Conference Day One: Navigating the Conference

For me, the greatest challenge of a conference is making an agenda. This is one of the biggest conferences I’ve ever attended, and there are hundreds of sessions to sort through and choose from.

As I read through the session descriptions on the plane yesterday, I wondered: who do I need to be at this conference–a learning specialist, a teacher, a tech enthusiast, or all of those at once? What do I need to see? What do I want to learn?

As you may know, I’m interested in a lot of topics in education: educational neuroscience, technology, Web 2.0 topics, learning differences, differentiated instruction, student motivation, emotional development, instructional design, and independent school leadership. There are talks on all of these topics during every time slot. And it’s maddening to try to choose among them.

Luckily, this is a very tech-savvy conference and all of the talks’ slides and handouts are available online. That makes it a little less stressful, but it’s still tough to choose where to physically land for each period.

For the 1 PM session on Saturday, I chose poorly. VERY poorly. I sat in on a session that talked about best practices for implementation of a supplemental benchmarking tool for foresighting and aligning students’ and teachers’ efforts with the common core standards with an eye toward meeting AYP.

If you find the last sentence maddening and completely confusing, you’re not alone. I know what all of those words mean individually, but this particular conversation combined these topics with program-specific jargon for something called Study Island, which was apparently used daily by everyone in the room. Everyone but me.

It turns out that this talk was specifically geared toward middle school teachers in southeast Pennsylvania who all use a specific tool for supplementing classroom instruction in math and reading. That wasn’t what it said in the conference handout, but that’s what it turned out to be.

This isn’t to say that this was a bad session–in fact, it was a great session that spoke to the needs of the people in the audience who needed to hear its message. This session was TERRIBLE for me because I was the wrong audience: I don’t work in a middle school in southeast Pennsylvania, and I don’t use that particular program, so I shouldn’t have been there to begin with.

I have a hard time with buzzwords, so I tried to choose the session that used the fewest buzzwords and seemed to focus on bigger topics. As it happened, I ended up choosing the talk that was more full of buzzwords and jargon than perhaps anything else at the conference.

I get impatient sometimes with some education buzzwords and jargon because I think they can sometimes be kind of arbitrary. Just because you put a normal word in Big Capital Letters does not necessarily make it Important. “Twenty-First Century Skills” is simultaneously my most and least favorite term: I completely agree that our schools and our practice as educators needs to grow and change with the new tools and technology that we use on a daily basis. However, I think it’s a little ridiculous to propose that these values–like communication and collaboration–are new.

While I can get impatient about these words, they are helpful for defining the terms of a conversation. Even though Twenty-First Century Skills is a troublesome term, the term at least gives people a word to allow them to engage in conversation. These words are a starting point and not an end point: they are a call to discuss and learn.

So that was a rookie mistake, I think, and one that I hope not to repeat. I’m spending more time in the conference program seeking out the buzzwords and jargon words about which I’m most passionate, including Twenty-First Century Skills, Differentiated Instruction, RTI, and Web 2.0. I have strong opinions about all of these things, and it’s worth going to meet the people starting these conversations. Even if I disagree, it’s worth hearing their voices and letting my own voice be heard. After all, that’s why I came here to begin with.

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