Thursday, July 21, 2011

In defense of conference sessions

"What sessions did you hit today?"




I feel like I had this conversation a bunch at ISTE 2011 in Philly this year. It seems like more than ever, a lot of the excellent folks I like to hang with online and off are abstaining from going to sessions and instead hitting the lounges to have informal conversations. This is great and a real source of connections and learning in a conference atmosphere, but I wonder if the trend has swung too far the social way. I'm not here to disparage anyone's personal way of learning at a conference, but rather explain how it works for me and maybe push others to think about the full conference experience.

The 1st question I ask myself at any conference is- why am I here? Why did I come? First and foremost, I go to conferences to be able to bring fresh ideas and strategies back to my fellow teachers, admin, and students. I don't go looking for fads or trends. In short, I go to help students. When I'm looking over my potential daily schedule, I focus on what my school needs most right now. This year, the answer is easy- we're converting to a STEM and International Studies magnet school next year. So I had a clear idea of the types of learning I was hoping to do- anything that would help support these programs.

Others might have socializing and meeting up with people as their primary purpose. Others still might have the informal ed conversations as their primary purpose. There may even be a couple folks out there who are keynote freaks and wouldn't miss a single one. All of that is fine, but it's not me. (Don't get me wrong....when the night rolls around I'm all about a Google/Gaggle/Edutopia party or three...)

I'm an intrapersonal kind've dude. I really enjoy going to sessions I know will help my school, jotting down notes, and then reflecting on how this new info can impact students in the coming year. I have to take information in, roll it around in my brain, make sense of it, then relax and let the ideas for student use flow. That's just how I operate.

And at a national conference such as ISTE, there are SO MANY amazing, intelligent people presenting sessions about things they are GREAT at. It's such an opportunity to see folks that are really passionate about what they do and are given a platform to share their ideas in a focused manner. In an informal conversation or social setting, someone putting their ideas forward in such a manner can often come off as arrogant or self-promoting, which I tune out immediately.

I also think that going to sessions is a great conversation starter for the deeper conversations we all want to have at conferences. Being able to share what a great session was all about is a great springboard toward making sense of everything you're immersed in.

With all that being said, here are the best sessions I went to at ISTE this year:
  • Becoming a catalyst for change, with Erin Gruwell, the teacher who put together the book "The Freedom Writers Diary". This was an AWESOME experience, getting to hear the stories of a middle class, white, young teacher and the powerful impact she had on a group of 150 inner-city youths, many of which were utterly without hope when she first met them. The power given to students, having them published, having a movie made about them....all from a powerful and inspiring teacher. I felt very lucky to have been able to hear her speak.
  • Beyond Robotics: Project-Based Design and Engineering. This was a cool session where a student team of robotics/engineering students got to show how they built their award-winning robots. I enjoyed seeing how the competitions worked and especially liked seeing the kids as experts, doing real projects and solving real problems. We're getting robotics equipment in the fall and I'm stoked to help.
  • Infographics as a creative assessment - Kathy Shrock. I'm always looking for better ways of assessing students and I thought this was a neat way to go about it. There were some great ideas that I'll definitely be able to bring to my teacher's this year, as we're moving toward much more authentic assessments. Site:
  • Students as content creators. This was a session done via Skype with two teachers from Pittsburgh and Ireland, describing how they had their students connect and share information about their area and culture. It opened my eyes to some of the possibilities of creating connections with our IB kids to other areas of the world and how to structure these types of projects. Site:
  • ITSI-SU – Science Inquiry stuff. The first thing I thought of once we got started in this BYOL session was "Man oh man, our STEM teachers are going to EAT. THIS. UP." This is a free site that has a ton of great inquiry-based lessons that teachers and students can use in conjunction with probes such as Vernier. The great thing about this is that all the data collecting is embedded right into the site- no need to open a separate program to record data then drag it into another spot to analyze. Everything is right there and it's all web-based. Very cool stuff and will lead to a lot of thinking and discovery next year!

I think the bottom line of all this for me is that it's not about my learning or my experience, it's about how I can be a better conduit for others. And along the way, I learn a ton.

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