This is the first post in a two-part summary of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s 2009 annual conference. My personal reflections on learning will come in part two. I also have a few interviews and session summaries (for those presentations I didn’t live-blog) that I’ll be incorporating into blog content later on.
The ASCD conference was held this year at the Orlando Convention Center, which is a facility of astronomical proportions and completely devoid of moving walkways. The journey from the parking lot to the exhibition hall is a good fifteen minutes at a very brisk pace, and it could easily take that long to get from one session to another if you don’t understand the building’s layout.
At least, that’s what the soles of my feet said.
During the first few hours of the conference, I found myself wandering a bit, trying to get my bearings and figure out how to get from point A to point B. I would have liked an ASCD rep or volunteer to be stationed on each of the three floors to help participants find rooms and locations in the building, at least for the first morning of the conference. (There was an excellent and well-marked information booth, if you knew how to find it.) Because of the vastness of the facility, it would have also been helpful to have conference doors labeled with the name and time of the current session. I noticed many attendees squinting around as they wandered into rooms, trying to determine if they were in the right place. And since there were many sessions that overlapped, not having marked doors made it difficult for participants to try to catch the last forty-five minutes of a different session without consulting the massive program book.
There were an astounding number of concurrent sessions at almost any given moment during the day, and all of us carried those program books around like they were the ASCD Bible. A CD-ROM was included this year (which was a very welcome addition, despite the fact that it did not run properly on Macs) and of course the guide was available online. One highly notable presenter admitted to me that she was a bit ticked off that the guide was not searchable by presenter name (you could find the names of those presenting in an index, but there were only session numbers, no page numbers, days/times of sessions, or session titles). I am confident that her session would have been standing-room-only if participants had realized who was presenting. In addition to featuring the presenters more clearly, I also think it would have been helpful if the program book had labeled certain sessions (especially tech workshops) with icons to specify the level of expertise so participants could find sessions with a good personal fit.
I spent an hour and a half on Saturday night with my new best friend, the ASCD program book, trying to plan where I wanted to be on Sunday. My intense micro-management was ludicrous but effective: 2:15 stop by this room to meet a favorite author; 2:25 talk with rep at publication house about collaborative work; 2:45 check out the beginning of one session and live-blog, 3:15 duck out and catch the end of another before interviewing a presenter at 4:45. Every moment was filled with the opportunity to interact with and learn from some of the greatest thinkers in the field of education, and I didn’t want to waste a second. This was especially true since 2009 was the first year that non-traditional media (i.e. influential bloggers) were given press passes, and I wanted to take full advantage of ASCD’s gracious invite.
I sat in on at least 16 sessions, and all provided genuinely useful information in a polished, professional way. Participants pay a lot of money to attend ASCD events: they expect high-quality professional development, and in my observation, they got it. (You can read some of my session notes here at In Practice.)
The only significant flaw I noticed with some of the sessions was the disconnect between the title/description and the actual content of the presentation. Because proposals must be submitted 10 months in advance, it’s logical to presume that presenters will modify and improve their work prior to conference time. However, some presenters seemed to change the content and delivery to such an extent that the original topic was barely discernible. A few may have written the proposal that ASCD wanted, and then proceeded to implement whatever they felt like doing (sound familiar, classroom teachers?). This was a concern with nearly every participant I spoke with. An attendee from Ohio told me, “It was disappointing to waste time with something that wasn’t what I thought, when there were so many other options.” Many presenters did not have enough handouts for every participant, which made it even more difficult to track the sessions’ focus and direction.
Nearly all of the sessions included multi-media presentations, and about half of the trainings I attended included short video clips from YouTube and other video sites. Sometimes this added value to the session; many times it served only to give participants a break from lecture. There was a wide variety of teaching styles amongst the various presenters, and the program book helpfully specified what percentage of interaction each presenter would include. In the highly interactive presentations, participants were required to talk about what they were learning. Most people were amiable about this, but some around me were irritated. At one point, I was sitting near a curriculum specialist from Texas who rolled her eyes and said, “I paid money to hear [the presenter] speak, not to hear myself talk. I want to know more about this topic, but I don’t want it to be so interactive.” Personally, I felt the same way: I like presentations to be fast-paced, hard-hitting, and full of information. I don’t like a lot of jokes, asides, activities, or pauses for reflection and interaction.
