For the Tools Are Many: BLC15 Conference Reflection

November Learning’s Building Learning Communities conference (BLC) offers participants the opportunity to “join colleagues from around the world who care deeply about bringing the best innovative and practical learning resources to our students,” saying that the conference will “provide [participants] with inspiration, practical skills and expand your professional network with educators from around the world.” BLC does exactly what it says it does. The conference offers a fully stocked smorgasbord of new ideas, resources, and possibilities. After three straight days at BLC, my OneNote pages and Twitter mentions runneth over.

This is not the worst problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In the face of overwhelming information I have a strong instinct to hole up with my prior knowledge instead of opening myself to new ideas.

The three days are absolutely packed and each day offers a full-conference keynote followed by 5 sessions of 90 minutes each with no substantial breaks. There’s a sense of great value (540 minutes of structured learning time per day is a lot) but, with three straight 9 hour days I didn’t make it through a full program on any day. Instead I chose to take one session off each day to network, eat lunch, or process my learning, and I’m glad I did.

Logistical concerns aside the conference had a stated goal, so to what extent did BLC live up to its mission to provide inspiration, practical skills, and an expanding professional network?

INSPIRATION:

I’m definitely inspired as a result of the conference, most directly as a result of the keynote addresses. Keynotes exist to provide some thematic framing to a conference and to inspire so it makes sense that I found them inspiring. It was particularly encouraging to see a theme of continuous educator growth emerge from the six keynote presenters. Dylan Wiliam was the most extreme saying that teachers who do not believe they can continue growing should be fired, but each presenter shared a message that we need to honor teachers’ continuous growth, highlighting that evaluating teachers is not the same as growing them. This aligned directly with my own perspective that while teacher evaluation is important, it is meaningless if we do not take actions to improve all our teachers’ abilities.

I was also inspired by Jennie Magiera’s statement that every educator should have an IEP. Wilian echoed this by saying that every educator should have something specific that they’re working on in addition to any district goals or initiatives. I like the idea of explicitly naming what an educator is working on so that we can encourage collaboration, and as a way to help remove the stigma of working for improvement. I hope to find a way to authentically incorporate a practice like this into the professional learning structure in my district.

Beyond the keynote addresses, I was also inspired by a session highlighting the work of students in the Model UN class at Thomas Edison CTE High School in Jamaica Queens, New York. These students, fed up with simply talking about the world’s problems as “constant redundant tragedy”, choose to do work to change create positive change. Through three years of this class they’ve connected with a girl’s school in Pakistan helping them to raise money for walls and to construct working solar panels in order to provide more reliable power to the school. One student went so far as to say “Model UN made [him] want to be a mechanical engineer,” how many students leave their senior year social studies class saying that?

This is not an AP class. This is not a gifted and talented class. This is a regular class of seniors where their teachers got out of the way enough so the students can find their own path to creating impact. Most inspiring was the student who, described the importance of a class where “you can state your opinion and [there’s] not a teacher telling you ‘no you can’t do that’, but a bunch of students saying ‘yes we can do this.” This was a powerful reminder that our students want to engage with meaningful work and that by getting out of their way adults can help facilitate excellence. We won’t find excellence by limiting students to drill and kill worksheets. If we open doors for them and let them cut their own path they will walk through those doors and blaze that trail. We can help them remember that we have their backs while letting them lead.

PRACTICAL RESOURCES:

If this segment is measured in the number of online tools I was introduced to than this conference goes to 11. In session after session presenters flew through a mind blowing arsenal of possible tools ranging from the broad (Twitter, WordPress, Google+, Paper by 53) to the specific (Verso, Prism, HitRecord, 5 Card Flickr); not to mention a host of links to thought leaders, videos, blogs, and MOOCs. The online resources are legion.

I do not, however, measure practical success by the number of tools I am exposed to. I measure it by the number of resources I’m likely to use, and that number is fairly low. The number is not low due to a lack of quality. I expect that many of the tools that presenters recommended are quite excellent, but I didn’t work with any of them long enough to find out if they fit my style. I found more value in the sessions that explored one or two resources instead of the resource samplers. One session in particular provided an overview of the Influencer Framework and while it was only an introduction to the work, I feel like I know enough to do something with it. By contrast, another session introduced me to Re.vu for all of thirty seconds before moving on to the next resource. I don’t know very much about the tool and I am frankly unlikely to go back and vet each resource I was exposed to.

The resource dump sessions feel a lot like being sprayed with an information hose (credit to Walter Parker for the metaphor) and by the end of three days of getting hosed, I’m feeling rather wet and I just want to change into dry clothes and curl up on the couch. It can be frustrating to unexpectedly attend a resource dump session and I left a few feeling a bit ambushed. Though this session format is rather inefficient, I see potential benefit to these sessions and it would be great if they could be identified in the schedule, allowing participants to make more informed decisions. One or two like this would have been fine. Five was far too many.

EXPANDING PROFESSIONAL NETWORK:

Despite the packed schedule, the conference did well here, or perhaps, I did well. There was little about the conference that actively pushed or encouraged me to network with others and it would have been very easy for me to go through the conference session by session without any meaningful human interaction. Similarly, few presenters encouraged dialogue during their sessions and there were minimal opportunities for personal interaction in the interstitial moments between sessions.

Despite these constraints, I made a choice to actively pursue networking throughout the three days. To this end I actively tweeted during sessions and I’m coming away with 20-30 new followers on Twitter and while it’s not a huge number, it’s more than I would have if I’d simply taken notes silently.

This active Twitter presence paid off a couple more times. On the third day, while tweeting Jamie Magiera’s keynote, I received a direct message from Chris Davis asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for his podcast. He specifically asked because he’d seen me tweeting and liked what he read on my blog. It would have been easy to decline, saying I had a session to go to, one I was excited to attend no less, but I chose the interview over the session. This interview then led to another opportunity when Chris connected me with Bob Greenberg and I did a short video for the Brainwaves Video Anthology. (I’ll embed my video when it goes live.) None of these opportunities would have come up just by taking notes and attending the sessions one after the other. I had to actively pursue networking in order to make it happen. It was a good reminder about the importance of planning and intentionality.

SUMMARY:

BLC definitely has it’s own feel. It’s a bit like stepping directly into Alan November’s brain. There are tons of ideas bouncing around at light speed and some of them are bound to slam into you. The conference is not without its faults, yet from within the chaos patterns emerged when I allowed them to. There were consistent messages about the value of students owning their own learning and the importance of continuous growth. It’s a shame, however, that most of these stories of authentic student learning and continuous growth were delivered in a fairly straightforward lecture format. Keynote speaker Jennie Magiera went so far as to let us all know that she was self aware of the problematic nature of communicating with nothing but her voice and some slides, but continued using the dominant form nonetheless. I look forward to when we use what we know about best practices for students with adults as well. This takes a level of intentionality on behalf of presenters to treat their sessions like a classroom or a learning experience, and not just an overview of what they do. Are we interested in exposing educators to new ideas, or do we want to help facilitate a more substantial change in practice? The conference had the former in spades and left me looking for the latter.

I fully expect that the conference will have more impact on me than I can name at this moment. It’s very likely that I will keep revisiting my notes from the various sessions to explore the ideas presented to me. For example, I know that Amy Burvall’s presentation on remix and mashup has me thinking about concepts of blending and appropriation in education. I’m not leaving with specific, named, or explicit pieces of learning that I plan to implement. The learning is more abstract and ethereal at the moment, but perhaps it will coalesce over the next few months.

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