Back to Teaching, Post-EduCon 2.3

Although I would have posted this last night upon returning from EduCon, Sara and I found ourselves rerouted by Delta and not arriving home until about 2AM. So, a little time to sleep this morning (in fact, very little) and a little time to think about this all day today has now brought me back to my computer tonight, and I am reading a flurry of tweets and posts, post-EduCon. In particular, Liz B. Davis shared her “EduCon Struggle” with a thoughtful follow-up from Chris Lehmann, among others, and Bud just asked for our “educontext” in a tweet just a while ago.

So, where am I at in my “educontext?” Well, with encouraging words from both Sara and Liz to share my thoughts, here is where I was at 24 hours ago, when composing a draft on a plane, with a few more comments below.

My second visit to EduCon (and third visit to Philly) in three years gave my time to reconnect with many progressive minds in the education and edtech world, including many NWP colleagues whose support made my presentation on Because Digital Writing Matters a success (see our shared Google Doc for details from the session). Although EduCon bills itself as “not” a technology conference, I find the distinction between “tech” and “not tech” conferences to continue blurring, and the number of smart phones, laptops, tablets, and other devices at EduCon would suggest that we, as educators, are increasingly reliant upon a number of technologies to stay connected. At least, within certain contexts.

What I mean by that — and this takes nothing away from what EduCon is, both as an actual event and an educational phenomenon — is that I think we might be lost in our own echo chamber.

When Sara noted at one point that, in her TweetDeck columns, her Twitter feed of “All Friends” and also of “#educon” looked almost exactly the same, I began to think about what it was that we were experiencing… and when the panels of distinguished guests and educators, let alone the hallway conversations and scheduled conversations, continued the chorus of innovation, change, and educational evolution, I started to (I will be honest here) lose focus. I tried to attend, literally by being in my seat and choosing not to tweet, as well as figuratively, by wrapping my head around the big ideas. But, I lost focus, and it was frustrating.

I am not saying this in any sarcastic manner, as I appreciate all the work that SLA staff and students have put in to making EduCon what it is. And this is not to say that my experience at EduCon, as a participant and as a presenter, were not valuable, because they most certainly were. I just preface the second half of this reflection with the idea that we — as the innovators, the thought-leaders, the doers — need to be very conscious of how and why we attended EduCon and what we are taking back with us to our day-to-work.

And, that is where I want to focus the second part of this reflection… on my day-to-day work with pre-service and in-service teachers and what I am taking from EduCon 2011 back with me as I return to Michigan (via a rerouted trip to Minneapolis). Do we need more “steam” in STEM? Yes. Do we need time and space for kids to innovate? Absolutely. Do we want to empower all learners to share their voice in democratic classrooms? Of course we do. Again, I am not being sarcastic here, as I truly appreciate all the insights, dedication, and inspiration that everyone involved in this weekend shared with us.

But, I feel like something is missing in the conversation, and I am hoping to write myself into finding (at least) part of it.

First, I was reminded about how one’s own continuous partial attention can, in fact, lead to not paying attention to anything at all, and I was reminded of the power of face-to-face conversation. No matter how many conversations I enter into online — even the exchanges I had during EduCon this weekend — I continued to be most impressed with my conversations with colleagues when we are sitting next to one another. Some were serendipitous “tweet ups” (oh, I just started following you last week!). Others were intentional (let’s meet between sessions), yet most were the casual, comfortable conversations that I had with colleagues I’ve know for some time, or who I was introduced to during the weekend. It is good to connect and reconnect, yet sometimes make an effort to move beyond.

Second, as much as I value those conversations, I also value the opportunities to introduce colleagues to one another, and to say hello to those around me who I have yet to meet. EduCon lends itself to friendly conversation, yet it is still a challenge to make sure that we take the time and make the effort to have those conversations. While I am not as critical as some voices I heard who went so far as to call EduCon “cliquey,” or worse, I know that it is still tough to break out of our comfort zones. Oddly enough, at one of the most innovative high schools in the country, many of us sat last night in the cafeteria with groups of our friends. During the sessions, I would intentionally try sit at tables with other EduCon participants that I had yet to meet, and I tried to strike up conversations when I could. To the extent that I was able, I tried to widen my circle and I am continually reminded that I am the one who needs to move beyond, even though I would hope that others make an effort, too. That a little intentional focus on my part can lead to conversations that I hadn’t imagined. Again, I hope to take back the idea that we need to move beyond our own echo chambers, and make opportunities for ourselves to do so.

So, where does this leave me? Well, one component that I am bringing back with me is the idea that I closed my session with — no matter how many digital tools we invite students to use, it is the quality of the community that matters. And, let’s face it, we are the community. What is it that we, as a self-identified group of progressive educators, hope to (and plan to) do to move beyond our own comfortable conversations and invite other voices, even dissenting voices, into the mix? Do we want innovation? For sure. Who are those that are (from our perspective) stifling innovation… do you think that they want innovation, too, even if they are going about it in a different way? I imagine that they do. Sure, it may be a race to nowhere, not the top, but those who are designing these reforms have intentions, and it does us no good to preach to the choir of progressives if we are not truly understanding the logic of those who think otherwise and, if at all possible, attempt to come to some common ground. What voices were missing from those panels and what value (and values), positive or negative, might they have brought to the conversations?

Maybe I am still riled up about all the political rhetoric lately about the new tone in Washington that, very quickly, degenerated right back to where we were at election time (if not worse). Maybe I am tired after a long weekend at a conference that encouraged me to think, share, and connect, yet still left me with more questions about how to do so than answers. Maybe it is because I need to translate this all to pre-service and in-service teachers who, rightfully, want to know what they can do to engage reluctant students and help them master content all the while defending their profession to parents, administrators, and politicians. Or, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit unsatisfied with the way that the conversations played out, that I want something more… that I want us to really, really move toward something new, something different, but no one really knows how.