But my experience was markedly different from that of non-bloggers: I didn’t have to wait for a presenter’s prompt so I could actively construct knowledge. During most sessions, I was doing the following things concurrently (listed in the order of priority):
1) listening to/watching the presentation
3) scanning Tweetdeck
4) following #ASCD and #ASCD09 hashtags on separate twitter searches
5) tracking other ASCD live-blogs/Ustreams and commenting
6) viewing wikis from other sessions
This is in addition to responding to email, moderating blog comments, posting Facebook updates about the conference, etc. So naturally, a directive to “stand up and raise your hand if…” was a bit of a distraction for me. I’m sure those activities (which were perfectly valid and research-based) were more valuable for those participants who were attending solely to the presenter.
Live-blogging was an amazing experience that fit well with my personal learning style. It was so valuable that I can’t help but consider how much deeper the learning would have been for other (like-minded) participants if they were synthesizing while learning, instead of sitting passively until commanded to interact. Taking the initiative to interact on one’s own, at a level of engagement appropriate to the individual, seems like a more beneficial practice. Of course, there is something to be said for focusing deeply on one thing at a time, and some people don’t learn well when their attention is divided. But I believe there are many people who process information the way I do; they just haven’t been shown how to incorporate online communities into their current learning habits and processes. I hope that in time, as educators become more comfortable with technology, professional development will move down this path.
Imagine a workshop in which participants don’t have to raise their hand and wait to be acknowledged by the presenter in order to share an idea or ask a question. Picture a session in which both literal and virtual participants are reflecting constantly with one another and collaboratively making connections to their own understanding. Because of social media, I had a glimpse of this experience at ASCD09, and it was absolutely exhilarating.
The association went to great expense to offer wireless Internet service throughout the conference facility, and we techies absolutely RAVED about this provision in a meeting with some of the organization’s leaders. I am thrilled to know that ASCD has every intention of providing wireless service at future conventions, because I am confident that with each gathering, more and more educators will be engaging online.
It took HOURS for me to visit every vendor in the exhibition hall.
Newsflash: Teachers will take anything that’s free. A paper clip? I’ll have two!
In the meantime, I am acutely aware that the experience of those who were offline (the vast majority of participants, at least during sessions) was vastly different from my own. I viewed the conference through the lens of someone connected to the online community, and it enhanced my experience of this conference tenfold. Like many participants, I attended the conference by myself. But I was able to connect with new people at ASCD by following their tweets, then arranging to meet within the convention hall. What about the 98% of attendees who weren’t doing this? What about those who attended the conference with their co-workers, staying in their own little cliques and conversing mostly with people they already knew? They didn’t have any method (that I’m aware of) for casual networking, and as a result, I missed out on connecting with them. We were ships passing in the night: unless we struck up a conversation randomly (which is hard for a lone individual to do when approaching a group), a real connection was difficult to make.
What if there was some sort of forum for participants to interact informally with one another outside of the sessions? A social networking place, a Twitter in real life? Or, as another attendee suggested, what if there was more of an effort to draw the off-line attendees in, a blogger cafe similar to the one at NECC? This would help bring more educators into the 21st century fold, familiarizing them with and helping them implement the instructional technology ideas they can learn in the conference.
The dilemma of how to connect participants to one another so they can share in learning isn’t a new one, nor is it an easy concern to address, but it’s certainly worth considering. I believe that the Internet will play the primary role in this advancement. And the best part is, ASCD is totally on board and excited to be doing whatever they can to promote social media amongst educators.
The participants, presenters, and exhibitors as a whole were were an amazing group of people. It was inspiring to be surrounded by so many incredibly accomplished and knowledgeable educators. The type of thinking that goes on at an ASCD conference is truly astounding, and it will take much longer than two days for me to really absorb and process everything that I learned. There was a intense meeting of the minds at this conference, and the exchange of ideas we’ve experienced has the capacity to transform our educational communities in a powerful way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my big take-away from the conference. I’ve definitely come back with some new understandings that influenced my teaching the moment I stepped back into the classroom…and I’ve seen immediate results in my students’ behavior and depth of understanding. Even more than that, I’ve experienced a shift in what I see as my personal vision and plan for mastery. There’s been some cognitive dissonance this weekend, and that’s resulted in some deep shifts in what I believe and how I plan to influence others.
It all comes down to this: I’m asking better questions, and I’m more connected to people who can encourage and inspire me to discover the answers. I don’t think I could gain anything more important from a conference.
This post was cross-posted at my own site, The Cornerstone Blog. Please check back for part two of the ASCD summary, in which I’ll explore what I’ve learned personally from attending the conference and how I’m changing my perspective and instruction.