Friday, March 21, 2014

Tales of A Conference Junkie

My name is Kathy Diver. 
I am an addict. 
I am a Conference Junkie.

Wait....What? Am I addicted to conferences and workshops??? 

Missing CUE 2014 but I'm
getting info from my Tweeps
I have asked myself this question several times over the last few days. All these tweets about the CUE 2014 Conference in Palm Springs has me missing an event that I have attended several years in a row. I am watching my twitter friends and CUE RockStar colleagues enjoying their sessions, presenting to attendees and going to the keynotes and wondering why I decided to schedule my spring vacation in Colorado at the same time.

Don't get me wrong, I am having a great time on my vacation- hiking, bicycling, brew tasting, and spending a quiet week -just my husband and myself. But I have to admit, there is a big part of me that would rather be in a crowded conference room learning new tech things and listening to the keynotes by Lavar Burton and Sal Kahn.

OK- Now that the admission is out of the way, I suppose I should explain why I consider myself a conference addict.

Conferences and workshops take time, energy and money. The resources I gain from attending professional learning events also take a great deal of effort and planning to incorporate into my lessons and teaching. What do I do to make it work and to get the most out of my experience?

How do I afford it?
John Stevens presents at our district
wide collaboration
I mentioned earlier that it takes time, energy and money to attend conferences. So here is what I do to pay for my conferences. First, I look for learning events that are FREE.  Obviously, the free short term events are great because you only have to spend your time and energy to get there. Many of these are held on Saturdays or after school hours. These days, Twitter, EdCamps and PlayDates are important components of my "free" learning. I use these sources for learning about technology use for my classroom. And I rarely pass up an opportunity to learn some new things on my local scene. Years ago, my former districts offered tech classes and Spanish classes after school during the week. My current employer recently had a district wide collaboration which I attended on a Saturday.

It IS a sacrifice of time. You have to decide if your personal obligations can allow for some professional enhancement. When my own kids were younger, the Saturdays were filled with soccer games and Girl Scout activities. After school hours were spent helping with homework and creating dinners. Family time was not a good trade off for my professional learning. When they were young, I was able to attend more summer activities. I tried to squeeze in occasional after school or weekend events during the school year. The calendar was more difficult to manage at that time in my life. Now that they are both grown up, I have more time to commit to my professional development.

I also pay for some conferences and workshops. INVESTING in my own learning makes me take it more seriously. Over the last 15 years, I have attended several California Science Teacher Association and CUE conferences on my own dime. Mostly, I pay for the travel and living expenses, while my principals have often found funding for the registration or substitutes. They know I will bring back new skills and ideas to share among my colleagues.  For them, it is a good investment of funds, because I am willing to share and teach others what I have learned.

There are a number of professional development opportunities for teachers to attend conferences that PAY a stipend to help compensate for expenses.  Some are sponsored by a local school district or county office of Education. Others are paid through grant funding from agencies such as National Science Foundation or NOAA. Still others are available because of the philanthropic nature of the "for profit" companies such as Discovery Education and ETS. I have participated in a number of these institutes over the years. They are generally competitive and require an extensive application. A simple internet search for "paid summer teacher workshops" or "paid summer teacher internships" will turn up a huge variety of learning opportunities. The sooner you check it out, the more opportunities you will find since many of applications for the competitive summer institutes close in the spring.

What I do when I am at a conference?
I PLAN my session choices depending on what I need to learn or what my school needs. I usually like to FOCUS ON A SPECIFIC AREA of interest for my practice. For example, the focus for my last trip to CSTA was to learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Standards. I was also looking for more lab activities to infuse into the current classes I am teaching (college prep biology). I looked at the sessions a couple of days ahead of time and planned out each of my days with the understanding that I also needed some time for some random things that might spark an interest. This concept of having a focus helps me to avoid "conference overload," where a participant may get too much of a good thing. Too many divergent concepts could create a head spinning and overwhelming feeling that there was too much to know and not enough time or brain power to understand it.

