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Confessions of an Avid Conference Participant

by Julie D. Ramsay
April 23, 2014

In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning. 

It’s almost that time again…time to pack our bags and head out to IRA’s Annual Conference. As one who has the opportunity to participate in multiple conferences a year, I often get asked about how I prepare to get the most out of the short time I have at each one. Beyond the “wear comfortable walking shoes” and “drink lots of water” types of practical advice, I thought I’d give you a peek into some of my conference practices to help you get ready for IRA 2014.

Whispers of an Adventure
IRA14 AppA conference program, like the one IRA offers, can potentially become overwhelming with all of the opportunities to learn, connect, and grow one’s practice. Since the conference only lasts for a few days, it’s important to plan your schedule to get the most bang for your buck in this jam-packed event.

Each year, I have one or two large goals for my professional growth. Having that focus helps me peruse a conference program and identify sessions that will help me move towards meeting my goals. I look at sessions by not just well-known, established presenters, but also sessions led by educators who seem to have an area of expertise where I want to sharpen my teaching practice.

Since most sessions have limited seating, I typically will select multiple sessions scheduled during the time slot. That way, even if I arrive to a session and it is already at capacity, I have a plan for continuing my professional learning without losing too much valuable conference time. This year, I am really excited that my entire schedule of sessions is neatly organized in IRA’s conference app, keeping me organized on the go.

A non-educator friend once asked me why I loved attending professional learning events so much. I told her that it was more than the learning and networking with my colleagues from around the world; it was a kind of family reunion. Conferences were our time to meet face-to-face and continue our conversations that we have conducted through social media or our classes’ collaboration during the rest of the year.

In fact, many of the members of my personal learning network (PLN) have become friends because we have dedicated time at a conference to meet and chat for a meal or over coffee. I have discovered that those face-to-face times have deepened our professional relationship and yielded connections and collaborations far beyond what would have been possible simply through social media. Therefore, I typically reach out through social media to discover who else will be attending the conference and begin scheduling time.

Mid-level Educators Tweetup This year, I am thrilled that IRA has scheduled several tweetups throughout the conference where my PLN, both established and yet-to-be-met, can have dedicated time during the conference to build these important relationships. If you have never attended a tweetup, and even if you are not on Twitter, this is a great opportunity to meet other educators, establish relationships, and tap into the greatest resources of all…one another.

For many conference participants, attending a conference is a major undertaking involving flights, hotels, conference registration, confirmation numbers, ground transportation, recommended restaurants, and possible sightseeing opportunities. If you are like me, you want to carry as little as possible around an unknown city and convention center. I pull each of the sites up on my smart phone. Then I save it to my home screen. Once I have everything saved, I drag it all into one folder for that trip. That way, I have easy access to all of my information right at my fingertips. (I have also done this using Evernote. However, at one conference, the app was unreachable and I was unable to gain the access that I needed while I was en route.)

Full Disclosure of Ongoing Learning
Typically, I arrive the day before a conference officially begins. Often, I check into registration and then walk round the convention center to get the lay of the land. Because that first day is mostly a travel day for me, I usually am unable to attend any pre-conference workshops. However, this year, IRA is also offering Edcamp Literacy the Friday before the conference kicks off. Edcamps are a fantastic opportunity for informal learning. Schedules are typically developed on-site based on what conversations participants want to engage in with others. Because Edcamp Literacy begins midday, it’s a wonderful way to meet others and get a jump on the professional learning.

Edcamp LiteracyOver the last several years, my note taking practices have changed. I now travel with my iPad to conferences. While I am in a session, I tweet out the resources and important points made by each presenter. For each of us who are fortunate to attend IRA, there are ten or twenty educators who are learning from a distance by following the conference hashtag (#IRA14) on Twitter or Instagram. When someone posts a slide with a really good idea or conducts an activity or demonstration, that’s a perfect opportunity to take photos to post to Instagram. Tweeting and posting photos on Instagram is a perfect opportunity to not only remember what you are learning, but also pass it along to those learning from afar.

At conferences it is easy to get information overload. I have found that content curation is key to getting the most out of what I am learning. As with Twitter and Instagram, when a presenter shares a great resource, I take the time to pull it up and often pin it to a Pinterest board for my (and others’) future use. This can also be done on Evernote by using the Evernote clipper. In Evernote, notes and notebooks can be shared with others, extending your learning beyond the physical presence in a session.

I don’t know about you, but often times I’m in a session and I think of another colleague that I know would really benefit from the information being shared by a speaker. By using these tools, you can very easily tag them, or email them access to the information you have curated during a session.

Much Buzz about Something
Because conferences are marathons and not sprints, I often come out with a brain bursting full of new connections, ideas, and inspiration. When speaking with others about the conference, sometimes I struggle to have just one takeaway. I’ve found that it takes time for me to process and reflect upon all of this new knowledge.

One of the ways that I find is best for me to crystallize ideas is to review my notes, tweets, and Instagram posts, and begin to find the ideas that will truly sharpen my practice. For me, the best way for me to clarify how this knowledge will fit into my professional life is to begin writing a series of blog posts. This does two things: First, I reflect and put the pieces together for my own practice. Second, it shares my perspective and learning with others who may or may not have attended the conference.

Taking the time to formalize your thinking gives you time to truly think about the reality of the place of newfound knowledge into your practice. You are much more likely to successfully integrate this new learning if you have a plan of how it will play out in your classroom. It also opens up further conversations on new topics, which pushes you to deeply contemplate and reflect on the direction this new learning will take you and your students.

Since meeting friends (old and new) is one of my favorite parts of professional learning events, I always try to follow up with any collaborations that we might have discussed at the conference. Some of the most meaningful and powerful collaborations in which my students have engaged have come from educators that I met at a conference. You never know where one tweet, photo, email, or introduction might lead. And who are the ones who really reap the benefits of all this professional learning? Our students. That makes all of this professional learning even more powerful…because it truly is all about them.

In addition to the Mid-level Educators Tweetup on Sunday, May 11 at 1 p.m., you can also find Julie in the Digital Classroom on Sunday, May 11, from 11:20 to 11:40, presenting “Twitter-a-ture: Creating content and Connections Using Twitter.” And you don’t want to miss her session, “The Global Read Aloud: One Book to Connect the World.”

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com
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