Friday, January 29, 2016

Tips for attending Educon

Conference in session? At Educon, yes! Photo by Adam Provost, 2013

I'm been very lucky over the years to attend the Educon conference in Philly at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA). This, if memory serves, is my 7th... or 8th... or 9th time ; )

If you're new, or even if you're a veteran to Educon, here's a few tips that might help you.

It's January Philly weather
The conference is casual dress and Philly cold! If you're walking about Philly (which I'd recommend doing), dress for it or face the consequences of your decision ; )

(If you're here in 2017, you're in luck... it's warmer this year!)

Conference location...
The conference is held in the gritty school building called the Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  Amidst all it's imperfections you can see the heart and soul of of all the work they do there.  The facility isn't holding them back from innovating.  I can't tell you how refreshing I find this one simple fact.

Core Value posters, grade level themes, student art curation, and creativity are all on display.  It's all tied together in this 'the elegance of simplicity... and the hard work behind it.'

SLA is a 'student' school. It's a collaborative space.  The classrooms and hallways are utilized toward these collaborative goals. They paint, decorate and keep the space flexible. If it's still there this year, try to get a pic of the vending machine that's been commandeered to sell student writing.  I always look forward to seeing what's new.

Not Your Typical Sit and Git Conference (link to 2013 Edutopia Article on Educon)
Each session at Educon holds true to it's stated mission on the home page... Educon is about conversations.  Expect presenters to facilitate a conversations rather than 'present.' It's powerful beyond measure because it builds your thinking in many directions and you build off collective knowledge. The conference is built on everything the school does itself day to day via inquiry and project based education.

Look over the Conversations on the conference website before hand and map out some ideas of what you want to attend.  Likely you'll have a difficult time picking what you want to attend... and that's actually a great problem to have.

Don't be afraid to move around if something isn't resonating with you... or you want to take in two sessions of interest.

Conference website... 

Educon Account
Create an account on the conference website and toss up a profile.  It'll help you connect and meet people. I'd encourage you to check out the profiles of others as well. Very inspiring stuff.

Check the Meetups Page on the main conf site
You never know what meetups might be inspiring. Give it a look as the conf goes on too. People get inspired and add things as the event unfolds. Breakfast?

Who's Coming?
Check out the Who's Coming Page on the conf website and see who's attending. Those folks who inspire you on Twitter and in and blogs just might be at Educon. Introduce yourself, you know, in person! Find people, shake their hand and let them know how valuable their work is to you.

Dive into the social media #educon hurricane
The #educon hashtag usually rockets up the charts in the Twittersphere to become one of the most popular in the world over the duration of the conference.

During the panel discussion on Friday and throughout both conference days you'll see people crushing inspiration and insights into Twitter. My advice is to dive in and participate. #educon one of the best social media backchannel discussions in education going. The resources people post throughout the conference and afterward via reflective posts will provide you with ton of great material.

Take the opportunity via the #educon hashtag to follow new people on Twitter... and then try to meet them in person. #educon has expanded my PLN more than I could have hoped for over the years.

Take some time to like and share other people's posts that resonate with you. It all helps the conversations grow.

Educon has developed as a place to unpack ideas on equity and social justice and your role in it.  The discussions have grown over the last few years and I'd encourage you to dive in.  I gain each year from people leading these conversations and it helps me in immeasurable ways.  A few names to watch for: @RusulAlrubail@TheJLV@mdawriter@xianb8@audreywatters.  I'm very grateful for their work and resolve to bring this discussion forward in the world and at this conference. Check out their work and start reading in the #educolor movement. A movement, not a moment.

Try not to miss Friday...
Take a walk around the school. Dive in and take a student led tour. Talk with students and parents from the school and visit classes. Do a lot of listening and start soaking in all the things you see.

The teachers at SLA are collaborators.  Check out what's going on in classes.  I've been lucky to share and receive a tremendous amount of resources with these folks over the years. They are well versed in inquiry and project based ed, empowering student voice, and have great resources and insights.

Core Values and Grade level Themes. It's all on the wall at SLA. Picture from the Educon Flickr collaboration

Get to know the school systems at SLA
SLA has a hybrid block schedule, their advisory program rocks, they live by core values and grade level themes, and they dedicate time to meaningful PD time for teachers via 1/2 day combined with student Capstone projects. Other schools would do well to learn how much positive motion that short list can bring to education. Dig deep and learn what the elegance of simplicity and the hard work behind it are accomplishing.

Students and adults in the school are truly empowered. There are endless examples of this in their system. 

A bit more about advisory...
If you have a chance, dive deeper into how SLA handles advisory. It's really, no joke, the core of the school. Chris Lehmann says often, "we teach students, not subjects."  If you need some tips on how to make advisory move forward talk to Mary Beth Hertz aka @mbteach.

Go to the Friday night panel
Great thinkers, insights, and perspectives, snapping fingers.

The #educon hashtag goes on, and on, and...
For weeks after Educon people will be tossing up reflective posts online. It's a great chance to learn more about what's going on in other schools, finding people with like interests and recharging your batteries further. tThis conference will help you find strategies to make meaningful shifts in a small and large scale personally or systemically. Plus... it's a great way to get insight into sessions you didn't attend!