Participants at CUE Rock Star Napa
In order to get the best "bang for my buck," I plan to attend almost every session available, so that means I arrive a half hour or more before the first session starts and leave room in my schedule to stay until after the last session closes. If there are sessions that have similar classes or offerings more than one time, I try to work out my schedule to its best advantage, so that I can get the most from my experience. I try not to take breaks during session times unless there is no session of interest for me.

I try to get to the session EARLY so that I can sit close to the front. I have learned that arriving early to a session is better especially as I am now at an age when I do not want to sit on the floor when there is no seating space left in the room.  I like to interact a little bit with the presenter as they are preparing for their discussion. I have offered to help set up or even break down after a session. During the presentation, I like to ask questions that can help me in my practice. I try to get any paper resources if they are available for participants (an advantage for coming early).  For my last several conferences, I have used my iPad or computer to take notes and pictures so I can review them later to help infuse ideas into my teaching. I always save internet resources directly into my computer for later perusal. Even now, I use internet resources that I bookmarked 5 or 6 years ago at a conference.

I always try to bring small snacks (apples, string cheese, crackers, carrots) and water or iced tea. That way, I don't have to wait in line to pay conference venue prices for snacks or drinks on the go. If I am going to a conference with another person I know, I try to spend "free" time with them, so we can discuss what we have learned during the sessions. I like lunch and scheduled breaks for this kind of networking. It's also ideal if you have to "commute" with someone to the convention location. You can use that commuter time for debriefing and learning what they found out in the sessions they have  attended.

I also try to NETWORK with other conference participants. I have recently been active in the twitterverse and I now have many "cyberfriends" with whom I can share and discuss about the things I am learning. I love meeting up with these people face to face. Some of my twitter pals include some of the foremost people in their fields and seeing their presentations puts a new perspective on what is possible in my own teaching. These collective discussions create a bigger pool of learning where I can tap into and glean out precious nuggets for my own classroom. It is especially good for times like this week, when I am not on the conference site and I am still able to learn from the folks in my twitter feed to see if I can get any new resources for myself.

What I do when I get back to my classroom?
Prepping for future lessons
I like to DISCUSS my sessions with someone. My poor husband is sometimes my target, but I usually try to chat with others in my profession, so I can review and reflect on what I have learned. The day after my conference, I like to organize my notes and paper resources. At that time, I will review and rewrite all electronic notes I have taken during my sessions. I will reorganize the bookmarks I have made of any of the internet resources I have found. I look over my lesson plans for the next week, so that I can find some ways to incorporate at least 2 of the simpler things within the next few days. When there are more complicated and time consuming things, I tend to leave some of those for later use within the next month.

I try to INFUSE the most useful and interesting things as soon as I can. It keeps the ideas fresh in my mind. For example, I attended a screen casting session at CUE 2012. This was months before I had ever heard of "flipped instruction," but I could immediately see a use for recording my notes and lectures, so the following Tuesday, my students had to watch their very first screencast of class notes.

I will be attending Manhattan Beach CUE Rock Star
Yes, I am missing hanging out with my friends at CUE 2014 this week. I am sad that I am missing the Google Summit happening on the weekend. I know there will be other learning opportunities for me. In the meantime, I will feed my addiction to conference learning by having an informal 'appy hour or coffee cue with teachers in my school in the next week or so. I will be heading to San Francisco in April for the University of California Curriculum Integration Institute with my friend Mary Haus. I will be attending a district collaboration with the focus on NGSS for biology teachers early in June. I plan to attend the CUE Rock Star in Manhattan Beach with several colleagues late in July.

I have been thinking of using this topic as a conference presentation. I wonder if others feel the way I do about conferences and workshops. I have decided that being an addict of learning is really NOT a bad thing. If you are not a conference junkie yourself, maybe you should follow the process I have outlined above and infuse some excitement into your own practice. You won't believe how great it feels to be a lead learner among your students. They can sense your newfound energy and appreciation for learning and it will become an important model of what it is for all of us to be a life long learner.