Why Educators Need to Attend Professional Conferences

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.

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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

Dandelion Jelly

In rural Alaska, it’s really quite strange to encounter a person who does not do some kind of subsistence food gathering.

For many, hunting and fishing brings in fresh local protein.  It isn’t exactly free once you consider the gas, bullets, rod/reel, nets, permit fees, etc . . . but it is a lot cheaper than buying meat in town at the local grocery store, or flying it in from a butcher shop in Anchorage.

Residents in this part of the state are also lucky enough to have a summer (usually) warm enough to grow gardens.  Some people have even created greenhouses, and there is a fully stocked farmer’s market with many local vendors who sell a wide variety of local, fresh produce for much cheaper prices than the over-ripe produce flown into the stores.  I frequent the Wednesday/Saturday market in Dillingham regularly! Here is my last haul:

We have not attempted to grow anything, but we have started our wild plant gathering cycle. This year we are focusing on dandelion and whatever berries we can find that do well.  Blueberries, aqpiks (salmonberries), and low-bush cranberries are usually available, but their success really depends on the weather.  If the fireweed this year does not coincide with school starting, I may target those too.

Dandelions show up first here in Dillingham.  Now, I am no mind reader but I know what you are thinking: Dandelions are weeds.  We mow them down.  They are a nuisance!

Well, yes. They are weeds . . . but before you judge me, let’s have a history lesson.  Dandelions were actually introduced to the US by the Europeans as salad greens; literally the only reason they are on the continent is because humans considered them food! If any of you frequent fancy restaurants, you can often find dandelion greens on the menu.  (I only know this because I heart Top Chef.)  I encounter them more often as gifts from my son.


Still, I do not intend on eating them as a salad.  I bought a TON of pectin in preparation for berry season, so I will mix a box or two with dandelion petals to make a beautiful golden-yellow dandelion jelly!

Dandelions are EVERYWHERE right now.  So, off we go!

Ingredient list

  • 4 cups dandelion petals
  • 4 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 box powdered pectin or 2 pouches of liquid pectin
  • Water
  • Large  soup pot
  • Long spoon for stirring
  • Stock pot or canning pot
  • Canning jar lifter
  • Canning jar tray for bottom of pot
  • Jelly jars, sterilized and hot


Step 1: Picking


I picked loads and loads of dandelions.  When picking, keep a few things in mind.

  • You will only actually be using the petals so just pluck off the flower head.  They should come off easily.  The green stalks have a bitter milk that you do not want in your jelly, and the green base will make your jelly green.  (We are shooting for a sun-gold color).  Aim for approximately 10 cups of blossoms.
  • Your hands will turn yellow with the pollen.  Wear some kind of glove if that bothers you. It comes off easily though, so I did not bother.
  • Pay attention to the weather.  If it gets rainy, dandelion blooms will close up until the sun returns.  In a rainy region like mine, this means don’t be lazy and lose your chance!
  • Be sure to pick from areas you are certain have not been sprayed with pesticides or other harmful chemicals.  That is pretty much a non-issue in Alaska where I live, but it should be in the forefront of your mind as you pick if you live in an urban or suburban area.

Step 2: Plucking

Once you have a LOT of dandelions, it’s time to pluck!  Actually, I ended up using scissors to cut off the yellow florets from the green base.  I found it easiest to have to large bowls near me: one to cut the florets into, and one for discarding the green parts.  You need to gather enough dandelions for 4 compressed cups of dandelion blossoms.

Step 3: Steeping


Place yellow florets in a large bowl and pour hot water over them.  Allow the florets to steep in a tea until it reaches room temperature.  I just let them sit overnight. This makes the tea ultra-concentrated . . . plus, I have other things to be doing like feeding children or cleaning the house.  (Or just reading a good book in the summer night sun!)

Step 4: Cooking

Once the tea is steeped and cooled, strain the tea through cheesecloth or coffee filter into a pot. Whatever you use to filter the tea, just make sure it separates the plant from the water.  All we want is the dandelion concentrate; not the plant itself.

Add lemon juice, pectin, and sugar to the tea. If you want a REALLY yellow jelly, add a drop of yellow food coloring. Boil until the jelly sticks to the back of a spoon.  I used regular pectin (not the low-sugar kind) and just followed the box directions.  In the future, I intend on ordering the low-sugar kind.  To be honest, I was not aware of the option when I first started on the jelly train.

Step 5: Canning

I used jelly-sized mason jars found in a local store.  Special note: Before I poured the hot jelly into the jars, I heated the jars.  You want to avoid changing glass temperature too quickly and too drastically . . . explosions of glass shards generally ruin the mood and force you to throw away jelly.  I warmed mine gradually in hot water in my canning pot while I was cooking the jelly.

So, pour your jelly mixture into warm glass canning jars.  Some dandelion recipes do not call for hot canning, but I prefer to be sure mine are shelf-stable for the year so I hot can.  However, I do not have a special canning set-up because I’m a teacher and I do things on a budget . . . and I’m an Alaskan, so I must be resourceful.  I use the water bath canning technique.  Basically, I boil water in a regular stock pot for canning, and throw a cheap canning rack in the bottom that will hold the jars. (You don’t want the jars sitting directly on the bottom of the pot, as water needs to circulate all the way around).

Once they are out of the hot bath, set the jars under a kitchen towel and go about your business.  If you are nearby, you should hear the jars pop as they seal.  If they don’t seal, bathe them again.

Step 6: Cooling and Consuming!

Once near room temperature, place the jelly jars in the refrigerator to cool and set. If the jelly doesn’t gel by the next day, you might have to pour the jelly back into a pot and cook it again with added sugar.  I had to do this with my first batch, and they set the second time wonderfully.  Some people purposely add less sugar so it is more of a honey-consistency, so you do not necessarily have to achieve a gel!

Now the jelly is ready to eat! My son says it tastes like honey and calls it Sun Jelly.  This can make for a wonderful and unique Christmas present; not many people have ever tasted dandelion jelly!  Really, it does taste like honey jelly, which makes sense because it is essentially gelled pollen tea.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy!

This is Me, and my Alaskan Family

Whether you arrived at this site on purpose or somehow stumbled upon it by chance, I welcome you!  This is the digital documentation of my experience teaching in the bush and raising a family in rural Alaska.  I can not promise constant wit nor daily updates, but I can guarantee that everything published is our very real journey through life in The Last Frontier.

If you wish to see my previous blog about teaching in Alaska (written during my younger, single days as a newbie teacher), check out Left of the Rising Sun.  That blog is certainly no longer updated, but it will give you a different flavor of rural Alaskan teaching than this current blog could ever hope to achieve.