Conferences Done Right

I recently attended The Learning and the Brain Conference(LATB18) in Boston with a team of administrators and left feeling inspired, enlightened, and ready to go to battle with my team in an effort to make our District better for kids.

The team consisted of the Superintendent, Director of Technology, Director of Special Education, and Alternative School Principal.  Joining us and serving as our driver was the Superintendent’s husband, Peter, a school social worker, who was able to take the trek because the conference fell on a school holiday backed up against the weekend.  

Peter is a great guy, is fun to be around, and has a good sense of humor. This made him a great choice as a driver for the weekend in his large white van. This was convenient, but it is a bit awkward when we get some sideways stares from leery parents as this big, white, beat up van comes limping down their neighborhood street.

As I said Peter is a great guy, but, as a driver, this former NYC taxi cabby….not so much.  I knew it was going to be an interesting trip when pulling out of the District office, Peter missed T-boning another car by a fraction of an inch. Ed, the usually stoic tech director, let out a little “yelp” as he quickly realized how close he was to leaving his three young boys fatherless.

It was a harrowing ride, but we made it Copley Square in time for a group dinner at a sushi restaurant.  This would be the first meal of many; the first hours of the 95 we would be spending together during this weekend learning and bonding.

I had been to many conferences before coming to North Rockland, but in North Rockland it is a completely different experience. Attending a conference with Illy, the name everyone in North Rockland affectionately calls our Superintendent Ileana Eckert, is different.

It is an all-immersive, relationship building experience.  When you go to a conference with Illy you pretty much spend the entire time together as a team. You eat all meals together; you meet in the lobby to walk to the conference hall together. And, you always participate in some sort of local entertainment after the learning is done for the day. This trip, it was a Celtics game during their historic win streak.

I remember the first conference I attended with her. I was a bit shocked by all of the “togetherness” and was exhausted when I got home. Illy is always up for anything, believes in people, and never gets tired. I like to think of myself as someone with a good “motor”, but I can barely keep up with her.  Even more impressive is that no matter what we do or what happens, she always has a smile on her face.

I knew what to expect this time because it wasn’t my first rodeo.  It has been a long time since my first conference with her. What I have learned since that first conference experience “The Illy Way” is that there is no other way to do it.

Conferences have not only helped me to learn and grow as a professional, but strengthen relationships, brainstorm excellent ideas, and help my teammates grow in a more effective manner.

The first day of the conference started with us meeting for breakfast at Au Bon Pain, which was stationed conveniently in the lower portion of the hotel.  

While enjoying the carb loaded breakfast we reviewed the offerings that included a wide variety of amazing speakers such as Heidi Hayes Jacob, Mark Barnes (founder of the Hack Education series) Eric Sheninger, Angela Stockman, and Daniel Willingham to name a few.  

Our excitement built as we employed a “divide and conquer” strategy to enable us to get the most out of the conference and see as many speakers as possible.  

We created a shared folder in Google Team Drive called LATB18 that would let us organize and collaborate on the notes and materials we gathered.  We also created a Padlet that would let us house quotes, videos, and pictures that we could use back in North Rockland with the various groups we all lead.

The amount of valuable information that is obtained at a good conference can be overwhelming.  The biggest challenge is to organize the ideas generated and access them at the appropriate times.

Recently, I started to utilize Google Keep to help me with this process.  It’s so simple to use and this little trick has saved me so much time.

The steps I follow are:

  • I highlight the portion of my notes
  • Right click and select save to Google Keep Notepad
  • Then I can label the note to find it when I need it

I use labels such as:

  • Activities for Administrators
  • Activities for New Teacher Meetings
  • Ideas for New Initiatives
  • New Tech Tools
  • Inspirational Videos

This is a tip that can easily be used to find and filter information as you see fit.

The morning sessions went quickly and I left feeling motivated to utilize and share some of the important information I had accumulated.  

Chromebooks have made learning not only much more enjoyable for me, but easier for me to find what I am looking for when I need it. I love adding pictures, illustrations, and links to the videos, books, and websites mentioned by the presenter.  It has become somewhat of a challenge for me and some of my colleagues to create the most useful, interactive, and attractive notes of the various sessions we attend.  Here is an example.

I have come a long way from the chicken scratch (what my teachers in grades K-12 called my handwriting) notes that I took the first few conferences I attended.

We shared the best information each of us had discovered over a decent lunch at California Kitchen.  The conversation was education related, philosophy related, and specific to how we may utilize some of what we learned in our unique District.  

Lunch was not relegated strictly to edu-talk.  We learned about each other’s family, childhood, and past career adventures. I even shared that I was a difficult child and somewhat of a nightmare for my teachers in school.  I thought this would be a surprise to the group and when my comment was met with silence and a few head dips, I was a bit perplexed.

That was until the always professional and usually reserved  Superintendent smirked and stated, “No sh**^ Sherlock”.

Our table burst into laughter, getting us a few dirty looks from some of the older diners. We had shared a genuine “LOL” moment.

The next three days were more of the same.  Learning, laughing, and, most importantly, getting to know each other on a different level.

We had the opportunity to break bread with one of the presenters, Angela Stockman, who turned us on to not only a different mindset for teaching writing, but to, perhaps more importantly, the amazing cooking tool, the Insta-pot!   

I found out that one of my colleague’s family raised foster children from Vietnam. His father was a Vietnam Vet and felt it was important to show those children love.  I found out that one of our team members took care of his sick aunt who lived in Schenectady,  and that one member of the team had overcome a learning disability, which inspired them to make schools better for kids.  

The tech tools I discovered were amazing, the strategies of how to “Make Writing” were inspirational,  and the information on robotics, DNA, and A.I. was fascinating.  Yes, all of that learning was great, but, honestly, the best part of the conference was laughing, sharing, and getting to know the team better.

Long after Voxer is replaced by the next tech tool I will still have the connections I made with a group of educators I respect. Our team will still know that we are all in this together and, together, we can improve education.

On the last morning when we met in the lobby we were a bit tired and maybe even a bit sad that this learning adventure was over.  We were also a bit anxious to re-enter the big white van with Peter behind the wheel.

Yet we all felt inspired.  

We were inspired to share what we had learned, inspired to make our District a better place for students and inspired because we knew we would be working together as Sheninger said in turning all of the “Yeah Buts” into “What ifs”.  

In fact, we were so inspired that we spent the majority of the six-plus hour car ride home planning our next Administrative Leaning Forum (ALF).  This ALF session was extremely well received by our administrators. In fact, they said it was one of the best we had ever had!

To think all we needed was a hot spot, our Chromebooks, our ideas, some teamwork, and for Peter to keep us in one piece.  

Even though the content was great, what made this special was the fact that a group of individuals who had just spent 95 hours together developed a special bond that brought the best out in each and every one of us. This confirmed for me what we all already know, or should know.

There is nothing more important than relationships.