Sara and I just finished our coffee break on the flight and she mentioned the idea that software, when moving from version X.Y to X.Z will usually do some major overhauls, adding some features that make it richer and more robust. For all the wonderful panels, collegial conversations, and student voices we heard this weekend, perhaps those who organize it need to think more about what EduCon 2.4 could be. What other voices, however contradictory they may appear to be, do we want to join in the conversation? What value would that add to the conversations within our own echo chamber?

Thank you, EduCon — SLA staff and students, participants both onsite and online — for a wonderful weekend, for pushing my thinking, and for helping us all become better teachers and learners. I look forward to continuing the conversations.

Now, back to the present. I need to encourage the teachers with whom I work to get out of their own echo chambers, to listen to and understand the voices of others, and to make sure that they are bringing their own voices — classroom-tested, inquiry-based, well-reasoned voices — into the conversation. Understand the key ideas about innovation, democratic classrooms, STEAM, and the like. Yet, don’t stop there… be sure to listen, to engage, and to be a part of the conversation in wider circles. Despite my frustrations, that is still my take-away from the weekend.

All that said, I was hesitant to post any of this at all, feeling much like Liz in that I might hurt the feelings of colleagues at SLA and in the EduCon community. But, Chris’s response to her post was generous, and in the spirit of the conversations that EduCon fosters, I hope that my post will provide an opportunity for response, too.

Again, thank you EduCon for pushing my thinking in ways that I would otherwise not be able to move myself. I appreciate the ways in which you make the conversations happen.

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7 thoughts on “Back to Teaching, Post-EduCon 2.3”

  1. I’m glad you put it out there. I agree that we need to get out of our sphere a bit. I’m planning to attend Ignite Boston on Monday, a non-education event. I also follow a bunch of social media folk on Twitter that helps to diversify my information a little bit.

    In the book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki warns about the danger of the circular mill. Crowds are smartest when they keep their independent voice strong. That can be hard to do sometimes, as evidenced by both of our reluctance to share our true feelings for fear we might upset someone.

    Lately I’ve been trying to shift to an Appreciative Inquiry method of looking at things. Asking what is working and trying to replicate, rather than what isn’t working and trying to fix.

    I also appreciate your points about the “cliqueyness” of Educon. I know I may appear that way to others sometimes. I try to reach out and meet more people at these conferences, but there are also people there that I only see once or twice a year. It can be hard to balance wanting to spend as much time as possible with the people I never see and being open to meeting more people. I’m sorry you and I didn’t get a chance to say hello (I apologize if we did and I don’t remember).

  2. Thank you for your post, Troy. Having been one of the colleagues sitting with you and Sara at breaks, I acknowledge my own challenges stepping outside my zone at any given time. So I greatly appreciate you bringing this to the surface.

    Talking to our colleague Paul Oh yesterday, we very briefly touched on a similar subject. We commented about how wonderful and ideal it is that the conference is in the high school and also acknowledged that this means there is only ever going to be so much physical space for attendees. Which made me consider my own physical attendance — I’ve now been there 3 years out of 4. I am local, so it’s easy. And the content and frame of the conference is directly related to my professional work. And like you and so many others have said, I do get a great deal out of being there — I meet new people, reconnection with colleagues, and engage in conversations, and approaches to conversations, that push me.

    When I think in this way about the resource that EduCon really is for me it starts me also thinking more about how it could be for so many others too. And then, given the limited physical dimensions, it got me thinking this year too about the cost/benefits of myself continuing to return, in person, year to year.

    I know I don’t “own” a space that I can give to anyone else — the spaces are the space for those who register. But I wonder if I can’t shift my own thinking here … Taking cues from others who attended or even participated/presented virtually, I can focus on my own participation and needs in this way. And then support discussions about this event to others, letting others know about the possibilities here and encouraging those whose voices haven’t yet been there to register and submit conversation proposals. I know many teachers who would be interested in sharing their inquiries and emerging practices in the form of conversations starters and would greatly value the opportunity to explore these ideas with colleagues and youth in this context. And these same teachers can bring back/share the content too to their classrooms as well as their writing projects and/or other professional communities.

    So I am left with this question, what can I do to make these connections and the opportunity of EduCon possible for others in the coming year?


  3. What a thoughtful & wonderfully honest post, Troy. It encapsulates the best of the curious mind, the inquiring learner, the compassionate teacher, the ideal of pushing towards excellency and being open to whatever that might look like.

    I’ve never attended EduCon (and I admit that as an outsider it has always sounded like a special, invitation-only sort of thing, attended by those “in the know”, etc), but I can say that you’ve nailed a great many issues that we share as educators.

    I like how you’re pushing that dividing curtain, encouraging open thought, open dialog, open minds. And I’ve always appreciated how you walk the talk. Your generous spirit and open welcome reveal that you really are living and breathing and contemplating your belief system. That is beautiful and refreshing.

  4. Thanks to all of you for your comments here and sorry for the delayed reply.

    Kevin — thanks, as always, for your response and sharing links with others.

    Liz — I am sorry, too, that I didn’t get to meet you in person. I think that you have echoed many of the concerns that I have, and I look forward to checking out this book.

    Chris — my immediate thought would be to see if we can invite other NWP colleagues who are not normally part of these conversations, yet have very good things to say about student engagement, to present at EduCon. Also, could we bring their students? What if there was a student/teacher panel discussion?

    April — thanks for your kind words and support. I appreciate the ways in which you invite others to think about how our thoughts and feelings as educators matter a great deal, even though we often suppress them.

    Colleagues like all of you make me want to keep blogging, to keep learning, to keep leading.

    Thank you all.

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