Dickens in Columbus

December 22, 2023

By Clark Cloyd and Catherine Springer 

Clark and Catherine
Clark and Catherine

Charles Dickens didn’t make it to Columbus, Ohio, during his American tours, but he visited Columbus by proxy at the annual NCTE (National Council of the Teachers of English) conference this past November. Atlanta teachers Catherine Springer and Clark Cloyd presided over a Dickens Project booth in the convention center’s vast Exhibition Hall, where thousands of English teachers, elementary through high school, along with teachers in training, strolled past hundreds of publishing house displays and stopped to examine academic programs, learning models, and a variety of other academic offerings when they were not attending lectures and panel presentations elsewhere at the convention.

Drawn by Dickens’s signature on a large blanket stretched across the front of the booth’s table and by lots of swag from the Dickens Project coffers, teachers wanted to know, “What’s this all about?” Armed with Universe brochures, Dickens Day of Writing materials, and swords (valuable swag left over from the Barnaby Rudge Universe), Catherine and Clark explained what the annual gathering in Santa Cruz offers to participants and how the Dickens Day of Writing can fit seamlessly into teachers’ curricula to offer a valuable exercise in close reading, critical thinking, and analytical or creative writing. Our table was decked out with pens, stickers, t-shirts, top hat pins, copies of “Night Walks,” Universe brochures, tea cards, and the coveted David Copperfield “Chapter One. I am born” onesie. Few prospective parents and grandparents could resist photographing or touching this last item that all agreed is cute as the dickens. The winner of this item in our Spin to Win game was a recent grandmother who hopes to attend the conference this summer. Another popular giveaway in the game was the Barnaby Rudge sword, complete with flashing lights. While these enticements pulled people in, the conversations that followed were what made them stay.

Many of the hundreds who stopped to inquire waxed rhapsodic about their delight in reading Dickens. More than a few recalled early encounters with Dickens in high school that led to a lifelong interest in his fiction. Teachers were eager to share how they are using Dickens in the classroom. Many read “A Christmas Carol” with their students during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, often pairing it with modern novels or hosting Fezziwig parties. Others reported that Great Expectations remains a cornerstone of their high school curriculum, remaining in place while boards of education ban contemporary texts from teachers’ plans. One woman who teaches A Tale of Two Cities swooned when talking about Sydney Carton, but added, “Don’t get me started on Lucie!” For teachers seeking suggestions on how to introduce Dickens into their classroom, we proposed “Night Walks” and invited them to host a Dickens Day of Writing at their school, or come to the Universe for professional and personal enrichment.

Teachers duelingThe idea of spending a week in Santa Cruz immersed in discussions of a single novel elicited longing sighs and delighted exclamations. And as we described the lectures, discussion groups, Victorian teas, Victorian dance lessons, film screenings, etc., their enthusiasm increased. Prospective attendees will receive additional information about this summer’s conference in the coming weeks. We look forward to seeing them again and to making new friends this July when the Universe will spend a delightful week filled with Great Expectations. The Spin to Win game and Barnaby Rudge swords may make an appearance!