Monday, November 16, 2009

Conferences for Teachers

Conferences can be helpful and they can be excruciating. Sometimes it hinges on the food and drink provided, sometimes it hinges on how big and therefore how diverse the offerings at the conference are, and other times it’s purely the location that is a draw. I’ve had the opportunity to attend and present at the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference for the past four years and got to a Kansas World Language Association a couple years ago as well. I found the key to be squeezing what I want out of them rather than assuming amazing things will be handed to me just for attending.

The German educators conference was a trip. I only attended one day of the conference at Washburn University in our state’s “great” capitol- the banquet and the presentation about German art in either the eighteenth or nineteenth century (I can’t quite recall). The prospect of missing work to spend a lot of time in the city was not too enticing, but I decided to go at the request of my cooperating teacher in the fall of my student teaching year. She thought it would be good for me to network in anticipation of the job search that spring and I took it as an opportunity to practice speaking German. It ended up being a pretty good time. At the end of it I’d had my fill eat and drink and had even had a little nap during the presentation- my graduate work, student teaching and work as a waiter had taken a toll on my sleep schedule. After the conference I was practically handed my own German program at a high school outside Topeka and would receive several other inquiries from principals around the state (I was the only graduate in the entire state with a major in German ed, as far as I know). Overall it was good and fine, but the goals of the conference didn’t quite reach me.

The NCSS conference can either be a waste of time or a great place to learn about the latest pedagogical tricks of the trade. You can walk away with a lot of great free stuff and materials and ideas about what education can be, should be, and is or you can walk away thinking you wasted an entire weekend listened to the sound of hot air being blown from teachers using the conference as a therapy session. Like retreats, they can also provide some time away from the front line to think about what it is we’re doing in this profession.

Learning to pick out the worthwhile sessions to attend is incredibly important. Here's my advice when you're trying to figure out what to do with your time:
  • Workshops are very often a waste of time…and long
  • You don’t need to attend every session- take a little time to read through the descriptions and find some sessions that are going to support what you’re doing in the classroom
  • Be weary of poster presentations. Those guys usually weren’t accepted for a full-fledged session- sometimes for a reason that'll be obvious once you hear what they want to tell you
  • Take some time to go through the exhibition hall to collect free classroom resources (ex. the History Channel has given me a free DVD a couple times); Check out opportunities to do things like travel for free and get grants for doing things you might already want to do.
If you’re in a school of ed, shoot for sessions that sound interesting to you and are related to state standards. My first conference I had zero teaching experience, so it was hard to put the ideas into a frame of reference that was practical, so I simply tried to take in everything I could. Don’t sweat it if you can’t do everything that looks half-ways interesting. You might have a shot at using some of the ideas. That way in your first year, when you’re clutching the textbook at night wondering how you can possibly implement more entertaining lessons, you might be able to fall back on an idea or two that are simply enough to implement. Starting small with those sorts of things is important. My first year I went to the NCSS conference I went to some crazy and crazy bad sessions that, while perhaps interesting, were completely forgettable and which I've not used at all.

The conference can also be a time to make connections with other people. Start up some conversations with people at the sessions you attend and at any meeting you attend. This year the president of a non-profit organization attended my session and we struck up a conversation about how to incentivize families throughout the U.S. to spend more time on their children’s education. That led to him asking me to check out a beta version of his companies new online resource that’s not been released yet. If I give him some good feedback there’s no telling what might happen afterward.

Find a balance between the city and the conference and spending money to attend (if you have to) will seem far better spent. Aside from actually attending the conference, you should go out and see the city it’s in. So far all four cities (D.C., San Diego, Houston, and Atlanta) were new to me when I attended the NCSS conference. This time I’ve not been able to see as much of the city as I would have liked because of the schedule of the things I wanted to attend at the conference itself, but I got some great soul food Friday night, and went to the Georgia Aquarium Sunday, which apparently is the largest in the world. There are some pretty unreal fish there, to say the least. Going to the Jimmy Carter Library and to Ebenezar Baptist Church will have to wait for another visit.

Today's Wine: The Chuck- Cabernet

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