For teachers in the Lower 48, education conferences offer a venue for perusing the latest instructional techniques and newest classroom tools. These aren’t always the stodgy, sit-and-get sessions you might be imagining. More often, education conferences
act as super rallies in an effort to increase teacher efficacy and positivity. Corporate curriculum and technology giants often showcase their newest products at these events, hoping to entice teachers with small swag and glossy brochures. At the biggest conferences, expensive door prize giveaways add to the party-like atmosphere.
When I applied to present multiple sessions at the Alaska Society for Technology in Education annual conference in Anchorage, Alaska, I had those big conference mentalities in the forefront of my mind. What new technology can I present to educators? (Minecraft: Education Edition!) What resources can I add to their teaching toolkit that will ultimately increase the level and quality of student learning? (Free online indigenous cultural resources for my fellow Alaskan educators!) What can I bring that will inspire them? (Information about personalized professional development!)
Those are important questions, and necessary objectives to meet at a conference. All three of my session applications were accepted, and Microsoft generously offered to pay for my travel expenses to the conference. These were solid sessions that teachers wanted! But I forgot one thing. Educators might register for conferences to learn about new tools or technology, and they usually report back to their administrators about all the new instructional practices or techniques they learned about while at the conference. But neither of these things are the actual takeaway. Neither of these things are the reason teachers leave education conferences inspired.
In the education field, teachers are often isolated in their classrooms. Our job is to teach children, and we are with them most of the day. Rarely do we actually get the time to converse with our adult colleagues. The luckiest among us may have a common planning or PLC time once a week. The less fortunate may go days without actually ever having a conversation with another adult for more than 60 seconds in the hallway. Why do we wonder why so many teachers are leaving the profession? All teachers need new ideas, desperately wish for other professionals to brainstorm through curricular decisions, and simply desire a moment to listen to each other’s successful instructional experiences.
THIS is why teachers actually go to conferences; everything else is extraneous. At all levels of the profession, educators need time to collaborate and celebrate things that work in the classroom. We cannot teach within the void, and we should not try.
Most of my own presentations were schedulednear the end of the ASTE conference, so I spent the first two days attending sessions led by other presenters. I remembered why we all campaign so heavily for the time and money to go to these conferences; the collective atmosphere of professional collaboration is intoxicating. By the time it was my turn to present on the third day, I was ready to make collaboration the focus of each moment.
I might have been the listed session presenter, but I took the opportunity to act as more of a content guide and conversation motivator. My workshop entitled Digital Cultural Resources for Alaskan Educators became a statewide resource share-out. I shared what I found, and others shared what they knew about. We tweeted out exciting new finds, and emailed each other our contact information. In the end, we all walked away with a wide collection of useful curricular offerings to infuse in our classroom and professional contacts to lean upon.
Perhaps the most successful collaboration I witnessed was during my Microsoft-sponsored session aptly entitled Game-based Learning and Collaboration with Minecraft: Education Edition. Some teachers in attendance were complete beginners; they had heard of Minecraft from their students but had no idea why it was so popular. Others had seen it played for entertainment purposes but were curious as to how educators were leveraging the program for instruction. Many attendees were Minecraft experts familiar with the older MinecraftEDU program and simply wanted to know how their past experiences would translate to the new Minecraft: Education Edition. At first, I viewed this wide range of gameplay knowledge and ability as a challenge. How could I as the presenter teach newbies how to play the game without completely boring the experts in the group?
As it turns out, this challenges turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for collaboration. I shared past engaging M:EE projects from a wide variety of subject areas, and the experts in the room shared out what worked for them in their own Alaskan classrooms. Teachers new to Minecraft began brainstorming ways they could incorporate the game into their own classes; some even decided to create after-school Minecraft clubs! We had a great back and forth conversation about best practices and digital citizenship in open world game-play. When it came time for the newbies to experience gameplay for themselves, the experts fanned out to help with tips on controls and crafting.
By the end of that particular session, teachers from around our vast state had gained something invaluable. Sure, they learned how to play Minecraft and generated more than a few promising ideas for integration in the classroom. They understood the technical side of M:EE deployment when they got back to their sites at the end of the week. More importantly, they established new working professional relationships with each other . . . across content areas, across grade levels, across districts, and across this great state of Alaska. Teachers who met in that session still tweet out to each other about the fantastic new projects their students are working on as a result of our time together.
That is why conferences like ASTE are so important for teachers. We need each other! We are better together, and I am grateful for companies like Microsoft who support a collaborative environment for students with programs like Minecraft: Education Edition and for teacher presenters through the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert travel grant. The world of tomorrow depends on the empowerment of both students and teachers today!
*blog post written with sponsorship from #MicrosoftEDU for #MIEExpert travel assistance program funding