Today I attended the 39th annual conference for the Association of Middle Level Education in Portland, Ore. I actually presented for this group for a couple of years about 25 years ago when it was The National Middle Schools Association. That was back in the day when we had far fewer middle schools. The model most often employed back then was the junior high school. Junior high schools were grades seven to nine, mini high schools.
The middle-school movement changed that for many school districts. It supported a more collaborative model for educators with a team-oriented approach to education. I was a high school teacher for six years, a junior high-school teacher for ten years and a middle-school teacher for eighteen years. From that perspective, I describe middle-school educators as teachers of kids, and high-school educators as teachers of courses. I also describe elementary teachers as saints. That is not meant to disparage high-school educators. Their job is to prepare students for a college environment, which will be far less supportive or nurturing.
I did not participate in many sessions today, but I did study the extensive program, and I did stop in on a number of sessions to get a feel for the conference. My focus at education conferences is no longer as a classroom teacher but as an educator supporting professional development as a path to education reform. Through that lens, I was amazed at how little the sessions of this conference had evolved in the many years since I presented. Many, many of the sessions were hour-long, PowerPoint presentations with a period of time at the end for questions and answers. In one of the sessions that I monitored, the presenter would not take any questions until she finished her PowerPoint.
I always wonder why experienced educators with a firm grasp on learning and methods of teaching would subject their audience of adults to presentations that they know would never work with their students. For some reason many teachers abandon what they know to become what has been modeled to them as to how an educator should present to colleagues, rather than employ proven methods of teaching. How many people can retain information delivered in text-laden slides spanning over an hour of presentation and only 15 minutes if interaction? Let me be clear. This was not done in every session, and sometimes it may be the only way. The trend, however, should be taking presenters to more effective methods of presentation. Presentation is teaching, and that is the subject we are experts in.
The other big thing that stood out to me was the sessions that were provided. The topics covered many of the important issues of middle-level education. However, there was much duplication. This could be good for the purpose of planning on the part of the attendees. It enables them more flexibility in scheduling their personal slate of sessions. The downside is that redundant subject sessions limit the topics to be presented. Of course my most critical comment would be the lack of technology not in the delivery of the sessions, but within the subjects of the sessions. Yes, it is not an ISTE conference, but education is now employing a great amount of technology with, in many cases, limited professional development for their specific needs in their specific subject areas. More sessions should have been tech-oriented supporting technology literacy in education.
With that thought in mind, I began observing how many of the participants were connected educators. I did hear the Marzano name mentioned in a few sessions so I believe there is some connecting going on, but is it enough? I could only identify about a dozen tweeters at the conference who back-channeled sessions. I do not believe any of the sessions were being live streamed. I was impressed with the mobile app supplied for the program. That might have been why so many participants were looking at their phones. Middle school educators are the most team-oriented collaborative educators in our education system. I could not understand why the tweets were not flying fast and furiously.
It was then that I began to consider my own Twitter stream, my personal learning network. At a glance I realized that much of my network, although global, is weighted on the East Coast. Of course the #AMLE2012 hashtag still should have approached trending, but that never came close. The idea of connected educators should be a focus of all education conferences. Criticism aside, this was a wonderful conference that offered educators a shot in the arm to get those creative juices flowing. People come off of a conference like this ready to move up. The problem settles in as time passes. The idea of being connected enables those educators to keep those juices flowing. The great boost that educators get at the conference is able to continue beyond the conference. Although many education conferences meet some needs of educators, oftentimes they are simultaneously missed opportunities.
This, as I explained, is my view through the lens of an educator interested in professional development leading the way to education reform. We cannot have professional conferences that focus on supporting the status quo. We do need to effectively share what is happening in classrooms today. The greater need, however, is what should be happening in whatever we decide will be the classrooms of tomorrow. This is my lens, my observations, and my opinion.
Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He came to that position after 34 years as a secondary English teacher in the public school system. He was recognized with an Edublog Award for the Most Influential Educational Twitter Series, #Edchat, which he co-founded. Whitby also created The Educator’s PLN and two LinkedIn groups, Technology-Using Professors and Twitter-Using Educators.