Want to learn more? Just ask!

One of the things I love most about this conference is that all of its materials are online. There were more than 50 concurrent sessions during each time slot this weekend, so it was impossible to view every single excellent talk. However, I will have access to all of the slides and handouts from all of the talks for the next two weeks. I plan to spend some time later this week downloading a ton of things so that I can keep and study them later.

if there’s a topic that interests you or a speaker whose work you’d like to know more about, just let me know and I’ll be happy to share some of these downloads with you! Feel free to come by my office to peruse the conference schedule or check it out online at the ASCD website. (I’ll insert a proper link here once I’m back to a proper computer and not making updates from my phone.)

Best wishes for a wonderful week!

Farewell, Philly!

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It ended up being a gorgeous spring weekend here in Philadelphia! As happy as I am to get home, I’m definitely going to miss this weather once I get back to rainy SF. I’m now sitting at the airport soaking in the last rays of sunshine and awaiting my flight home. Happy reading and have a lovely evening!

Conference Day Three: In The Trenches

For the last day of the conference, I chose three sessions that had very specific classroom implications for the so-called Twenty-First Century Learner. (Sorry; I can’t help but poke fun at Making Words Important By Using Capital Letters.) The first talked about designing homework for Digital Natives; the second focused on developing professional learning communities in schools; the third focused on implementing differentiated instruction into a school culture. I loved all three of these sessions because they shared a common theme: each offered concrete steps for solving common problems in schools.

I probably liked the first one best: it was presented by two administrators from an elementary school in the Bay Area who created something called the Big Book of Homework for all of their students. Each week, students in each grade have to complete an assignment from their Big Book. Each week’s assignment is aligned exactly with a state core standard (in fact, the core standard in question is printed on the page). The students have a creative question to answer for math and one for English, and they can answer it with writing, with drawing, or with some other written or visual medium that can be glued or taped into the Big Book (a packet of 11″x17″ sheets stapled together). Students also have a “challenge” question to answer that gives them the chance to go further with a particular concept, and teachers can choose to supplement concepts that might bear some repetition (like some math problems) with worksheets. Students then bring in their Big Books each week for a Gallery Walk, when they lay their books out for all of their classmates to see. Students offer written feedback on their classmates’ work via Post-It notes: they write what they like about how someone answered a question. They can also use Post-It write down ideas that they liked from other peoples’ big books (like using construction paper for a fold-out book or drawing a certain kind of diagram) and keep those Post-Its in a toolkit at the back of their own Big Books, giving them a set of ideas to use for their own later Big Book responses. Students must offer each other verbal feedback during Gallery Walks too, which fosters communication and collaboration. As for a grade, all students receive a completion grade for all homework, making the onus on the students to come up with the most creative, most complete answer that they can so that they can present something they’ll be proud to show their classmates.

While this example came from a second-grade classroom, this idea could work well in a high school classroom. In a sense, it’s a sort of journal or portfolio project: it would allow students multiple means of expression and representation to reflect on whatever the class’s subject matter demanded, whether it was biology or English or US History. Interestingly, the Big Book need not be made out of butcher paper: it could be a giant Prezi presentation or a Moodle site or an enormous web portfolio. The possibilities for this seem extraordinary. The presenters showed videos in which students, their parents, and their teachers described how they grew to love the Big Book project, and I was really excited to ponder how we might build a similar structure into our own school.

Conference Day Two: Going from Good to Great

Today was a full day at the conference: one session in the morning, a general session with all 8000-some conference participants in attendance, and two sessions in the afternoon. The whole experience was exhausting but rewarding, and it was especially nice to emerge from the last afternoon session and find that the rain clouds had parted to reveal brilliant sunshine.

Two sessions stood out to me most today. First, a session on Web 2.0 tools (gasp! jargon words!) for building your own personal learning network, or PLN. What’s your PLN, you ask? It’s the network of people, resources, and tools that you use to interact with your world and build relationships and knowledge in your professional life. This session was hosted by a New Jersey high school principal who has received national recognition for his leadership in social networking and Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, Delicious tagging, and Ning communities. I felt inspired: in fact, I think this means I may finally join Twitter, since now I have an even stronger sense of how it can be used as a tool for connecting with a network of other educators in order to enhance my practice. I now have a lot of work to do in restructuring my RSS reader, creating a Twitter account, and joining online networks to help myself tap in more effectively to the enormous body of knowledge that’s out there about education.

The general session speaker was Dr. Atul Gawande, Harvard surgeon and bestselling author and a personal hero of mine. Although Dr. Gawande is a physician, his messages about the need for constant improvement speak to the practice of education just as they apply in medicine. Dr. Gawande spoke of the aspiration to go from good to great, and he posited that it takes constant coaching and constructive criticism in order to do so. Find a mentor or a colleague or a coach of some kind, some person you trust, he said, and invite them to observe your work in action and offer their insights. He did this recently and felt he learned more from this brief conversation about his latest surgery than he had in the previous few years of training. This is exactly what we as educators need, too: it’s instructive to bring in other smart, experienced practitioners to observe what we’re doing, to comment on it, and to help us reach the next level in our own practice. There are many good teachers and many good doctors out there. But to become great, we need to keep striving for tiny, incremental improvement. Those tiny gestures can have a huge impact.

The biggest take-home from each of these talks was a powerful one: if we expect our students to be life-long learners, we can’t just tell them that’s a good thing to do. We have to model that behavior. We have to commit ourselves to using our time and our other resources wisely to constantly assess and improve our own practice. Just as we ask students to reflect on their work as they go, we should share that commitment to reflection.

So look for me next week: I’ll be the one huddled over my computer and bending others
ears in the faculty room trying to learn as much as I can from all of the many great educators around me.

ASCD: second general session

For today’s general session, I got here a little earlier and got a seat right up front. The next session is the one I’ve been excited about for months: it’s a talk from surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande. Dr. Gawande’s humanism and his humor make him a joy to read; his commitment to working smarter to better serve others makes him one of my heroes. And now you know why I raced here in order to sit right up front.

In the meantime, there are a pair of violinists serenading us before things get started. Lovely way to start the day.

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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.