This summer, thousands of educators and vendors who serve education descended on New Orleans and braved 110% humidity for the first “back to normal” conference for the International Society of Technology in Education, or ISTE. After two virtual conferences, folks were excited to be back in person, and despite continued COVID protocols, hugs abounded as friends and colleagues reunited on the tradeshow floor and during sessions throughout the New Orleans convention center.
My conference experience began at the Future Ready Library Summit on Collaboration where 150 librarians from across the country—and even overseas—gathered to brainstorm ways in which they could better collaborate with teachers, principals, district leadership, and each other. I had the opportunity to welcome the group and felt compelled to share a story about one of my previous visits to New Orleans in 2005, about a week after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Back then, I worked as a television journalist in Oklahoma City. I traveled with the Army to New Orleans to cover the search, rescue, and recovery missions. While there, we slept in the Walmart parking lot in the Ninth Ward. I had to wear a mask (many years before masks were the norm) and put Vicks VapoRub under my nose to combat the smell of the flood water and waste. My videographer smoked cigarettes at the time, and I found myself standing next to him because the cigarettes smelled better than the air (and I’ve never had a cigarette in my life)!
While canvassing the neighborhood, we found many homes that had been successfully evacuated. Heartbreakingly, we found some homes in which the resident didn’t make it out. But I’ve never forgotten when we knocked on the door of a home and Paulette answered. She was wading through a foot of water in her living room. She explained that she didn’t want to evacuate because her friend Sylvia brings her food every two weeks and didn’t know how she would survive without Sylvia’s delivery. What Paulette didn’t understand was that Sylvia wouldn’t be bringing her food. We convinced her to go with us to the Superdome, where she would be transported to one of five cities taking evacuees.
I’ve never forgotten Paulette. I have no idea what happened to her but can only hope she found herself in a city with the kind of support services she needed.
I shared Paulette’s story with the Future Ready group at ISTE that day because she had no control over the hurricane headed for her home; she had no control over the next delivery of her groceries; and she had no control over where the Army transported her for her next home. Not having control is scary.
And there’s my point. There are many esoteric challenges facing education today. Librarians can’t control the pandemic… or parents arguing about masks, vaccines, or books. But librarians can control how and if they collaborate.
At the same session, Future Ready Librarian Spokeswoman Shannon Miller shared several inspiring stories about ways in which she collaborates with teachers, school leaders, and her community. Here’s what I learned from Shannon:
- Transformation doesn’t happen overnight;
- If you do a great project, share that great project with your teachers, school community, and your peers on social media;
- Don’t be an expert. Call an expert;
- Don’t ask for a meeting with teachers—they don’t have time. Instead, take a 3-minute walk and talk between classes;
- Plan for meaningful collaboration for students across grade levels.
The rest of my time at the conference was spent meeting with trade publications that cover education, such as eSchool News, talking to customers on the tradeshow floor, learning about the 450 fellow companies exhibiting at the show, and sharing stories. While in-person attendance at the conference was estimated to be about half of a normal ISTE headcount, in most cases, this was the first time to reconnect with these folks, in person, since the pandemic began.
During my meetings with the media, we discussed what educators are experiencing in the wake of the strangest two years in the industry, including:
- How teachers are still fatigued by technology (and generally, just fatigued). We heard many say that unless a tool is already a part of everyday instruction, it may likely fall by the wayside. Teachers, we hear you! It’s not hard to understand that there is too much to do without multiple add-on tech supplements.
- Much of the available ESSER funding has not yet been spent in districts. Again, so much to do, but help deciphering what’s available and how to apply it may be what educators need.
- Tutoring is now more popular and in use than before the pandemic. Schools and parents are collaborating to help kids get up to speed academically.
When I spoke to teachers, librarians, and tech directors from districts around the country, and our own team in and around our booth, we shared experiences and “what’s worked” ourselves, and we also talked about ISTE. These topics seemed to come up repeatedly:
- Zoom is great, however, ISTE was an opportunity to learn from peers and build relationships in a deeper way than zoom allows. Everyone loved finally being back in person!
- Tracking devices and resources accurately has become a critical part of district operations; controlling overspending is a common concern in almost every realm.
- Supply chain challenges, including book orders, remain obstacles for everyone. Someday, we all imagined with hope, perhaps things will return to normal!
This was the first national conference I attended in-person since the pandemic began.
The entire experience reinforced the message that started the conference. There are so many challenges facing us daily that are entirely out of our control. Yet, collaboration is critical. It’s within our control. And interacting with other humans is important… even if it’s in New Orleans, in June, with 110% humidity!