A Different Approach to Conferences
Why go to a conference? That’s the question I try to remind myself of these days, as like other educators and leaders, I have the sometimes tortuous pleasure of choosing from so many gatherings–ranging from local events to massive industry confabs like this year’s 40th anniversary of ISTE. Here’s how I’ve been refining my conference-going strategy—particularly in light of the EdSurge Fusion event, which I attended last November.
I’m going to start with the “why” of choosing to go to conferences outside my home turf of Virginia. Local conferences are important, but I go to conferences outside Virginia with the goal of scouting for ideas, resources and information that might not yet be on our radar locally but that we might want to consider. Huge conferences, such as ISTE or ASCD, are fine places to sample a few ideas.
But what I did last year at EdSurge’s Fusion was something different.
Virginia, like many states, is made up of a variety of school districts—from large urban and suburban districts, like in northern Virginia, down to the sort of tiny rural divisions that, as one superintendent says, “we don’t get out much.” Over the past few years, we’ve been building an innovation network in Virginia called the Virginia School Consortium for Learning, that includes a partnership with James Madison University, the Department of Education and others. Out of 132 divisions in Virginia, our consortium brings together 72 of them (I’m also the executive director).
As we thought about how to support the collective learning of our state superintendents, we decided to do a joint scouting expedition. With the stellar lineup of speakers and a specifically catered group experience at EdSurge Fusion, I decided that this would be a great opportunity to bring a delegation of Virginia superintendents together in one place to explore ideas being discussed nationally.
As a team, we wanted to plunge into the sea of thought leaders, hear what they had to say, and then, as a group, discuss what we should bring back to influence, not just our local school divisions, but potentially the entire state. Key to that experience would be not getting caught up in a blizzard of possibilities, but instead sitting down and building relationships with people and groups who might become true partners for Virginia.
We told the Fusion team about what we were hoping to do, and they went into action. Even before the conference got going, they organized a set of meetings between us and some of the conference speakers. Dr. Scott McLeod, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado, Denver, shared with us some of his insights about how to move from adopting technology to implementing innovative practices. We were so intrigued by his work that we later invited him to become involved with our Virginia’s for Learners Lead Innovation Network.
Our team was also riveted by the opening keynote on the effect of trauma on students by Dr. Pam Cantor, who started Turnaround for Children. We were so impressed that we invited her to be a featured speaker at an event we later ran back in Virginia. She brought with her a school principal who is building out a similar program in Washington. That gave us both the 30,000-foot overview of the topic and an on the ground view to show what it looks like to build a school environment based around trauma care.
Getting to know these and other speakers proved to be a “shot in the arm” for our Virginia team for different reasons. Andrea Whitmarsh, a superintendent in Greene County, a small rural district near West Virginia, said Fusion was not a typical conference experience: “I didn’t feel like I was sitting and listening as happens at so many professional conferences but engaging with others in meaningful conversations around the work.”
This ability to engage with both the speakers and with her team throughout the conference helped Whitmarsh move the needle when she got home. She explained, “EdSurge Fusion, along with other research, set the stage for us moving forward. We have added a fifth pillar of Innovation (Social Emotional Learning) and have started a Lead Innovator Program for each of the pillars. With a plan and continued focus, we will move toward 21st Century Learning for all of our students with support for the ‘whole learner’. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to attend EdSurge Fusion, as the professional learning experience contributed to changes in day-to-day work in my division.”
Mark Lineburg, Superintendent of Halifax County Public Schools, said that Fusion was both eye-opening with regard to what other schools and districts were doing, and very affirming of the path he was already trying to build with staff in his own division.
“The discussions we had at EdSurge Fusion led us to develop our own high school innovation team. The Innovation Team has conducted surveys and focus groups to define our learning vision and aspirations. We are now working hand in hand with the business community to define clear career pathways for our students. As a result, we have seen a dramatic increase in both internships and apprenticeships.” His district has since joined the Virginia Innovation Network and submitted a planning grant to the state department of education.
The degree of personalization in an event with close to 500 participants made all the difference. Lineburg explained, “EdSurge provided our group meeting space to work together before and after the conference. They even made one-to-one introductions to people who shared common perspectives and backgrounds in addition to inviting some of the speakers to meet with our group.”
“Many things came together for me” at Fusion, says Whitmarsh. “From the initial keynote with Pamela Cantor, it became clear that if we didn’t attend to all the needs of the learner (whole child), deep learning for all would not take place.”
She continued, “Going as a team meant that the Virginia representatives had the opportunity to reflect, as a group, on what we were learning and about how might impact Virginia. We didn’t just hear great speakers—We asked ourselves, ‘How would this play In Virginia? In what ways might this influence the work I’m doing as a superintendent in my own division?’”
“Hearing different perspectives and practices was uplifting,” Whitmarsh says. “The structure of the conference showed that the organizers were seeking engagement for participants, and I felt surrounded by like minds seeking ideas to support all learners.”