Last year, our district sent a handful of teachers, administrators, and board members to the Model Schools Conference (MSC) in Nashville. We, like most other districts, have goals of raising the bar for achievement within our district. We want to empower everyone, including our students, to have higher expectations in the form of rigorous and relevant education.
What caught me off guard was the size of the conference. I was not expecting to be surrounded by 5,000 other educators! But I learned that being caught off guard has its benefits—it builds curiosity and desire to understand more. Here’s an example of a speaker who caught me off guard: Temple Grandin—a person with autism, ”the autism” spokeswoman, and professor of animal science in Colorado—was giving a keynote and talking about her childhood. She would veer off and start talking about her livestock work, which led her to talking about something in her teenage years that tied back into her childhood. The entire time she was speaking her stories were intricately tied together, a braided timeline, if you will. And this is where being off guard comes in. At first I was thinking, what a cool keynote; I’m not yet sure what it has to do with education, but I am hooked. When she was done, I realized that she was there not to teach me about humane slaughtering of cows, although I did learn a lot about that industry, but rather to show us all a simply beautifully woven mind. Immediately, I thought about my kids with IEPs who are on the spectrum and I wondered about their struggles. I realized that not all of them are challenged intellectually; rather they don’t always walk a straight line from point A to point B like we ask them to. Then I thought about how beautiful their minds are to do this waltz to get from point A to point B, and I started exploring how this can translate in my teaching world. These are the genuine, organic reactions to being caught off guard.
However, being caught off guard in other ways can challenge learning and our ability to take in new information, process it, and synthesize it. Below are some of my “aha” moments and tips for newbies attending MSC to help you make the most of this amazing learning experience.
How did we survive before apps?! Whatever task we need to accomplish, we can find in the twitch of a nose, or downloading of an app, wifi permitting, of course! Need directions, lesson plans, instant news, a selfie with puppy ears? It is all right there under our noses. Some of these apps are downloaded and quickly forgotten, but some are invaluable! This is the case with the MSC App.
Make sure to download the app BEFORE the conference. In this app you can view all of the sessions, create a schedule, connect with other attendees, view a map of the conference, and much more. The map was a welcome option for me, as I am chronically lost. Trying to find a session amidst 5,000 new friends in convention center hallways that all look the same can be overwhelming. The map in the app alleviates that frustration. Plan your routes ahead of time and it is smooth sailing. It was also useful to have during the pre-conference scheduling times. I was able to make sure that I didn't set myself up to being late by choosing two sessions that were far apart. I also strongly recommend that you have alternate choices. With so many great sessions and topics to choose from, having a back-up option ensures that you don’t waste a time slot if you can’t make it from one end of the conference to another.
Divide and Conquer
If you are fortunate enough to go in a group either from your site or from your district, be sure to have a plan. Meet before the conference and create your schedules together! This accomplishes a few things. First, it will get your team excited about the conference. Second, you have a chance to set a goal or a focus prior to the event, which can result in more fruitful discussions post-conference. Third, you can make sure your team is hitting as many different sessions as possible to return to your district with the most beneficial knowledge and the best ROI. Another thing to consider is setting up a time to meet in the evenings to share and process what was learned—new innovations, practical strategies that are easily implemented, content knowledge, and so much more. Consider also setting up a shared slide presentation that each member of the team can add to throughout the conference so you’ll have a starting point for delivering great PD when you get back to your district.
Even if you are a lone ranger from your district, you’re never really alone at MSC. In your sessions, introduce yourself to the people around you and create an on-site team. You can have share-outs and create lasting connections with like-minded educators! Which brings me to the next tip.
Advice to engage in a network of like-minded educators was brought up more than a few times at MSC and you should do just that! I tried to arrive 5 to 10 minutes early for every session I attended, not only because I was raised to believe that early is on time and on time is late, but because I had ulterior motives. I wanted to start growing my network! I wanted to be able to collaborate with educators who are as passionate as I am. We exchanged emails and social media information, with two great results: I have been able to reach out to my network and ask about implementation modifications made, ways to grow rigor, and other details. And my social media feeds have dramatically changed to serve as a tool for growth in my practice. My new educator friends and I share articles, lessons, and many topics that keep my feed education focused. It has been incredibly motivational!
Take in Tech Talks
Tech Talks are really cool breakout groups that occur during longer breaks between more formal sessions. I referred to them as Hallway Breakouts. I didn’t know how much I was going to love these! I first discovered Tech Talks when I sat down on a little couch in the lobby to rest and check my phone until my next scheduled session; before I knew it I was surrounded by other people and all of a sudden another session started! This particular session was focused on Alternative Seating (hence, the cute little couch!). During my 12 years in education, I had always used the standard desks—I think a lot of us stick with what is easy and familiar. But as this principal spoke, he told us about how effective alternative seating has been at his site and explained to us how he went about setting up classrooms with the help of other teachers and a couple of hardware store donations. I was really moved by the videos he showed us! I am proud to say that I took this back and immediately started working on it! I went to garage sales, asked for donations, and stopped at more than a few curbs to claim disowned furniture. I am still growing my hodgepodge collection, but today I have a table with shortened legs where the kids can sit criss-cross applesauce with an area rug underneath, and I have three padded benches, a recliner, bar stools, and a couple of padded dinner table chairs. There are still standard tables and chairs, too, for the traditional student. The impact is huge—so many kids have told me that they love my room and the way it makes them feel!
This is the best part about MSC: Even when you think you are on a break, relaxing, you might learn something that can impact your teaching from that point forward. I am so excited to return to MSC in Orlando this June 24–27 and hope that I might have the opportunity to meet some of you there!