Value of Educational Conferences

I recently read a post by Tom Whitby, titled “Are Educational Conferences Relevant?” His post made me think about the true value of educational conferences. As a teachers there are really 3-types of conferences we can attend. First the Un-conference: more commonly referred to as an Edcamp, Second: a state conference (Examples MRA, MAMSE or MACUL) and Third: The National Conference (Example: ISTE, NSTA or AMLE). All 3 types of conferences have benefits and drawbacks. The attendee really determines the ultimate value of any conference.

Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of attending all three types. (AMLE, MCTE, and EdcampOU) Here are the Pros and Cons I see.

Un-Conferences/Edcamps: These conferences rarely have predetermined schedule. Attendees vote with their feet by walking out of sessions that give them little value into other sessions. All of the sessions are lead by educators in the field working with students and building their craft. Conferences are manly free or low cost, on weekends. The value of un-conferences is in the attendees. A well attended Edcamp with eager presenters means the day will be enlightening. Poor attendance or reluctant presenters can lead to a long day (or early departures). Since the conference is “Free”, no vendors come to sell products. The sessions (if you call them sessions more like conversations) are intimate. 10-25 teachers in a room talking about a topic with passion. Everyone has a voice and feels empowered by the face to face meeting. In this day an age of slashed budgets, I feel the un-conferences will continue to rise in popularity.

State Conferences: Sessions are scheduled. Speakers are brought in from the “educational consulting” and “Edu-Author” realms. Most attendees planed to hear one or more of the “name” presenters. Often many of the teacher lead sessions are over looked due to the popularity of the Keynote/ out of state presenters. State level conferences often have a higher cost, therefore vendors are brought in to help cover the costs. To create a program of scheduled presenters, proposals are submitted 4-9 months ahead of the conference. School leaders and teachers attend to sit and get information. Some conferences have been adding hands-on and quick sessions to liven the conferences up. Some educators get lost in the size of the state level conferences, I find the connections invigorating. Focusing on the small conversations and not the large presentations.

National Conferences: Mirror the state conferences but on a grander scale. Proposals for sessions come 6-12 months before the conference. Every author and Ed-consultant in the field will be presenting to sell their services/books. The main difference at national conferences is the demographics of attendees. More administrators attend and less teachers, mainly due to the cost of travel to the conference. Vendors are present to subsidize costs.Some don’t like vendors at educational conferences, but where else will teachers get to know about their products?  At AMLE this year, the clear passion about Middle Level Education was evident everywhere. Sessions are larger than the other types of conferences. The conversations and connections with other attendees were wonderful, since they were from all over the world.

The most important part of any conference is what you take away. All conferences have value to educators. Find conferences you enjoy attending, where you make meaningful connections, and learn new ideas. Go where you feel comfortable and can afford to attend. Everyone will have different opinions about conferences, find ones that make you grow as an educator and add value to your classroom practice.

Reflections on 3 days of learning at #AMLE2013

Students performing at #AMLE2013 

I had the pleasure of attending The Association of Middle Level Education Conference in Minneapolis, MN this past week. It was my first time attending a “national” level conference. The conference had an incredible feel of energy an passion. Walking into the convention hall I should have know the energy would be high since the line for the only coffee stand around went out of sight. All the attendees had to get their share of caffeine to match the energy of the conference and its presenters.

The session program was littered with who is who of educational Authors/ experts: Ruth Culham, Laura Robb, Jeff Wilhelm, Ruby Payne, Rick Stiggins, Jack Berckemeyer, Monte Selby, Kim Campbell and Rick Wormeli to name a few. As an attendee it was hard for me to choose what sessions to attend, not only high caliber sessions from authors, but 100’s of sessions from teachers about what works in their classrooms. Every session I walked into demonstrated a passion for teaching every student that walks into a middle school classroom. What ever topic you needed to fulfill  your professional development needs you could find it.

The General Session on Thursday remarkable. The Special Olympics, Project Unify put on a stage show demonstrating the needs to spread the word to end the word. If you every get a chance to see their performances DO!! Inspiring and meaningful. Every middle school student should be exposed to this program. Danielle Liebl and Jamie Behymer shared their personal stories about student advocacy and how SPecial Olympics had impacted their lives. The session ended with everyone dancing to Katy Perry’s Roar!

Friday kicked off early with a 7:30 general session by Brad Meltzer about Heroes. I am a huge fan of his Decoded series on the History Channel, but did not know why he would be speaking at  a middle level conference. He opened sharing his story about how he became a writer. Stories about his teachers filled the auditorium. He talked about the power of Thank You, and listening to the unheard stories for those are the ones with meaning. I was inspired by the end, Brad Meltzer is an engaging story teller.

For me the greatest experience of the conference was connecting with other like minded educators. As a classroom teacher, I have little time to connect and share ideas with others. Due to my activity on Twitter, I meet up with members of my Professional Learning Network. We talked in the halls, in session, on twitter and enjoyed meals together. These personal connections matter. I also had the privilege to attend the AMLE leadership lunch on Friday. The discussion there were rich with focus on students learning. The time was engaging and meaningful. Lead by Dru Tomlin, the lunch is a must for leaders that want to engage in answering the critical questions facing educators.

The conference wasn’t all roses: WiFi connections were spotty at times and the web app for the conference had issues. It was not light on the pocket book: I was out over $800 for travel and accommodations (Note to self find a sponsor for next year: anyone??) The money was worth it, the conference is not about the TECH so those were minor drawbacks. The conference was about connections, passion, energy all to make student’s learning improve in the classrooms.

All attendees have to remember to maintain the feelings from the conference, share the passion with your building and maintain connections with presenters via twitter. One member of my PLN shared that the energy felt at conferences can be continued by participating in Twitter chats. I hope I can live up to the energy and passion presented at the conference. If you have the time it is so worth attending. I hope to return next year when it will be in Nashville, TN,

Thank you to all I connected with! Dru Tomlin, Mark Clements and Rick Wormeli: Thank you for making me feel your equal. You inspire me to work harder and be better everyday.