Taking Conference Learning to Task

One week ago I was packing up to leave a marvelous educators’ conference. The Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) conference celebrated its 25th anniversary at a stunning resort location near Dubrovnik, Croatia. Spectacular views to the Adriatic Sea, attendance by just over 400 educators and school folk from the region and beyond, and a strong selection of workshop sessions around the theme of “transforming education through global citizenship” offered all the right ingredients for an outstanding professional experience.

In a nutshell, I could not have been happier with the conference and my attendance. Not a moment of my time or dose of energy felt wasted or superfluous. It was a conference put together with great care and attention to coherence and also ambient experience. Opportunities and invitations to visit Dubrovnik and drink in its unique history and atmosphere were actively incorporated into the program. The keynote speakers were extremely well-chosen to address the conference theme of global citizenship: Michael Furdyk spoke about the student service platform Taking It Global and Heidi Hayes-Jacobs described steps to create 21st century learning environments. Additional invited speakers led well-attended workshops of practical pedagogical importance.

Now, one week later, I am asking myself however, to what end? Yes, I had a rich and invigorating conference experience and enjoyed fun and also reflective times with some of my colleagues but what of it? How does that serve anyone besides me? Who benefits from my freshly gained (and perhaps as quickly dissipating) insights from this great learning experience? I imagine that I am not alone in this experience. It could be that many other conference participants left this spectacular event only to see those precious new ideas for innovation or tweaking quickly fade when they got back to school. They may have found that their colleagues who, during said absence were literally and figuratively “holding down the fort,” did not or could not share the same enthusiasm for new ideas or spare the time to appreciate them. For many of us this situation may be par for the course. Not every school has an active forum for conference participants to share their learning with colleagues upon return. Which is, of course, a shame.

Overcoming this situation would not necessarily require much effort. 5 minutes of a faculty meeting, perhaps. Or a world café style meeting where conference attendants share and moderate conversations around the most compelling take-aways from their conference experience and colleagues can choose 2-3 areas of interest in which to engage. The key lies in honoring time and effort spent on professional learning and providing space for those gains to be shared, spread and built upon. If you imagine sending teachers to a conference as an act of sowing seeds, then surely we must all take an interest in the ensuing growth and harvest that will follow.

One of the thoughts that kept coming back to me at the conference was: given the theme of global citizenship, how adept do I feel in my own capacity to model, (not even explicitly teach yet) some of these principles for my students? All the topics of what and how to change the educational experiences of our students come back to me as a teacher and the role I plan to take in making it happen. Reflecting on this question “in my own private Idaho” appears to be of little use. This is a question whose response insists on company and dialogue and challenge in order to make sense. Without the benefit of outside and other perspectives, I will continue to see things not as they are, but as I am.

This strikes me as the fundamental glitch in our ability to transfer great conference learning and experiences to community benefit and growth. How might we move from “one and done” professional learning events to something like “one and share and extend….”? How might we bring those insights back to our students to let them know that we were learning on their behalf? When will it become commonplace for us to highlight and value learning that takes place outside of our schools, districts, and subject areas?

These are big questions and critical to sustaining the purposeful use of conferences as a wise professional learning option. My time in Dubrovnik could be written off as a delightful vacation opportunity with a little education(al) banter thrown in. But the fact that it was so much more than that would hardly be known unless I broadcast it here. That speaks volumes about how far we have to go.

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Keeping the PoCC Conversation Going

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

One of the things about attending excellent conferences is that one often leaves feeling empowered, energized, ready for action.  And then you return to your reality.  Not everyone else has been where you have been, has experienced the positives you have experienced.  You are feeling warmed up and limber. Many others may be feeling lethargic and sleepy.  This is the time when our best and reinvigorated selves need to remember to be kind; to be understanding; to become bridges and not the fence.

Before coming back to school this morning, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues in the elementary:

Dear colleagues,

I spent the better part of last week attending the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Washington, DC.  In a nutshell I would describe my experience there as stimulating, resonant and uplifting.  In contrast to typical professional development conferences, PoCC provides opportunities for educators to engage in conversations which begin with social identity (race, gender, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, etc.)  as the context for addressing the what and how of our work in school communities. Equity and social justice are on the table throughout the conference.

 

This means that participants have space to consider and celebrate the intricacies of individual identity and the tremendous wealth of our collective diversity.  In this conference I was encouraged to speak about my experience as an African-American woman working in a European international school setting and to welcome others to share their unique identity and context perspectives.

 

The conference boasts high levels of participation: just over 2300 adults and 1400 students who attended their own Student Diversity Leadership Conference.  The caliber of keynote speakers is outstanding. Over the three days we welcomed activist Daniel Hernandez, award winning author Junot Diaz, Congresswoman Dr. Marisa Richmond and NPR’s Michel Martin.  Additionally, I enjoyed the privilege of co-presenting a breakout session with 3  Klingenstein alumni of color on the benefits of our online coaching experience last spring.

 

My learning from this conference has been particularly valuable and rich. I invite you to ask me about it.  We all have complex and interesting identities which we bring to work every day and the astounding diversity we create and navigate in our school community is worthy of our reflection and celebration.  In closing the conference, Michel Martin encouraged each and every participant to “keep the conversation going.”  This message to all of you is a step in that direction.

 

Thank you and it is great to be back! J

Warmly,

Sherri

 

It occured to me during my long journey back home that I wanted to share my wins and discoveries from PoCC with colleagues and friends without overwhelming them.  That’s how I began crafting this message. The response has been remarkably positive and appreciative.  “Keep the conversation going”  provides a useful perspective on how to bring our best experiences back to our very unique communities.