform the world such that I could be standing here before you as a future president of this organization and that you all could be sitting here as the backbone of NCTE. The world had to be a changeable place for many of us to be here. The world is changing and will continue to change and the people who have embraced that possibility have always been inventors of the future. As we contemplate inventing the future of English education and the role of the affiliates in that process I will ask five questions:

1) What will it mean to be literate?
2) What will it mean to teach literacy?
3) What is the role of the professional organization in this process?
4) What is the role of affiliates? 
5) What should be our takeaways from this talk and this convention?

What Will it Mean to Be Literate?
Any vision of the future for literacy educators must begin with the student. How are our students experiencing the world as literate beings? What kind of world will our students inhabit in 2050? In 2100? What kind of literacies will they need in order to be empowered and self-actualized participants in the global democratic project? And what kinds of literacies will they need in order to continue to be able to tell themselves stories about themselves? Because everyone has a story to tell and we are the sum of the stories that we have told ourselves about ourselves. As adult educators, how are we telling each other the stories of NCTE 2012? Through essays? Through handwritten notes? No! If we like Tweeting, texting, and using technological tools to learn and communicate as adults, you think the kids might like it too?

Being literate for this iPad generation of youth, these 22nd century youth, will mean processing and producing more information than you or I can even imagine today. It will also mean processing and producing information in modes and genres that we cannot imagine, that I won’t even live to see. Being literate is about having a literate identity, a belief in one's self, a stance toward knowledge, a stance toward the world, and an ability to continually learn and adapt to new situations. It means having access to and facility with communicative tools that are most relevant today. The teaching of discrete skills is important to this vision, but it is only a means to a greater end.

What Will it Mean to Teach Literacy?
One of the first questions associated with the future of teaching concerns what we will teach. Will it be literature traditionally defined? Will it be informational texts? Will it be digital texts? What "counts" as literature has always changed with our technologies of communication! Part of 21st century learning goes beyond the incorporation of digital technologies into classroom instruction. 21st century learning is as much about the "how" as the "what." Teaching literacy will continue to mean helping students to develop a critical stance toward the knowledge they consume and it will also mean helping them to become multimodal producers and disseminators of that knowledge. They will need to be good communicators and even better listeners.

Students will need to be creative, engaged, interactive, and tolerant. They must come to see themselves not only as decoders of information, but also as innovators of ideas, as problem solvers, and as transformers of the world. Teaching literacy means helping to unleash the social imagination, it means facilitating dialogue, of modeling a critical stance toward information, of uplifting youth and celebrating in their accomplishments, giving them opportunities to practice being powerful, and in giving them permission to accept their greatness. I am the son of teachers, the husband of a teacher, and like you all, this is why we do what we do. Who would come into our profession solely to raise test scores? We become teachers because we have a love of the word, of communication, and primarily because we want to play powerful roles in the lives of future men and women. After all, teaching makes us eternal.

What Is the Role of the Professional Organization?
Professional organizations will have to evolve to become places where people participate in a continual process of knowledge production. When I first became a member of NCTE in 1993 as a preservice teacher candidate at UC Berkeley, membership in NCTE entailed opening and reading my copy of English Journal and possibly trying to convince my principal to let me off work for the three days needed to travel to the convention each fall. In total, maybe I was a member of NCTE for a dozen days a year and that involvement was largely as a recipient of information. Being a member of learning communities twenty years later means something else entirely. More than receiving information (which is still possible), members can produce information, they can share information, and they can work collaboratively within and across sites and organizations. Participation in the digital age is also a 24/7/365 enterprise and professional groups like NCTE are making that adjustment. Professional organizations can also help teachers as we collect data and become researchers of innovative practices and innovative learning communities for teachers. We have to document these impactful K-12 and professional learning practices to make more room for them. A professional organization should help to provide teachers with the information we need to advocate for the practices we should believe in. It should have our back. We speak more powerfully when we have a united presence, a solid research foundation, a strategy for advocacy, and 50,000 or so close friends to join in the chorus.

What Is the Role of the Affiliate?
Affiliates can serve as the intellectual and ideological home for teachers who are trying to find their way in these conflicting times. Affiliates are physical and digital spaces for the playing with ideas, for asking big essential questions, and for being informed in our pursuit of learning, of doing what's right, not just what is sanctioned.

Affiliates produce journals, newsletters, conferences, and increasingly, social media spaces where teacher-initiated ideas are honored, affirmed, and, most importantly, taken up and put into practice by other teachers. Affiliates are leaders in advocacy at the local and state levels because while our struggles have many similarities the context in Arizona is not quite the same as New York, and many of the policies that affect our daily lives are decided at the district and state level.

NCTE is at the forefront of a project, the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE), that simultaneously aims to change literacy education and how literacy educators work together to make changes to their practice and the discipline. Through NCLE, NCTE will provide support to and compile evidence about how educators working in cross-disciplinary teams design and implement plans to support literacy learners in every classroom. By sharing stories, vignettes, and cases from these schools, NCLE will not only make visible teaching and learning practices, it will highlight the organizational conditions and community support that make real progress possible. How can affiliates support the development of teacher agency through NCLE? By signing up affiliates as teams, by signing up local school teams, by asking essential questions, by modeling a process of collaborative inquiry, and by sharing that process locally and nationally.

NCTE has always been about helping English teachers across the K-16 spectrum to invent the future of English. Much of what we need to do in the future is what we always have done; only we are adapting our vision to a new age. We have always wanted students who are able to interpret, analyze, create, resist, and transform! We have always wanted to study the most powerful stories that illuminate the human condition whether those stories come to us as Miltonian sonnets, Shakespearean plays, British 19th century novels, the free verse of Whitman, the stream of consciousness of a Virginia Woolf, or the righteous indignation of the Last Poets and the triumphant rising of Maya Angelou. We will advocate for the space to tell new stories through hip-hop odes, slammed poems, blogs, digital films, or other genres that have yet to be invented. Because literature is about the stories and the people who need to hear and share them more than it is about adherence to tradition or genre.

Finally, this is one of those rare occasions where what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas! We must go forth inspired, united, and undaunted, emboldened by our traditions of informed resistance and reflective practice. Our challenges are not easy ones but when have we been promised ease or comfort? What we have instead is a joy of purpose and a pride in belonging to a profession and a professional organization that are about service, equity, the power of language, and humanization. English educators, affiliate members, colleagues, friends, you are too beautiful, to brilliant, and too indignant to be stopped. The future is ours! And because of you, I am confident that future of NCTE and her affiliates will be even brighter than our illustrious past. Thank you!

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