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NCTE Conference Recap: The Student Researcher Perspective

By Avery Castellani and Riley McHugh


You've read a detailed account of what went down on the convention floor. You've gotten a closer look at exactly what research was presented. Now, to round out the research team's NCTE coverage, fellow student researcher Riley and I are giving you what may be the most coveted information yet: what it was like for us, two undergrad students, to be a part of such an amazing production.


With questions designed and answered by yours truly, you'll get the inside scoop on what made the trip unique for us as students, the individual sessions we attended, and our favorite non-BoB related parts of the conference. As always, thank you for following along with us!


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Q: How many conferences have you attended prior to NCTE? How did this experience impact your attitude going in to NCTE?


Riley McHugh (RM): Prior to NCTE, I have attended the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) annual conference twice (2022, 2023). My first year attending EPA, I was presenting a poster and wasn’t sure about what attending a conference would be like. The hotel in New York that was hosting the conference had multiple floors for poster sessions, keynote addresses, panel presentations, and workshops. I was able to go to many of the sessions and interact with other students and professors who had come to present their research before and after giving my presentation. Despite being nervous about presenting, the conference went well and I had a great experience!


In 2023, the conference was in Boston, and the format and set up at the hotel was the same, but I was presenting multiple posters. I attended fewer speaker presentations due to timing conflicts with my presentations, but I was able to attend more poster sessions. Having these experiences prior to attending NCTE was helpful for NCTE, as I had an idea of what the conference might look like, and I was not very nervous about presenting the poster since it was something I had done multiple times before.


Avery Castellani (AC): NCTE is the first conference I've ever attended! I think my excitement re: simply being in that space with so many intelligent, accomplished, and creative people was palpable the entire time I was there. Going into that weekend, I really didn't know what to expect aside from the poster presentation aspect of our exhibit. Public speaking isn't something that unnerves me, especially when I'm so familiar with the material I'm presenting, but I think the scope beyond just standing in front of our work made me nervous. I tried to rework that anxiety into enthusiasm and go from there, which I think ended up working out pretty well for me on the floor when we had to interact with attendees.


It was just really amazing to be away from Chestertown as well. Not that I don't love the birthplace of our project, but seeing the rest of the team, the research we've done, and the bus itself in a city with so many people eager to hear from us was special. It was another in a long line of pinch-me moments I've had since starting with the project. I'm sure I was practically bouncing up and down Main Street Columbus most of the time.


Q: Describe your role as a student researcher on the NCTE floor. How do you think being an undergraduate student made this role unique?


RM: As a student researcher I was primarily tasked with helping garner participation for our teacher survey. For most of the day, Avery and I were equipped with QR codes that linked to the survey and we conversed with people as they were in line to receive their reading buddy and book from Build-a-Bear and First Book. I was able to talk with educators from a wide range of settings and backgrounds who gave wonderful feedback about what author/illustrator visits and the support of companies like First Book means to them. Hundreds of people agreed to take our survey and either scanned the QR code to complete it while standing in line, or waited to take a paper copy once they made it through the line! Additionally, Avery and I were tasked with presenting our poster. For two hours, we stood by our poster with handouts and QR codes, telling people about the project and answering their questions. Everyone who stopped by the poster had either come from visiting the bus or were inspired to check it out after learning about its significance.


 

Being an undergraduate student made this role unique because most of the people I interacted with were shocked that we were participating in the conference as undergrads and nit just attending. EPA was a very undergrad friendly conference and it was expected that most undergraduate students were participating in the conference as more than attendees. At NCTE, it was not common for undergraduate students to present posters or be part of exhibits, so being able to share our work with people and show them that the project is truly a collaborative effort was very exciting. More than anything, learning about how rare it is for undergrads to have an opportunity like mine at NCTE also made me more grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to be part of this project and team!


