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'It Starts With You'

by Colleen Patrice Clark
 | Jul 20, 2015

Octavia Spencer 072115If Closing General Session at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis could be summed up in one sentence, it is this: Keep the momentum going.

There’s no doubt the thousands of attendees were tired after three days of professional development, but it was clear the excitement was not wearing thin. Before the session started, many danced along to the music of DJ A.K. and cheered during the slideshow of photos and social media messages shared throughout the weekend.

All of the speakers seized upon that energy. Recognizing that a long three days was wrapping up, they stressed that when everyone goes home, they must continue to recognize their potential, their influence, and their power to change lives.

“Together we need to advocate to ensure our authority as literacy educators is valued,” shared ILA Board of Directors President Jill Lewis-Spector, the first to take to the podium. The address was her final as president. “Together we must fight for the resources we need in our schools and classrooms. Together we must push for policies that we know will work. To make this the Age of Literacy, each of us must embrace our strength.”

A teacher’s power—and long-lasting influence—was a major theme of speaker Stephen G. Peters, who began his talk by issuing a two-word challenge: “The first word is do. The second word is something. When you go back, don’t allow this feeling to evaporate.”

Peters, a longtime educator, advocate, and author, founded the nationally recognized Gentlemen’s and Ladies Club programs, which provide mentorship opportunities for at-risk and honor students throughout the U.S. As the CEO of The Peters Group, an educational consulting firm, he continues to serve as a school principal in South Carolina.

He spoke about how in the 1950s, the major influences on a child’s life, in order, were: home, school, church, peers, TV. Now, it’s: TV/media, peers, church, school, and home.

“A child educated only at school is an uneducated child,” he said to stress the importance of connecting with students on a level that goes beyond the classroom walls and can perhaps carry them throughout their life.

He recalled his seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Black, who he said created that foundational platform for him. He explained that he was a rising basketball star at his school—in fact, he’d go on to be days away from signing with the NBA before a debilitating Achilles tendon injury put him on a different path—but Mrs. Black was never interested in talking about the game. It was her voice he heard in his head later when he realized he’d no longer be able to play.

“She never missed a game, but she never talked to me about basketball or my talent on the court,” he said. “She would say, ‘Stephen, you are a prolific writer.’ I scored 38 points and came in waiting for her to say something, and she said, ‘That was an amazing piece you wrote last week!’

“My teacher thought I was smarter than I was, and so I was,” Peters said. “And I believed then and I believe now, as my father would say, nobody rises to low expectations… I want you ladies and gentleman to understand that at some juncture in time, all of your students will need to hear your voice.”

Following Peters’ moving address, Academy Award-winning actress and children’s book author Octavia Spencer came out to a cheering crowd and, to switch things up, her presentation was done through a Q&A format with two local students as the interviewers—recent Ladue Middle School graduates Kiara Crawford and Dale Chesson, both honor students recently named Diversity Cadre Students of the Year.

But first, she answered a question from ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post about a recent comment she made regarding literacy being the “keys to the kingdom.”

“I am a walking billboard to that effect,” Spencer said, explaining she grew up poor in inner-city Montgomery, AL, and dealt with setbacks in her education due to her dyslexia. But her mother and her teachers always encouraged her to read and to take her education seriously so it could take her anywhere.

“You hold a very important position in young lives and young minds,” Spencer said. “You are the custodians of knowledge and because of that, you will not believe the impact you have on students… There is a level of shame that comes with not being able to comprehend what you read, so it begins with encouragement, and through encouragement we become empowered.”

It was one particular teacher who encouraged Spencer by introducing her to mystery novels. It was a good fit for a dyslexic child because it required working through clues to build up to the ending, much in the same way decoding sentences requires looking for clues.

It worked—and inspired her to write her Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detectiveseries. “I loved mysteries because they kept me engaged,” she said.

Crawford, one of the student interviewers, asked Spencer to elaborate on her love of mystery novels.

“My first boyfriend was Encyclopedia Brown,” Spencer admitted. “I loved him. You become liberated when you are able to read material and understand it and go on this wonderful journey… I was able to go all over the world through books.

“Reading liberated my spirit, and that was because of a lot of you,” she added, looking out to the audience.

Spencer, as well as Peters, received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion of her presentation, at which point incoming 2015-2016 ILA President Diane Barone made closing remarks to wrap up the session.

“We’re students ourselves,” she stressed. “We became literacy practitioners because we believe in learning every day… To advance literacy for all, we must continue to learn and to grow every day so we can be an example to our students, our communities, our colleagues, and certainly to policymakers. Our learning journey never ends.”

Those words rang true to many in the crowd, who cheered loudly as they readied to leave and head to the last sessions of the conference.

One of those attendees was recent West Chester University graduate Mackenzie Parker, who was the president of Alpha Upsilon Alpha, the honor society of ILA at her campus.

To her, the Closing General Session not only made her feel ready to keep the momentum going, but it also validated her choice to become an educator.

“I’m going into my first year of teaching, so I don’t think it could have been any more inspiring because going into this, I’m told so often that this isn’t the time to go into education, this is not the time to be in this field, you don’t really want to do this right now,” she said. “So hearing that was really refreshing, the whole idea that it’s really up to us.”

The moment that stood out the most to her was when Peters said literacy educators are in the greatest profession in the world.

“That’s really how I felt for so much of college and so much of my life,” she said. “This is the greatest job and I’ve wanted to do this forever.”

Colleen Patrice Clark Colleen Patrice Clark is the editor of Literacy Today ,ILA’s member magazine.

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