Professional development conferences and workshops offer opportunities for educators to get together and grow their craft. During my 9 years as an Alternative HS Science Teacher and 13½ years as an IB Middle School Librarian I attended several professional conferences:
- CAST, the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching is the annual meeting of STAT, Science Teachers Association of Texas , 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.
- AASL National Conference & Exhibition is the American Association of School Librarians (a division of American Library Association) national conference held every two years specifically for school librarians.
- TLA Annual Conference presented by the Texas Library Association is the largest statewide library conference in the country.
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 something of value I can use with my students. And, of course, there is 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 left is some great advice from Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy. (click image to enlarge)
MEMORABLE CONFERENCE SESSIONS
I have three “most memorable” sessions from conferences. The first was at NSTA in a room with perhaps 50-60 people. The presenter came to the podium and started with, “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 make sure 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 were 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!
The third was when I presented at a TLA Conference in Dallas back in 2002. The WWW was still young and librarians were anxious to “get online.” 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 some 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 focus on a particular topic or develop specific skills. More than training sessions, workshops help us develop actual lessons that we can implement when we walk into our classrooms.
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 to help librarians integrate more reading into their schools. Every year I attend a Library Expo, sponsored by our 2 regional Education Service Centers and 3 local school districts. This 1-day event has a morning and 2 afternoon workshops, with a Vendor Fair throughout the day.
The sharing that takes place during these workshops is very personal and allows for deeper discussions that aren’t possible during a large conference. I also have more continued interactions with colleagues I meet through workshops than through conferences.
BEST EVENT EVER
Hands down, the best event I’ve ever attended didn’t 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 learned he’d be in Dallas, I couldn’t resist signing up.
Tufte collects rare old books, and during his presentation he showed us a ~400-yr-old reprint of Euclid’s geometry, with little foldables that were still glued to the page (Elmer’s & SuperGlue, take that!). The highlight was from his Galileo’s History and Demonstration Concerning Sunspots from 1613. One of his graduate students had scanned the sunspot pictures and made them into a video; as 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!
Tufte is my go-to guy for presenting information and I’ve used his Galileo video with my students. Middle school students are so amazed when I help them realize we are looking at something that was never seen before and hasn’t been seen since, because sunspots change all the time! This is a powerful content lesson to use with science classes studying earth sciences.
THE FUTURE OF PROFESSIONAL LEARNING
Online Web services are, I believe, the future of professional learning. With travel and hotel costs rising and school budgets shrinking, online videoconferencing 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 already offered for local or state educators, which increases their value for immediate use in the classroom. The key to the success of these virtual forums is providing the camaraderie typical of professional conferences.
More abundant and popular are online workshops and courses. Webinars, video presentations, and discussion forums (or Facebook groups) with loose or self-paced schedules provide educators worldwide with learning opportunities. Often digital badges can be earned and displayed as part of our professional portfolio along with online documents we’ve created from coursework.
One summer I took 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 was very appealing, but we have to be sure we are receiving a quality learning experience, so getting recommendations from colleagues is essential.
Whether face-to-face or online, conferences and workshops will continue to enhance the professional development of educators. I always learn more than I anticipate, and every learning experience helps me contribute more to students, teachers, and other School Librarians.
I would agree on the professional opportunities online (plus, as an attendee of ALA’s annual conference, the amount of colleagues who would have loved to have gone but have FOMO can benefit from gaining the same knowledge, without the expense of travel).