How to Get the Most out of Education Conferences

Notes from the Classroom

It’s been a little over a month since I came home from this year’s NCTE convention, and I’ve reflected on and used my learning in new ways every single day. 

But over the past several years of going to professional conferences, that hasn’t always been the case.

I’m sure that a large part of the NCTE carryover can be attributed to the quality of the conference. But I also think that it’s due to some specific, strategic moves I’ve taken on as a participant. As I attend sessions and then again after I return home, there are three moves I make to ensure I bring home more than just books.  

When I encounter an uplifting or provocative idea, I make sure to spread it beyond the walls of the conference.

I attended more than one session after which friends and I would gush about how how it felt like “going to church.” Yes, of course, that’s a good thing because we felt a kind of spiritual revitalization, but it also got me thinking: Does this session just feel good, or is it actually doing some good? There was the worry that “going to church” might really be “preaching to the choir.”

Yes, the spiritual revitalization is good in its own right, but to move beyond preaching to the choir, I reflect on how to spread these ideas to people who aren’t already in “the choir.” I ask myself:

  • Who would benefit from hearing this? How would it benefit them?
  • Who else do I have in my building who would be part of “the choir”? How can I empower them to lead with me?
  • What are my entry points? Are there pieces of this session that are shareable? Quotes or statistics that were particularly resonant?

I also make sure to step out of my comfort zone with conference sessions.

Yes, those “going to church” sessions are awesome and empowering and revitalizing, but sometimes it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and go to the sessions where you might not know so much already. Sometimes these are exactly the sessions that can push your instruction forward. So, when you’re browsing the convention book, look for session descriptions that make you think:

  • That’s what so-and-so in my building is always talking about. I wonder if this would help me figure out what the fuss is about.
  • This issue keeps popping up, and I’ve been doing my best to avoid it. Maybe this is a good way to put it back on my to-do list.
  • I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds like something that might complement what I’m already doing.

Remember to take notes–and then spend time reviewing them.

Sketching big takeaways on my airplane ride home helped me process pages of notes. Click the image to enlarge.

It probably goes without saying that you should take notes during a session. It doesn’t matter whether you use a trusty old paper-and-pen notebook like I do, or you have embraced digital note taking. Just make sure you’ve got a way to capture your thinking as it’s happening.

The same goes for cell phone cameras. Don’t be afraid to take pictures of slides and resources to save for later.

That saving it for later, though, is the most crucial part. After your last session has ended, make sure you take some time to go back through your notes, to start reflecting and synthesizing. I started to do this on the plane ride home, but found that I was just too wiped out to go too far with it. The next day, though, I returned and dug in a little further. It helped me to organize my reflection into a few categories:

  • Resources I can use and share right now
  • Big takeaways to remember forever
  • Opportunities for learning

To seize those opportunities for learning, I ordered a few professional books, started searching some journal subscriptions, and updated my Christmas wishlist. With so many doors for learning opened to me, I know that I’ll be able to carry my conference learning with me for years to come.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Why We’re Thankful This November

Notes from the Classroom

A wise, literacy-loving turkey reflects on gratitude

The world may be full of strife, but this November, our ELA bloggers spent time reflecting on what they’re thankful for.

From generous colleagues to a twist in parent-teacher conferences, these are the reminders that we need–the reminders that can’t help but lift us up this time of year.

Our Lasting Impressions on Students

Driving into work on Halloween, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” was playing on the local classics station. (Some mornings, I listen to angry rap music–but that’s another piece for another time.) As I heard the intensity of the opening organ chords, I suddenly remembered my seventh grade music history teacher, Mrs. Moyes. I only had her for twelve weeks, but ever since that class, nostalgia would always wash over me when I heard those chords. Mrs. Moyes taught us a greatest hits of classical music, and to this day, my learning remains lasting and vivid for these songs. Every time I correctly identify one of these songs, it’s the same feeling I have when I know the final Jeopardy question. And every time, I smile to myself and think of Mrs. Moyes. As teachers, we only have our students for a small window of time. By early November, most of us are fatigued and counting the days to our Thanksgiving break. Sometimes I even question if all that I’m doing will make a lasting impact on my students. I’m thankful for this gentle reminder that my first twelve weeks with students is almost up. What will their “Toccata and Fugue” be? – Lauren Nizol  

What We Build as Teachers

I am thankful
for time spent building a culture;
a connection with my students,
my colleagues,
my family.
For in this time, we
build a community of respect,
responsibility, and reflective
We build a place where individuals listen to understand,
not listen to respond.
We are in pursuit of more.
We work with purposefulness.
We are risk takers.
For this time,
I am thankful. – Tina Luchow

A Surprise in a Parent-Teacher Conference

I’m thankful for failing technology. At the start of this year’s parent-teacher conferences, as I rushed to log in to my grading program, I realized that I’d grabbed a Chromebook that wasn’t charged. No grades. Rather than waste the parent’s three-minute, pre-scheduled conference looking for a new computer, I opened up my workshop notebook and shared my notes about her student. We talked about the independent novels she’s read, the writing pieces she’s working on, the struggles I’m noticing she is having, and the successes she has had so far. It was one of the loveliest conversations I’ve ever had at conferences. The parent left knowing more about her daughter as a writer and reader, and we talked about her learning, rather than discussing a grade report that the mom can access anytime she wants. I never went back to get a new computer that night, and I don’t think I will ever use one at conferences again. I’m thankful the technology snafu forced me to talk about my student rather than just my students’ grades. – Hattie Maguire

How Educators Lift Each Other Up

I am writing this reflection after a whirlwind few days at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention and the National Writing Project Annual Meeting. First, I am incredibly thankful for this network of brilliant, dedicated, inspiring educators who offer so much of themselves to this profession. Once again, I have returned home with a pile of half-baked ideas, free books (!), and, most important, lots of hugs and joy to carry me through the months ahead. It takes a village to support an English teacher, and I am very thankful for my NWP and NCTE Village. I am also thankful that I can learn beside the incredible educators of Oakland County, especially the bloggers who share their stories here, who teach me and encourage me to continue to learn, question, and push for excellence in all opportunities for our learners. I leave work exhausted every day–in the best ways, because of the ways you inspire me to do better. If I had one wish for all you it is this: I wish you could set aside the grading for the long weekend and enjoy a well-deserved break! Happy Thanksgiving. – Andrea Zellner