Conferences must change with the times

TCEA Tweet-upWhen you work with schools across the nation, you soon realize that February and March are never going to be your own again. These are the months where many states schedule their state educational technology conferences. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Texas (TCEA), Washington (NCCE), Washington DC (CoSN) and of course, my home state of California (CUE).

If I could have cloned myself, I could have gone to Florida (FETC), Illinois (IL-TCE), Arizona (MEC), Michigan (MACUL), New Jersey (NJECC) and probably more I’m forgetting. (I can’t even bring myself to find all the full names and links to these terrific conferences! Bad blogger!)

TCEA Tweet-upThese conferences give technology-using educators a chance to reflect and recharge, hear inspiring speakers and talk to colleagues from near and far. This year, more than ever, I met folks who previously have only been virtual avatars, Twitter buddies, or names on blogs. The opportunities to use Web 2.0 tools and social networks to build a Personal Learning Network has changed many educator’s lives, and brought new spark to a traditionally isolated profession.

I believe conferences must change as well, or risk being a relic of the past.

Technical difficulties, of courseAt CUE, I participated in a day long “unconference” event called EdubloggerCon West run by Steve Hargadon of Classroom 2.0 (a social network for educators.) Instead of submitting session ideas months in advance, and a faceless committee deciding which sessions are presented, the attendees shaped the day to our own needs. A wiki was used to plan the event. People signed up, and added their ideas to another page for ideas about what to talk about.

At the event, the first item on the agenda was to decide what the day would become. Imagine that, the attendees shaped their own day of learning to their personal needs!

Alice Mercer and Gail DeslerSomeone volunteered to edit the wiki, and an agenda emerged on the fly. Some people wanted to talk about technology and language development. Some people wanted to talk about project-based learning. Concepts got merged and people stepped forward to offer new ideas. There were some mini-sessions (5 minutes!) on various tools. At the end of the day, the wiki stood as both a record of what happened, and links to the tools and ideas we talked about.

It was an interesting day, both for the learning taking place and the concept that conferences could change and adapt to new technology that allows more personalized learning. It felt like a mash-up of the best conference sessions you’ve ever been to, combined with the most interesting conversations you tend to have when committed, passionate educators gather after-hours.

Lisa Linn at EdubloggerCon WestWhile this exact format might not work for thousands of attendees, there are certainly elements that can be adapted and experimented with. Conferences as we know them today are going to change as technology and culture change — or become obsolete.

Steve is getting to be pretty good at structuring these events. It’s an interesting combination of leadership, experimentation on the bleeding edge of technology, herding cats, and stepping back gracefully to allow others to share the spotlight. It’s one of those skills that looks magically effortless when it’s done right, but isn’t. Sort of teaching.

EdubloggerCon WestThese days, change happens quickly, even for those who feel ready for it. In fact, the name EdubloggerCon seemed cutting edge a year or two ago, but now it’s too focused on one tool in a universe of possibilities. It’s really about changing education for the modern world.

Congratulations to CUE and executive director Mike Lawrence for allowing this experiment to take place and not being afraid of the future.

If you are attending the National Educational Computer Conference (NECC) in San Antonio in June, there is a similar event being held two days before NECC starts. More information here.

Five on Five: A Dialogue on Professional Development

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a podcast about technology professional development. The interviewer was Matt Vilano, editor at THE Journal. Matt said afterwards that it went so well that it might become an article, and sure enough, it has!

Five on Five: A Dialogue on Profession Development

A quintet of educators gathers to sound off on what works and what doesn’t in the ongoing mission to train teachers to use technology in classroom instruction.

Sylvia the cartoon versionThanks Matt for turning an audio interview with 5 people on the phone into a great article! Plus, they did caricatures of us — kinda cool.

If you are an auditory learner try this:

Five on Five: Professional Development Podcast

Thanks also to the other podsters – Kristin Hokanson, Jim Gates, Bob Keegan and Cathy Groller. It was so much fun we kept talking after the time was up!


“I’m the luckiest teacher in Philadelphia”

SLA Teachers Rock!Last month I attended Educon 2.0 in Philadelphia, an “unconference” that grew out of a grass roots movement by many educators who blog and work with Web 2.0 tools. In my opinion, it was a spectacular success, not just because 250 educators showed up on a wintery weekend in Philadelphia, most on their own dime, but because of the showcase it provided for the Science Leadership Academy – especially the teachers and students.

While it was terrific to meet the people behind the avatars and screen names, it was even more impressive to get a chance to see what a well-designed, well-executed progressive school looks like up close.

It looks like teachers.

Sure, I could go on and on about how the principal, Chris Lehmann, has shaped this school based on an “ethic of care” — meaning you teach kids before you teach subjects. The idea is so simple it’s almost startling. Brilliant leaders excel at making the simple, powerful truths concrete. Of course, caring about kids is not a secret, and Chris would be the first to admit that he stands on the shoulders of giants as he guides this school.

And the kids, of course, the kids were fabulous. Smart, friendly, look-you-in-the-eye teens who got up early on a weekend morning to make this event work. And not just help, but participate. SLA studentThese teens waded into discussions and spoke their minds. They facilitated discussions of diverse educational issues, sharing their opinions and experiences with people they’d never met before. It’s obvious these young adults are being listened to and know they can share their voice.

But when I get discouraged about the future of this thing we call school, and whether it can make systemic changes needed to survive and serve our society well, I’m going to have a new vision to call on. And it will be these SLA teachers who painted this picture for me more clearly than ever.

In one session in particular, four SLA teachers presented their experience of their first year. Learning to Teach: First Year Teaching in a Progressive SchoolSLA teachersJillian Gierke, Melissa Yarborough, Matt Kay, and Kenneth Rochester. They discussed what they learned, what they tried, what worked and what didn’t. It was a fabulous session. There is a video and handouts online, but there would be no way to capture the energy of the room as we moved to various centers, each run by one teacher who shared their classroom experiences with us. We tried our hand at designing a lesson using the Understanding by Design method, and found that 1) it was hard fun and 2) different groups came up with some really interesting yet completely different approaches.

SLA sessionOne teacher shared the lesson he learned over the year – “less is more,” he quietly said. And you could see the conviction in his eyes that this wasn’t the third bullet on a list of rules he’d been handed. He’d lived it and learned it. Another teacher shared how her ongoing discussions with other faculty shaped her classroom style, and how she planned to continue this as new faculty joined the SLA.

But finally, one teacher wrapped it up for me, “I’m the luckiest teacher in Philadelphia,” she said with a smile. She looked around at the chaos of voices, papers, computers, backpacks and jackets littering the room and continued, “I can’t small group discussionimagine being anywhere else.” The ethic of care at this school obviously includes the teachers, and that makes all the difference.

The truth is, great leaders have to do more than lead, they have to transfer their leadership abilities to everyone in their sphere of influence. And everyone has to accept that gift. Kids can, and will do it easily, given encouragement and consistent support. Adults are harder. Their habits are set, their expectations are lower, and their life lessons ring in their ears, drowning out the voice of hope. But it is possible.

Sometimes, when I visit a great school, I wish I was a student there. At SLA, I wished I was a teacher.