AC: The best way I can describe the survey process Riley mentioned is by describing us as worker bees buzzing around our hive (the bus). We ended up establishing an efficient system pretty quickly where we'd each stand on an opposite side of the neverending line and take turns approaching the latest group of people to join. Then, we'd skip past each other to make sure we didn't miss anyone. Half the fun of this was feeling so professional, and the other half was getting to occasionally have a deeper conversation with an educator about the purpose of the survey. There were some attendees who only knew our exhibit as "the place to get a free bear," but by the time we'd finished talking to them, they were just as excited to meet Matthew and Robbi as anyone else in the line. We were also able to strike up a rapport with the presenters on either side of us during the poster session. In between giving our spiels to other attendees, we'd give them to each other!


A lot of people, especially during the poster session, were shocked to hear that Riley and I were undergrad students. Upon finding out, we'd eagerly get asked about our majors and how we got involved with the project, which was a very proud moment for us. Dr. Garcia made a great point the night after the conference that really stuck with me, saying that among everyone else in the building, no matter how much older or experienced, we were the experts on this topic we were presenting. I'd never really considered myself an expert until then, especially as an undergrad, but that's exactly what it felt like in the moment. I was so appreciative to have Riley there with me, as well. Having another student researcher to play off of and share the experience with made it all the more special.


Q: Student researchers were allotted time to go to individual sessions throughout the day. Describe those you went to and your experience at them.


RM: After the poster presentation, I was able to attend two individual sessions before returning to the exhibit hall for more survey recruitment. The first session I went to discussed how college-level writing classes can be restructured to best meet the needs of students from different backgrounds. The speakers shared that many of their students are non-traditional college students or come into school with different levels of writing ability. In order to help all students succeed without requiring additional, no-credit classes, these instructors developed ways to integrate skill workshops, instructional time, and lab hours into their introductory English and writing courses.


The second session I attended was about assessing and challenging what makes up the canon for middle and high school level English classes. The speaker discussed common themes used to frame traditionally taught novels and share ideas about how the themes can be restructured to analyze the texts from a critical lens. She shared ways to incorporate other forms of media that have similar themes but challenge the original framing of the messages students are meant to take away from the books. I really enjoyed this session and thought the idea about challenging the canon without completely overriding it was interesting. As many students will have heard of these classic novels and want to read them, they should still be given the option to do so, but they shouldn’t be led to believe that they are perfect texts. Attending these sessions gave me new ideas about how class structure and content is constantly adapting to meet the needs of students and culture, and reinforced the importance of not only learning about but incorporating your students’ values and cultures into the classroom environment.


AC: The session I attended was a two-parter surrounding the use of LGBTQ+ books in academic settings. The first presentation was led by a high school English teacher who had given her students a handful of books to choose from to do a book report on. All of these books included an arc exploring LGBTQ+ identity in some way, whether it be the up front struggle of the main character, or a defining aspect of a prominent side character. Students would then, after reading the book and completing a series of smaller assignments pertaining to it, have to write a letter to either their school librarian or a future student of the class. In this letter, they'd take a stance for or against the book being included in next year's curriculum and explain why. The presenter then showcased some student examples of these letters. Most of the audience members (myself included) were surprised by how thoughtful, thorough, and insightful the letters ended up being. I loved seeing such a diverse range LGBTQ+ texts being used so seamlessly within a unit, and I loved that this teacher's students were so excited to engage with stories they themselves may not have (or did!) personally identify with. After being bombarded by so much anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in education recently, it was a very simple, but very heartening experience.


The second presentation was led by two librarians in promotion of their book, a sort of encyclopedia on new LGBTQ+ novels, picture books, etc. that educators looking to diversify their library should check out. Their recommendations were accompanied by a general conversation surrounding the importance of representation, which got the audience asking questions about other ways they could make their school environments more welcoming to LGBTQ+ students. I thought this conversation was really worthwhile to sit in on, as it included new and veteran educators, as well as educators who were straight and those who were part of the community themselves. Plus, I left with a whole bunch of book titles written in my notes app to check out later!