Saturday night social
Go! Dive in and gab and you'll have a great time. And... don't forget your credit card at closing if you open a tab ; )

Explore some Philly while you're here
Grab a cheesesteak, visit Reading Terminal Market, visit the Liberty Bell, Congress Hall, and (just to name a few) are all at your fingertips. Like any large city, there's some incredible food here, art, and museums. Use the Yelp app, check around.

Take Some Time to Reflect
Jot down your reflections from the conf on a blog during or after it's done and share it with others who follow online and / or attended via Twitter via the #educon hashtag. Start writing again if you haven't.

So there it is, a few quick tips.

As usual, I can't wait see some new and familiar faces and get inspired.  I come to Educon to recharge my batteries.  Hasn't failed me yet.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The 'Checklist' syndrome in schools

'Walk to Freedom, Detroit Michigan. Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

I received an 'advisory curriculum' once when I was a teacher.  "There are a lot of important issues to cover and advisory is the best place to do it" I was told.

Advisory at that time, so you know, was 20 minutes twice a week. Most agreed the time slot was ineffective but over multiple years the time was never adjusted rather reengineered over and over again.

I started flipping through the binder.

There was a calendar of 'suggestions.' One immediately stood out.

The Friday before the Martin Luther King Jr holiday I was asked to "play the famous I Have a Dream speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. in your advisory." Summarizing, it said 'We'd like to have a campus wide discussion on MLK .'

Functionally, with students coming into the room and preparing to leave Advisory was more like 15 minutes you actually had 'with' students. King's full speech is longer than 15 minutes. So... choose what to cover. Ok.

I kept looking though the binder. After the 'MLK Jr advisory' another unrelated topic was on the agenda. And another the next time. And another... and so on.

So... play the video clip or close to it and off you go. The 'discussion' part was left out.

I got to thinking of that 'advisory checklist' again when I read a great article called 'Teaching MLKs life --- The Man, Not the Myth' from Melinda D. Anderson aka @mdawriter.

MLK's life, mentors, work, goals, influence... is far more than just his 'I Have a Dream' speech. It's more than an item to check of a list' or to 'cover' and then get back to the curriculum.

I chose a different route for my advisory. I didn't play the video. Bandwidth was crushed in the school anyway because asking every teacher to stream a YouTube clip at the same time...

I asked the students in my advisory that day if they'd ever read King's full speech. Most hadn't so I encouraged them to do so some time in the near future. We spoke about 'advisory curriculum' briefly and the danger of discussing issues superficially. We started a conversation that day about social justice, white privilege and media coverage on these topics and discussed them on and off for the rest of the year... at the expense of nearly all the other subjects on the checklist.

I'll confess, most of the advisory time I spent getting to know students, finding out what was going on in their lives, helping them find connections in school and the community, and helping them learn to advocate for themselves and interests.

Of course... I was hesitant to jot this down and share. My citing MLK this time of year isn't just for effect or to forward my own agenda, as Jose Vilson eloquently points out.

I guess I'm just discouraged... because I still see so many one and done, curriculum coverage checklists in education.

King's work was far greater than one speech. His message was far more than something to check off a list in a one and done conversation.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The ill planned consequences of Act 46 in Vermont

Ask anyone in Vermont public schools and they'll give you an earful about Act 46 legislation currently brewing in Vermont.

The essence of the Act 46 plan makes sense: Merge small school districts into larger ones. There are a lot of benefits to that as spending in Vermont education continues to rise while enrollment declines. Merging some management costs and oversight has benefits.

But there's a troubling / devastating thread to Act 46 as well.

There are financial cap spending limits within Act 46 that are proving more than challenging aka crushing. With rising healthcare costs and obligations to pay salary increases contractually, Act 46 spending caps are wreaking havoc on school budgets, kids opportunities and those who support student learning. Especially for schools with renovation plans, where enrollment is actually increasing, or with very diverse populations that require large ELL programs. 

Many districts are trying to be as thoughtful as they can. Some  will succeed on some levels. But... I'm listening to schools throughout Vermont who are cutting to their contractual obligations and seniority. Valuable support programs for kids and families and creative programs are being cut. Many are preparing to RIF some excellent new teachers. Many places are casting aside plans they've made to upgrade and renovate learning spaces.

The legislation was well intended... but not well thought out.

There was some hope that Act 46 may be modified in time for schools to avoid dramatic cuts... but now it appears no changes will be made to Act 46 prior to school budgets being submitted. 

“Too often we look for rapid short-term solutions without realizing all the consequences, and I believe that’s what the spending caps turned out to be,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden.

We can do better.

More people can be involved in planning more thoughtfully. These decisions can be made with school leaders rather than at them.

Decisions like this can be in line with school budget and planning cycles instead of making them reactive. They can be planned into contract negotiations.

Public education remains one of our most valuable resources.

We just have to remind legislators not to make these decisions in vacuums.