To This Effect

Jon Becker recently wrote about his frustration with educators who promote the value of online chats, conferences, edcamps, etc. without providing evidence of improved experiences for students. In essence, he seems to be asking for the proof that these experiences are worth educators’ time. I posted the following comment on the post…

I appreciate the challenge, but I think that some of us are already sharing the kinds of stories you’re looking for, although we could probably do it more often. Independent School magazine is publishing an article I wrote with students about our blended learning history class. Here’s a post in which I write about a professional conference at which they presented. Neither of those would have been possible/likely without the connections I’ve made on Twitter (you, included :)) and conferences such as EduCon. I also have student evaluations for all the units in the courses I teach. I generally try to pull from those when I present. I’ve talked about the results of reading aloud to my students, which I only started doing because of conversations on the English Companion Ning. Part of this article came out of the way an Ignite preso that I gave pushed my thinking on reflection. Maybe not perfect examples, but are those the kinds of things you’re getting at?

I guess where things sometimes break down for me is narrating effect on students after the fact. Most of that is a result of the sheer workload of being a full-time classroom teacher with three preps, but you’re right to push us to do that reflection and offer that evidence. I’ll just say that on a very gut level, it’s hard to read your post and not think about the extra freedoms the academy affords in terms of structuring your time.

What’s more frustrating to me is people who present and don’t present evidence because they don’t have it to present because they’re not in the classroom. I don’t want to discount their voices entirely because of their previous experiences and the time that they have to think and read by virtue of their non-classroom jobs. However, I’d love to see them partnering with classroom teachers in their presentations and publications, and I’d like to see more teachers given the opportunity to address conference participants.

I think Jon’s asking a fair question, and that, combined with my gut reaction of annoyance, may be a signal that I don’t do what he’s suggesting often enough. Some of that may be a time issue, as I suggested in my comment, but it can also be hard to enunciate correlation, even in the narrative way that Jon suggests. On some level, the evidence for the effect of conferences and online connections on my teaching is my continued presence in the classroom. The connections and relationships that I’ve formed have been a continued source of support and encouragement to me. To that end, I’ll offer two emails that students wrote me at the end of this year:

Thank you for being an awesome Language Arts teacher this year. I really appreciated having you as a teacher. I learned how to do many things, like 25 word stories, writing in different perspectives, and learning how to make stories short- or long. I’ll remember the funny quotes from every trimester, the things that made you stand out- in a good way- from the other teachers. You are the best LA teacher I could ever hope for. Unlike my other LA teachers in previous years, you cherished all of everyone’s writing: not just treating them as something lengthy to skim and grade. You treated the pieces of writing as something special. It’s because of you that for once in my life, I felt like I was good at writing and I could actually become what I want to be: a writer. I’ll also remember the Schoolhouse Rock videos. Some of them are quite scary and make me go insane, but somehow you put up with it. [The student was kind of creeped out by School House rock videos, which are, in fairness, a little creepy :)] Thank you for a wonderful 6th grade LA year.

Thanks Ms. Stewart!!! I was so freaking excited, I’ve never gotten an award before! =D [The student got a learning award from the school for work that she did in conjunction with the class.] Thank you again for being such an awesome teacher and just an awesome person. I enjoyed being in your class this year and actually learning about history. I know as a teacher, you might not believe how true this statement is, but I honestly want you to know that you should feel good that you at least changed one person’s perspective of history (except I know you changed everyone’s). And thank you for helping me learn. 

I feel a bit awkward sharing those emails, but those students taught me as much as I did them. And their emails describing me are evidence of the effect that the conferences I’ve been to and the conversations I’ve had this year have had in encouraging me to reflect about the teaching I’ve done, I’m doing, and I will continue to do.

Don’t Let the Fire Die

A steady feature of my middle and early high school experience was the weekend long Baptist church youth retreat. The weekends were equal parts fun and serious and often included roasted marshmallows and few hours of sleep. The last night would inevitably include teary renditions of songs like the one that lends its title to post. We were whipped (and whipped ourselves) into great fervor, determined to return to our schools and friends new people, on fire for Jesus.

Inevitably, though, reentry would be difficult. We might keep up our commitment for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, but then we’d start slipping. Sleep seemed preferable to prayer or a daily devotional, and the latest MTV video seemed easier conversation fodder than the Lord.

It was easy to slip into a kind of junkie retreat cycle, always living for the next praise music, sleep deprived, junk food fueled emotional retreat high.  At some point I decided the high wasn’t worth the hangover, so I checked out.

Dancing Flame #4

Those retreats came to mind in reflecting back over the past year or so of attending professional conferences. It seems dangerously easy to slip back into that same kind of mountaintop experience mindset. It’s tempting to get jazzed up by the amazing work those whom you’ve met have done, so you commit to come back and change your whole teaching practice, to be more disciplined. But then it’s Sunday night before you have to head back to school on Monday and the exuberance of the conference collides head on with the reality that you have three preps for tomorrow.

In a recent post, Bud referred to his hope that conferences might be “waypoints, times to recharge and retool before heading out into the work again.” I like that metaphor because I think it reflects the idea that conferences can be a time of rest and connection and a time to hone skills and reflect on our work.

Because the other danger is not to get excited at all, to cynically view the work and ideas presented at the conference as something that’s great for other teachers. Teachers with more resources or different administrators or more eager students or less need for sleep.


A postscript

One of the things that makes conferences now different from retreats back then is the relative ease of staying connected once the time together is over. In my mind, that’s still not a total substitute for face to face conversation and shared experience, but it does make staying encouraged and connected easier.

For what it’s worth, I found my way back to the Church, although in a form that looks different than the one of my youth.