OCTELA 2014: Part 1

A couple weekends ago, I had the opportunity to once again go to the OCTELA (Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts–a mouthful!!) conference in Columbus. My decision to go was solidified when I saw that one of my methods block instructors, Tom Romano, was giving a keynote. Dr. Romano was one of the teachers I had that made me understand that I was a writer–even if I had a lot of crappy first drafts.

Dr. Romano asked me to go to an OCTELA conference while I was at Miami University as an Honors Program project. There I was an observer, and I ended up using the conference as a subject for a narrative non-fiction piece. I was participant-observing, which I think produces the most exciting kind of writing.

Yeah, I’m a narrative non-fiction nerd. Jon Krakauer is my jam. Born to Run gave me chills.

Back then, I was a kid. I had little experience to really have a teacher’s point of view. Now, I’m a real teacher–being at this conference was useful to me in a different way. A more pragmatic way. I’ll share those parts, but I also want to share it in a narrative non-fiction way.

Saturday, March 1st

I roll out of bed at 7:12 in the morning after lying there for 45 minutes, on a Saturday, thinking what most teachers do on the weekends: I want to sleep later, but I just can’t.

This Saturday, I have an actual reason to be up, which weirdly makes it more annoying. I know that once I get to the Doubletree hotel and inhale a bagel and some fruit, I’ll be OK.

I shower. Try to look presentable. Forgot contacts, gotta wear my weird hipster glasses, invariably pegging me as the ‘young’ teacher in an conference full of experienced ones. Oh well. It is what it is. I won’t ‘perp,’ as my kids say. (It means ‘lying.’ I think it comes from the word “perpetrator.”)

I get to the Doubletree hotel and check in. Already loose my name tag. I want a bagel, but go for the coffee first. Run into a much older teacher at the Starbucks kiosk in the lobby, making small talk about all the new-fangled flavors, thinking this is my destiny. Forever a slave to the dark brown bitter stuff.

I grab a seat next to some younger-looking teachers, who tell me they’re from some small country town somewhere. I try to tell them where I teach, but I don’t really want to get into it this early. I am surly in the morning, to which my husband can attest.

The first keynote speaker is Dr. Candy Boyd, professor of education at St. Mary’s College in California, and I instantly fall in love with her. She’s older, but has a youthfulness and frank delivery that doesn’t alienate anyone when she speaks. She laughs and makes us laugh. She was in the trenches in inner-city schools for many years, so I feel kinship with her.  Her presentation is about an “Honest Assessment of the Common Core.” She knows her audience. She knows we all have hang-ups with the new standards, for better or worse. She opens by asking how the Common Core came about. Some of the over-achievers throw out some answers.

But most of us respond with “Uhhhh….” I guess I never really thought about exactly who influenced the standards. I knew it was a government thing.

She gives an anecdote about how she was on a plane (on her way here from California), overhearing some ‘tech lingo’ as some business professionals were gabbing.  She walks back and forth on the podium almost tripping on a cord–teacher trait, can’t stand still. She ends by saying “what corporations want is someone who can write a concise, accurate memo,” and they are the ones who are influencing these standards. They want workers who can give a presentation, and who are accurate, concise, and visionary.

“So it’s not about you–and whether you like the Common Core,” she says tongue-in-cheek with a bit of sass. Like I said, she does know she’s talking to a bunch of English teachers.

I sit there thinking, well damn, she’s right. I am not the worst of the Common Core whiners, but I’ve done my share. And what for? It’s wasted energy I could be putting into applying the standards in innovative ways that fit my students. But I think even if Dr. Boyd was trying to sell me on anything, I’d buy it. She kept it real, which I appreciated. 

Even more so when she got off the podium and said, “I gotta kick off these expensive shoes” and forgets the patent heels with black bows on them and begins to walk through and around us in her black stockings.

As Dr. Boyd walks through us in her stocking-feet, her voice cuts the air she talks about how the Common Core has emphasis on interacting with the author. She says to treat the author like a “shadow,” always there and available for talking about when in discussion with the students.

“With Common Core, you have to live outside the box. With Common Core, you have to teach them why.”

Is that so bad? It’s nothing our methods blocks in college haven’t already said.

As she wraps up her keynote, I’m trying to figure out which breakout session I want to go to. There are a lot of options. There’s even one about using Pinterest, but with that I definitely do not need any more encouragement. Even though she has inspired me and it’s now 10 a.m., I’m still not in the best decision-making state of mind. I default and go to Dr. Boyd’s breakout session, because I am thinking This has gotta be good if she’s the keynote speaker.

Dr. Boyd’s keynote was great and got me energized, but her breakout session is even better. She’s a mile a minute, and has already started her session once I walk in after roaming the lobby for a bathroom. She’s rattling off ideas for small reading group instruction–something I desperately need help with.

Here are some of the big takeaways from her session:

“X6” (times six)

Listen to the story on tape on Friday, put kids in partners, they tell each other about the story. Repeat this whole process in the morning before the group on Monday. Then, do a large group discussion. By this discussion, each one has heard the story at least six times. (I’m only have my students read once, maybe two times!! eek!)

Questions to ask students, while in discussion :

“Why did he/she write this book?”

” Where did you find that?”

“Well, good. Turn to the last page. I want you to search and find names of all characters in                                               the story, find page numbers. This is how I want you to present: “If you look at page X, you                                           will find X.”

She says to model academic language and ask them to use it, but don’t get caught up in it.

Purpose-driven re-reading questions, like “what does the author say?”

She talks more about small group instruction, blasting through ideas and material. I hope to be as energetic and effective as she is when I’m older.

I’m not sure if it was excitement or lack of sleep that made me rush out and forget my purse in the conference room.


(this post is Part 1 of a three-part series about my experience at OCTELA).



  1. You must have been very tired at the conference, Shanna. Dr. Candy Dawson Boyd is a children’s book author but not a reading specialist. I saw some very questionable ideas in your description of her talk. The goal of teaching kids to write concise corporate memos is bogus – this isn’t what we went into education for. The idea of reading the book aloud to students (stories on tape) and then having them re-read it six times is bogus. Students won’t be given this kind of situation during an exam or when they are reading in their other classes. Students need to read silently with purpose and while monitoring their comprehension. This is what good readers do. Also, as an author, Candy Boyd would be concerned about author intent but reading is and will always be meaning making by the reader. The common core focuses on close reading, which can be understood as a reader monitoring his or her response to a text and then reading to see what the author said that made him or her respond in that way. Reading is an interaction between the reader, who brings prior knowledge and purpose, and the author, who brings story and ideas. Neither common core nor standardized tests can change that. Good readers eat standardized tests for lunch. Teach your students to be good readers.

    1. You have a good point, dr. Frager. What I forgot to mention is that her reading-aloud strategies were for very young readers (at least kindergarten through third grade). Not something that would fly in an adolescent classroom. Also, the point of her keynote was not to lecture about whether the common core is rooted in any reading theory at all. And she wasn’t endorsing it, but showing where the influences are. But she also has an MBA, which gives me an idea that she’s not as concerned as you about the business influence. I have the difficult position of having to find balance between these standards and testing and sticking to what really makes learning happen. I appreciate your input!

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