After a two year hiatus, I have decided to start blogging again (WIN!). I have found in the past that I sometimes struggled to find my voice, but my most recent visit to EDUCON 2.6 in Philadelphia, and some slight arm twisting by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), has renewed my will to share my humble opinions with the World Wide Web.
And he is absolutely right. EDUCON is about the collective intelligence of passionate educators from across the globe who come together because a group of students, some parents, and a dedicated Principal named Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) invited them to. Take a moment to hear Chris talk about his vision of education in this short video, and you will instantly understand why SLA (Science Learning Academy) is such a special school with him at the helm.
What makes EDUCON such a special conference though isn't the all star cast of attendees (I was a little star struck when I saw Will Richardson (@Willrich45) walk in as a participant and not the main Keynote Speaker). It is the SLA students that make this conference/school so intriguing.
First at the top of the list is Amy, a sophomore at SLA who gave me an initial tour of the school. Amy was polite, self-aware, and friendly. She was very positive when speaking of her teachers and her peers, and was very excited about showing us around. You could tell that Amy was proud to be a student at SLA, and she loved being at school and learning about different subjects even though they weren't always easy.
SLA is about developing a culture and fostering dispositions. I was trying to understand what some of the sanctions where when students would skip class or arrive late to their next period (since SLA has no bells, I figured this happened a lot), and most students didn't understand what I meant. One student even told me:
"Skip class?! Why would I do that? That's just disrespectful... and besides... I like my classes."
Can someone please pinch me. This demeanour seemed to be contagious, since all students I was able to speak with seemed to genuinely love their classes and their school experience at SLA. Just look at this High Quality Compliment wall that was up on the second floor. Students were invited to leave compliments for other classmates and/or build on compliments that were already up. Imagine starting your day with a new compliment. Imagine how much more you want to be part of an institution that positively reinforces the person you are becoming.
When I was a classroom teacher, I felt as though I was pretty wise for giving a general theme to each of my courses. For example, the theme to my grade 11 English course was the nature of man. Whether or not the Math class down the hall spoke about the nature of man to students was of little concern to me. At SLA, they have assigned big ideas for each grade level. These big ideas guide each of the projects that the students must complete throughout the semester. Because of this, teachers at SLA don't need to seek out interdisciplinary relations; the students can make these connections for themselves.
After the tour of the school, conference attendees were invited to a panel discussion at the Franklin Institute on Openness and Transparency in the digital age. The Panel featured people of interest such as Kin Lane (@kinlane) and Jamie Casap (@jcasap). The discussion started with an acute focus on MOOCs, but was able to move on to more conceptual themes such as what it means to be transparent and open in the digital age. The panel was quite fruitful and the Twitter backchannel was trending in less than 5 minutes. Needless to say, the panel set the tone for a very promising conference.
The opening Keynote for day one was Richard Culata (@rec54) who is Acting Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education. His message can be summed up by a statement he made near the end of his allocution:
"Nothing makes me angrier than seeing teachers create problem sets rather than using problems that are already out there."
The different sessions I attended throughout the weekend were all about Design Thinking and prototyping. All of the sessions were dynamic and invited a lot of participation. Nevertheless, it was the culture of SLA that stole the show at EDUCON. Nothing blew me away more than to speak with the teachers, students, and parents who made this school a living organism of learning.
At the start of the weekend I had an aside with Christian Long (@christianlong), one of the speakers and vice-president of The Third Teacher +. Christian was explaining to me the importance trying to have a bigger impact on my District. Without criticism, he communicated that I might be selling myself short on my initiatives, since I didn't believe I could tackle the real issues at hand. I kept coming back to small scale initiatives, when he believed what I REALLY wanted to do had a deeper meaning and a broader scope.
Coming back to work on Monday morning I caught a Twitter post that Christian shared with his followers:
This post got me thinking about our conversation on the Friday before EDUCON. Throughout the day I reflected back on my experience in preparation to writing this Blog post. I thought about how the conference lacked a bit of structure and was at times unapologetically messy - although no one seemed to mind and everything followed the schedule well enough. I thought about how the school looked a bit tattered and plain - But the students were happy and learning was obviously prevalent. I thought for a split second about how my District might be able to organize something like EDUCON, and how the students from my District could be just as enthused by their learning experience as the students from SLA seemed to be.
That's when I got it. That's when the fire in me was lit (had to sneak Promethean in there).
EDUCON isn't a conference - It's a mindset. EDUCON is an eternal prototype of people coming together to improve rather than preach - to celebrate rather than point fingers - to learn rather than educate.
EDUCON isn't over because the weekend came to an end. For this first time attendee, EDUCON is just beginning.