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How I became an active learner at ASCD “Empower18”

Did you miss the ASCD conference? No worries; here's what happened

As ASCD “Empower18” kicked off in Boston on Friday, March 23 I knew the four days were going to be “wicked awesome”—I mean, come on!—it’s Boston. But somehow, the event toped even my highest expectations.

I was motivated to be both a learner and a leader at this year’s ASCD conference. In his keynote, Manny Scott said, “Be a student for your students,” so I prided myself on learning outside of my comfort zone as well as chances to learn within it. I became an active learner and I wanted to maximize every opportunity during this event.

There were so many sessions that matched various interests. My two must-haves: #CultureEd Panel and Unleashing Teacher-Led Innovation in Schools: Practical Tools That Have Real Impact. The common themes were taking risks in teaching and learning and letting your students’ creativity and discovery learning take center stage.

Learning from others

A few other impactful learning sessions included:

• Upgrading Your PBL Practice: New Support for Project-Based Teaching
• Inspiring Disadvantaged and At-Risk Students’ Character and Best Work Through Purpose and SEL
• Implementing Differentiating Instruction: Tips for Mentoring Teachers
• MASCD Ignite: Igniting the Learning of the Whole Child in Massachusetts, in which 10 amazing educators shared Ignite presentations on a range of topics including being a superhero educator to school-based programs.

Personal highlights

Some of the other highlights for me were listening to Carol Ann Tomlinson talking about differentiation, Todd Whitaker on school culture, and Steven Anderson digging deep about technology. The “whole child” theme was the foundation of all the learning at “Empower18.” ASCD is dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We heard the following two statements and observed them in practice many times in sessions, learning labs, poster presentations, and the keynote:

• Every child is entitled to the promise of a teacher’s optimism, enthusiasm, time, and energy.
• A great educator never achieves greatness for himself or his class by working to make all his students alike. Educators should be champions of every student who enters the schoolhouse doors.

But how? This is where we as learners take the knowledge, skills, strategies, and experiences from ASCD and put it into our own work. As a district and edtech leader, here are some of the themes from ASCD “Empower18” that resonated most for me. I will use them to motivate my work and inspire others to be the best we can be for our students.

(Next page: An inside look at ASCD “Empower18”)

It all starts with relationships.

Education can feel lonely at times. During Dr. Jill Biden’s keynote, she emphasized the fact that the challenges of working in a profession as important as education require us to find our “people”—the colleagues who will push us to do better, be better, and want better for those we serve as well as for ourselves. General Powell shared a story about leadership and ensuring his soldiers were respected and cared for. All of this is built through trust and relationships.

Challenge yourself to be the best you can be.

Dr. Biden shared that learners and leaders view challenge as an opportunity that needs to be dusted off and polished. Her remarks about challenge, opportunity, and gifts made me realize that we need to continually challenge ourselves to find new (or renewed) motivation. Push the boundaries of your comfort zone! Allow yourself to become more innovative, experimental, and inventive. When you expand your thinking, you also increase opportunities to share this knowledge with your colleagues and schools.

Tell your district/school’s story.

Branding your learning culture is everyone’s job. Encourage all stakeholders to share positive and public praise for the incredible things happening in your district. Use newsletters, social media, and face-to-face events to spread the positive messages about kids and initiatives. Don’t be afraid to tell your school’s story—if you don’t, someone else will. Create a unique hashtag for social media for your school and be transparent with all the excellence happening. I saw many districts wearing spirit gear that shouted school pride.

Be flexible with learning spaces.

I attended many sessions expressing that students learn best when their physical space matches their mental space. ASCD modeled this thinking with EdCamp and Learning Labs sessions that were designed to allow participants to lead and learn for most the session time. Participants had active involvement in the activities through discovery learning. Take this model of instruction and think about your school or classroom. Students want more than the “sit and git”—they want to be actively involved in their learning.

Create ongoing projects.

With flexible learning spaces as a foundational message, leaders were also encouraged to promote projects, not just lessons. The key to projects is to provide plenty of real-world choices that enable students to demonstrate what they are learning. Many stand-alone objectives or state standards can be met in one well-crafted project that allows students to decide what the final product looks like. Ongoing projects stimulate collaboration, the environment upon which the student-centered classroom is built.

Integrate technology.

In today’s digital world, it doesn’t matter if your district is one-to-one or working toward increasing learning tools because students have devices in the palms of their hands. Students will be more engaged in any project if they can use tools for presenting, curating, and sharing information.

ASCD “Empower18” inspired me to get better. Listening to Manny Scott talk about how relationships form the base for helping all learners succeed helped to solidify that we all do great work individually, but we do greater work when we rely on others and when they rely on us. I will close with the words of General Colin Powell. He stated, “I can’t change the past. So, I don’t talk about it. The only thing I can change in the years I have left is the future. And that’s why we must focus on the children.”

I am challenging all leaders out there to read these themes (or take what you learned in person) and change your learning landscape to support the whole child.

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