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.

Searching for Ed-Reform!

The state of Michigan has been undergoing what legislators and the media have defined as Educational Reform. As a teacher I have felt that it has been an attack on my profession, by belittling our jobs, effort and intentions. In the name of this reform teacher’s unions have been attacked, school funding has been slashed, students are tested more and the value of a teacher’s teaching lie in these test scores.  For profit charter schools have been popping up like zits on the middle school students I teach. Self-proclaimed “Educational Reform” experts Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee have flocked to the state to promote their “system” of reforms. Conservative, business centric  think tanks continue to lobby for more “reforms” that reduce the judgement of a classroom teachers turning them over to  untrained legislators and corporate interests. Most recently proposing the outsourcing of teaching positions. All in the name of Educational Reform. I ask myself: Is this reform? Are the reforming educational practices?

To start we need the definition of “reform”: Make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it. – Webster’s Dictionary.

Well the so-called reformers say they are going to make it better by tearing apart the old system and building it anew. Should this be done by parties with financial interests at stake? Most reform movement add money to the “thing” they are changing , not take it away, unless it is a financial reform.

So how is “education”: defined: The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, esp. at a school or university: “A new system of public education.” or The theory and practice of teaching.  – Webster’s dicitonary

Are the reformers changing how teachers instruct? Some, teachers now have their practice of teaching interrupted by testing and test preparation activities. Most of the changes here in Michigan are less about educational practices of schools and more about the financial practices of the school districts. The reforms have also attacked the lobbying body for teachers (unions) in hopes of pushing all of the “reforms” through the legislative body without resistance. I would define all of this reform as Financial Reform, with the only beneficiary being corporations.

When searching for educational reform I ask: Is there any REAL educational reform out there?

From my vantage point I see many leaders of TRUE educational reform: None of which are driving state or federal policy but all should be recognized as leading the educational reform movement. Here is an incomplete list of three positive educational reform movements:

  1. EdCamps – “organic, participant driven professional development for K-12 teachers worldwide.” Edcamps are a great place to see educational reform happen. Teachers get together during their “free” time to discuss, share, teach and learn from each other about current teaching practices and issues. By having attended Edcamp, I have changed how I teach and feel that all of my students benefit. Best part about this reform movement: it is completely FREE. Nobody gets paid to be there or pays to attend. All legislators should attend an Edcamp near them to SEE a process that is changing how learning occurs in classrooms.

2. Twitter Ed Chats– Many think of twitter is a tool to keep up with Hollywood’s stars or your favorite sports team. For educators, twitter has become a place to keep current by chatting with colleagues from all over the world. There are chats going on constantly covering a wide variety of topics. Twitter helps teachers share best practices, bounce new ideas off of one another and support each other when struggles occur. Teachers also use twitter to their students how to collaborate and give their students an authentic audience.

3. Teacher Blog’s – Thousands of teachers are blogging. They are writing about an area where they are experts: TEACHING and LEARNING. The two vary things so many in society want to reform. Many teachers are writing about what needs to change in education and how to make our classrooms better learning environments. Legislators, are you listening to them? These are the experts who have NO financial interest in reforming education. Their interests are for the education of their students. Many educators disagree in the “correct” path to a better education system. In these Blogs one will find an honest debate and discussion about teaching and learning.

In the future let’s separate the two education reform movements: 1: The financial movement lead by corporate interests and 2. the teaching movement lead by educators themselves.

Who wins in the overall reform movement will reflect our nation’s values:

DO we value Education? or Money? only time will tell.

EdCamp Style PD for school PD – Take the risk

Today it happened!! Our school took a slice of its regularly scheduled PD time and made a small change. Teachers signed up to share. Share something they are doing in their classroom that works. Something that they feel would help others. The staff then could choose a location to attend 4 or 5 of these mini-PD session. Sessions ranged from computer applications to be used in the classrooms to procedures to how to create a calm climate for learning.

Our principal took a risk by allowing the staff to guide their learning. I feel it let the silent stars shine. Teachers who usually are quiet took center stage. Shared what was working for them, and slow drifted back to silence. Sharing gave the staff power to decide what they felt ours might want. It gave our staff respect, by allowing us to pick what sessions we wanted to attend. It gave our staff power over their own learning. Ultimately it gave our staff, a nice feeling inside as we head into spring break and down the home stretch of the year. To top it all off our assistant principal felt we needed a snack after work before soaking in the PD so she prepared a “Tater” bar with all the fixings, for the entire staff to snack on as they soaked in the Edcamp style session.