Professional development conferences offer opportunities for educators to get together and grow their craft. During my 23 years as an Alternative HS Science Teacher and an IB Middle School Librarian I’ve attended a number of professional conferences:
- CAST, the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching is the annual meeting of STAT, the Science Teachers Association of Texas is the nation’s largest statewide meeting of Science Teachers.
- NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, hosts a national conference on science education, three area conferences, and a STEM Forum & Expo.
- TAAE, Texas Association for Alternative Education, presents its Annual Conference, the largest (and best) alternative education conference.
- TLA Annual Conference presented by the Texas Library Association is the largest statewide library conference in the country.
- Library Expo, sponsored by two local school districts, is a 1-day event offering a morning and 2 afternoon workshops, along with a Vendor Fair throughout the day.
Some of the above I attended just once, but some are so valuable I attend every year. I can honestly say that I have learned abundantly at every single one. Even when attending a session on a topic with which I am very familiar, I always pick up some nugget of value that I can take back and use with my students. And, of course, there is always the Vendor Hall which is lined with curriculum, tech tools, and fun activities and accessories! In a vendor drawing at one CAST conference I won a combination aquarium that had fish, frogs, and plants. It was fascinating to my students for several years and when I moved to the library I donated it to another science teacher (only because I couldn’t find a convenient place in the library to plug it in!).
BTW, if you’re planning to attend a conference anytime soon, at right is some great advice from Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy.
I have two “most memorable” sessions from conferences. The first was in a large room with perhaps 50-60 people. The presenter came to the podium and the first words out of his mouth were, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten a job because you passed a state test.” Not a single hand was raised, but there was a lot of laughter. That was just the beginning of the standardized testing trend, but the comment has stayed with me, so whether as Science Teacher or School Librarian, I’ve made sure my lessons focus on practical application of concepts to our normal everyday life.
The second “memorable session” was at a TLA conference where I attended a presentation by Joyce Valenza and in attendance was Shonda Brisco—my two Librarian gurus in the same room and afterward I met them both! I was so in awe of these two red-headed library-tech mavens that I could barely find words—which is pretty rare for a blabbermouth like me!
I, myself, was able to present back in 2002 at the TLA Conference in Dallas. The WWW was still young and librarians were anxious to “get online” so I presented “How to Build a Library Web Presence with Netscape” during the Net Fair. It was a very rewarding experience and I was able to help a few folks develop their library websites during the hands-on session following my 20-minute presentation.
Professional Learning Workshops
While the excitement and camaraderie of conferences is extraordinary, I feel it is surpassed by the benefits of professional learning workshops. These are single- or multi-day sessions that are focused on a particular topic or developing specific skills. I attended a couple science ones and, as a middle school librarian, attended International Baccalaureate® and Texas IB Schools workshops as well as a local workshop sponsored by ALA for librarians who wanted to integrate more reading into their schools.
More than training sessions, workshops help us develop actual lessons that we can implement when we walk into our classrooms. The sharing that takes place during these sessions is very personal and allows us to discuss things with a depth that can’t be achieved during a large conference. I have also had more continued interactions with colleagues I met through workshops than through conferences.
Best Event Ever
I must admit that the best event I’ve ever attended didn’t actually have much to do with education: a 1-day course by Edward Tufte on “Presenting Data and Information.” Once I heard about and read his Visual Display of Quantitative Information book, I had to get his (at that time) other two, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. This man is a master of putting complex statistical information into a graphical display that makes sense for everyone, so when I found out he’d be in Dallas, I couldn’t resist signing up.
Tufte collects old books, and during his presentation he showed us a ~400-yr-old reprint of Euclid’s geometry—with little foldables that still were glued down to the page (Elmer’s & SuperGlue, take that!)—and also Galileo’s (in Italian) History and Demonstration Concerning Sunspots from 1613. One of his graduate students had scanned the sunspot pictures and pulled them together into a video; when he showed it to us I realized I was looking at our sun 400 years ago, just as Galileo had seen it! Yes, best event ever!
[You can see this yourself on Academo.org!]
The Future of Professional Development
Web presence is, I believe, the key to conferences continuing to enhance and improve education. With travel and hotel costs rising and school budgets shrinking, online conferencing is increasing every year. This isn’t just Twitter-ing about what’s going on at a regular conference, but rather holding an entire conference online through virtual connections and chat sessions. Many of these are for local or state educators, which increases their value for standards-based application.
Even more abundant and popular are online workshops and courses. Video presentations and discussion forums (or Facebook groups) with loose or self-paced schedules provide educators a worldwide learning opportunity; digital badges can be earned and displayed as part of our professional portfolio along with the online documents we’ve created from the learning.
For summer 2017 I’m taking 4 online courses: one to better integrate technology into my Library Lessons, one to create better videos and presentations, and 2 to enhance my online presence through Pinterest and Twitter. The cost and flexibility of these courses is very appealing, but we have to be sure we are really getting a quality learning experience, so getting recommendations from colleagues is essential. I’ve already learned a lot more than I anticipated, and am excited to see what I can contribute to educators by the end of the summer!