Reflecting on a busy weekend of conversation and learning at this year’s annual ASCD conference in Los Angeles, a few bright spots stand out for me. I attended ASCD two years ago in Philadelphia and I couldn’t help but notice that while conversations haven’t necessarily shifted too much (school leadership, school transformations, teaching strategies, assessment, Common Core) I found that more and more sessions addressed digital technologies, connected learning and inquiry-based learning. I also got a sense that many attendees craved interactivity within their sessions and were not too shy to engage with complete strangers within their sessions. These are the bright spots that make this year’s conference feel different than the last one I attended.
Social Media and Connected Learning
On Saturday morning, during the “Saved by Twitter” session, I watched complete strangers huddle in groups to discuss social media, their use of Twitter, the challenges involved in using social media and I witnessed a few people send their first tweet or use a hashtag for the first time. This is a huge shift from two years ago when there were very few people tweeting at the conference and Twitter wasn’t widely considered a tool for schools and teachers (and students). Now, it seems, many educators and school leaders realize that they have no choice but to get on board with social media, and they are exploring the tool. Some of the session attendees pondered questions such as, “Should I have two accounts, one personal and one for school?” or, especially if they’d been on Twitter for a few months, “What do I have to add to the conversation? I haven’t really had anything profound to share.” Mixed in were questions about chats, various symbols they saw, what it means to follow someone, what it means to “retweet” someone and others. I’m not sure how many people from that session continued to tweet over the course of the conference, but the eagerness to learn was palpable.
In addition, there were more sessions this year focused around topics like integrating technology, digital citizenship, mobile learners, technology and critical thinking and others. As a frequent attendee of the annual ISTE conference, and a Technology teacher, I found the conference in Philadelphia lacking many sessions dedicated to technology in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend one of the technology sessions this year due to schedule conflicts, but just the amount of sessions discussing technology in the classroom gave me hope.
Student-Centered, Project Based Learning
Another bright spot was the increased number of sessions referring to project or problem-based learning. More and more conversations that I heard while sitting on a couch in the networking lounge or walking between sessions seemed more focused on student-centered learning and while many still touted the Common Core, and while I could not visit every session to see if what was being discussed was truly PBL, this shift gives me hope that more schools are moving toward student-centered classrooms.
I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation in the press room with some of the staff from Washington Montessori School, this year’s winner of the Vision in Action Award. The staff described the culture shift for staff, students and families when the school, which had been labeled as a “Priority School” with only 50% of its students reading at grade level, transitioned into a magnet Montessori school. They described the independence they foster in their Pre-K through 5th grade students, 78% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch. The work they have done to develop a truly inquiry-based environment is inspiring. The fact that this kind of work is being done to turn schools around rather than some of the models I currently see in Philadelphia gives me hope.
I also spoke with a teacher who works in an urban district outside of Chicago who described the positive changes her school has gone through, the focus they have been putting on supporting kids and families, the vision and dedication that new leadership has brought to the school and the way that staff have stepped up to get the necessary hard work done to turn the school around.
These are the stories that we need to hear, and the fact that people are telling these stories and that ASCD was able to shine a light on the transformation of Washington Montessori also gives me hope.
Go Ahead, Talk to Each Other
The final bright spot that really stood out for me this year was the increased amount of engagement between session attendees in sessions. It always pains me that almost all large conferences that I have attended (not just ASCD) set the rooms up like a classroom from the 19th Century with a sea of chairs all hooked together and facing front. I had a conversation with some Emerging Leader colleagues where we reflected on the fact that the best practices that we tout for children we rarely provide for teachers. I attended the Edcamp session and watched as attendees unhooked chairs and created discussion circles and then proceeded to generate discussion topics and hold discussions around topics of their choice. After the attendees regrouped, I could hear people telling their colleagues about the discussion they had just had. There was an energy in the room. It was awesome.
I also sat in on the “What Keeps You Up At Night” panel, and while about half of the time was spent like a traditional panel with a moderator, the attendees were given cards on which to write a question for the panel and the second half of the session was focused on the questions of the people in the room. This gave the session attendees a chance to interact both with the panel and with each other.
ASCD also had a new space this year called the #ASCDEdSpace. This was a space for informal conversation around topics chosen by attendees. This shows a huge shift in how large organizations like ASCD think about engaging their attendees and I think it is a step in the right direction. While this year’s space may not have been totally successful, I believe that were the space moved to the networking lounge rather than a back hallway, there would be a large number of people engaged in conversation about sessions, the keynote speakers and their own experiences. Myself and two other emerging leaders, Bethany Bernasconi and Dawn Chan decided to move our #ASCDEdSpace session to the networking lounge. We plopped ourselves down with complete strangers and struck up a conversation. No one balked at talking to a stranger, and the space was perfect for debriefing the day. If we had not moved to the lounge, I would not have met Tiffany, the teacher from the urban district outside of Chicago that I mentioned above.
I also overheard conversations at social events and while traversing the conference center that hinted at a desire for more interactivity in sessions. “I hate when they just stand up there and talk at you,” I overheard one attendee say. These experiences give me hope that professional development for teachers can begin to mirror the best practices that we use to design meaningful learning experiences for our students.
I’m sure that we will see the landscape shift even more as schools begin to move away from focusing on The Test as the sole assessment, as more and more schools adopt digital learning tools and as more and more school leaders realize the potential of their staff to learn together and from each other.
Despite what many would say about “education these days,” the bright spots I saw this weekend make me believe that that there is hope and that it will take all of us making big strides forward to enact the changes that will make schools more student-centered and focused on the learning process, not just the outcome.