When I arrived at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids, MI, I felt like I had grown up in that town. I love the city because of its beauty and its calm exterior. Walking around, that first day, I saw educators who were energized and excited. More and more those educators were congregating in the bar area exchanging stories and ideas. (I should emphasize that the bar area is across from the check in and there are a number of tables, couches, and chairs. It’s a natural place to get together.)
By 6PM that night there must have been 60 or 70 people in and around this area. Many had laptops or ipads open and there was a wonderful hum of human interaction. There were schools having impromptu meetings, groups greeting other groups with “How have you been?” Or, “How was your year?” And, there were hugs, hand shakes, and high fives as people met those who they hadn’t seen since the last conference or maybe had only talked with via Twitter or Facebook.
The first morning was much the same as the night before and greetings and hugs were pervasive. But after breakfast the New Tech Network and Knowledge Works folks threw the attendees a curve ball that many are still swinging at today. The Keynote Speaker that kicked things off was Alfie Kohn and there are few speakers in the education world who would have been better. I should state, right away, that I had seen Alfie Kohn speak (via the internet) and I had read excerpts from one or two of his books so I already was aware of what was coming. Many (most?) of the audience didn’t know what was about to hit them.
I probably know more people who don’t like Alfie Kohn than like him. And that’s unfortunate. I know the reason they feel that way because his words can inflict pain. As a matter of fact I believe he would feel that he hadn’t hit his mark if there weren’t damaged egos or defensive dismissals of his remarks. He is provocative and he is opinionated and he attacks the status quo. If you knew nothing more than that you would still understand the head shaking that I saw around me during his talk. I couldn’t have been more happy and my brain started throbbing as I absorbed his challenges to remove the stigma of assessment and to be more authentic with our teaching. My adrenaline was flowing, my brain synapses were firing, and I was ready to start the learning sessions.
The overarching theme this year dealt with math and literacy and, as an engineering teacher, I was able to have my fill of mathematics-related training hours. I need to give a quick tip of the hat to Geoff Krall (@emergentmath on twitter) who seemingly taught for every hour of every day in a room in the bowels of the conference center. The room was always at capacity and he was not in need of math teachers ready to collaborate and learn from each other.
The highlight of the week for me, though, was a visit to the company offices of Steelcase, a design engineering firm. We had the run of the place and we could (and did) take pictures and videos of all that we saw in the place. Without a doubt the most talked about item they produce is a simple two-sided white board (Huddleboard) that is about 2 ft X 3 ft and attaches to a track above just about every wall in every office. They can be brought down and written on and taken to another room to be hung there. We all wanted them for our classrooms. Our challenge? To use the design process to explore a problem we want to fix in our classroom or in our teaching.
I could fill a post with just the topics presented at the conference. Instead I will push ahead to the closing keynote. I will mention that there were few hours of the day that didn’t have at least one session that would be beneficial to any teacher or administrator. Instead of saying “there’s nothing I want to go to,” I found myself choosing between 2 to 4 sessions that sounded good. But we need to talk about Jillian Darwish (@jcdarwish on twitter) of Knowledge Works, who really was the dessert for this multiple course meal.
Where Alfie Kohn had challenged us to make a difference and change the how things stand by getting us to question the very profession we are in, Jillian Darwish challenged us to realize how technology is changing the face of education (as well as the students entering our classroom) and to accept this change as something we need to embrace and work with. Her talk was based upon the pillars of Self, Organization, Systems, Society, Economy, and Knowledge. Within each of these pillars she showed us factual data, examples, and poignant videos. Just as in the opening keynote I left there with my adrenaline flowing, my synapses firing, and I am ready to start the school year.
And so we are just weeks away from the start of the 2011/2012 school year. The teachers and administrators who had the benefit of attending the New Tech Network Annual Conference are way ahead and will be ready to get this party started. Bring it on.