Q: How will your experience at NCTE impact your work in the project going into your final semester of BoB work?

 

RM: Going to NCTE helped put in perspective all the work we’ve been doing and allowed me to see what it means to other people outside of the research team/project. Since the tour couldn’t go to every school, I was unsure of what the impact would be like on schools that weren’t participating. At NCTE, I was able to interact with a diverse group of educators (K-12 teachers, pre-service teachers, and teacher educators) who all shared positive thoughts and opinions about Busload of Books, even if they hadn’t heard about the project until then! Seeing how excited our work made people and hearing about what a project like this means to them was really inspiring and has given me a new perspective on who our work can impact and what the effects may be. This will be especially useful during my final semester of BoB work as we are looking past student responses to see how the BoB tour impacted educators and school administrators.


AC: Since Riley and I are in the process now of stepping back gradually from BoB to make room for a new pair of stellar student researchers, this experience felt like a sweeping, penultimate reminder of everything we've accomplished since starting out. Every time I get to speak with an educator, whether or not they were a direct BoB research participant, I'm reminded of why our work matters. Each of the teachers at that conference weren't just there representing themselves, but all of the students they teach and want to go above and beyond for. My final semester is going to be defined, essentially, by BoB and the research we've done so far since I'll be using our data (both qualitative and quantitative) for my Senior Capstone Experience. I'm really excited to look at our work through a case study lens, as such a method leaves some wiggle room for storytelling, and there are so many wonderful stories that make up every aspect of the BoB research experience. Whether it be surveys, interviews, or photos off Matthew and Robbi's Instagram feed, it's all representative of the energy we brought to NCTE.


Q: Detail a favorite memory from the entire trip! Doesn't have to be NCTE specific.


RM: We had a lot of very memorable and joyful experiences on the trip – from the dinner with First Book, Build-a-Bear, Robbi & Matthew, and our team on our first night, to watching people run through the exhibit hall to secure a spot in line at our exhibit, and to seeing everyone’s reaction (especially Dr. Bunten’s) to the pigeon enter the exhibit hall – that made the trip fly by because of how much fun we were having. One of my favorite memories from the trip was the dinner we had at the Air B&B on our last night of the trip. Our research team decided to have a small dinner with just the five of us that night where we were able to reflect on the conference, the journey the project has taken us one, and catch up on a very busy semester. Despite working together on the project, everyone’s packed schedules have made it difficult for our team to meet all together and in-person this semester. It was really nice to have time to see everyone and talk about what’s been going on with the project and beyond, especially as I am preparing for my last semester of BoB work. Overall, I had a really great experience at NCTE and am excited to attend and present at more conferences in the future!


AC: I would be remiss if I also didn't immediately mention Dr. Bunten's reaction to seeing the famous pigeon of Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus fame enter the exhibit hall. Tracking that bird down and taking a photo with him made my entire day and my childhood as well. I also had the honor of presenting our poster to someone very high on the totem pole at Random House publishing. Afterward, Robbi and Matthew approached me as I was eating lunch and gave me hugs, thanking me for my work. Sharing that moment with them specifcially was really special, as I feel I owe them a lot too for the opportunities I've been given through this project and admire them deeply.


Other than that, my favorite memories are mostly the mundane ones. The evening after spending all day in the exhibit hall, the entire team wandered around hotel lobbies and parking garages searching for Dr. Garcia's car instead of walking a few blocks to the house. It was one of those delirious moments where no matter what you say, everything is funny, and we all couldn't stop laughing. That time, coupled with the takeout dinner we had after, was a highlight for me. There's something deeply and distinctly fun about sitting around with your professors and talking about non-school related stuff over a basket of fried pickles, especially after being too busy to see each other all semester. I really didn't want it to end. "It" being the fried pickles, the conversation, and the entire experience altogether.





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