Last Friday was an upsetting day. The conference I had attended for the past 10 years (SXSWedu) announced it was cancelling along with the larger SXSW that often brings thousands of people to Austin and over $356 million dollars in revenue to the city. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, I was frustrated. I realize that being frustrated at something like a conference cancellation is extremely small in the scope of what is happening around the world, but I’m just being honest. This event was the most diverse conferences I have attended, and selfishly, I looked forward to growing global collaborations and connections as well as the sharing of ideas for learning.
That night, I agreed to meet my friends downtown at their new bar, called Idle Hands, on Rainey Street here in Austin. When I arrived the mood was somber. The service staff were depressed. Uber drivers, stage crew, bands, waiters, bartenders, valets, food trucks and more make a significant amount of their income from the SXSW event and all the subsidiary events that happen before and after it takes place. In the case of one of the bartenders I spoke with, he makes almost half of his yearly income in the span of just a few weeks because of it.
While this was happening, I pulled out my phone to look at see what the reactions were on Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. The responses ranged from “thank god they cancelled it” to those that were now stuck here because of the late cancellation. Many of these people were from overseas.
People like Ryan King from China and Tracy Mehoke from Wisconsin (by way of Abu Dhabi) were here in Austin and now wondering what to do with themselves. Others like Krista Vaught from Florida and Vitor Bruno from Brazil were educators in a similar predicament of having already arrived here and literally collecting their baggage when the announcement came out. These people began to find each other through various social platforms and quickly formed an “EdUnconference” Slack channel as a way to connect and try and coordinate some meet-ups around Austin.
While this was happening, an idea started to rise up in my mind. We have all of these brilliant minds trapped in Austin, but no way for them all to gather. I’ve hosted educational conferences for years in Austin and around the world. While those events take months to plan, I didn’t have that kind of time. I had 72 hours.
I also needed a place. Enter Idle Hands. Like many bars in Austin, their space had been rented out for SXSW, but those sponsors had since dropped out leaving a fully-stocked event space with complete with service staff but missing an important thing….people. I pitched them the idea of hosting “an alternate event” to SXSWedu. They were all for it and excited to help out. The owners of Ranch Hand, a local food truck that had taken up residence in the kitchen of Idle Hands said, “We have nothing to do and would love to have some people to serve!”
I immediately put the news out on Twitter that night.
Within minutes Krista reached out and told me about the Slack channel. Magic started to happen. On Saturday, I got up and bought a domain and built a website out for AltSXSWedu.com. I threw together a quick form for presenters to submit ideas (so quick that I left off the field for people to enter a presentation title!) and an Eventbrite page for people to get their free tickets. By mid-day Sunday we had 20 submissions with over 50 people that were listed as attendees and I started to think…this might actually happen.
On Monday, I met up with Krista and Tracy for the first time in person. We started going over the logistics of what the 2-day event would look like and how we could utilize the space (a former house converted into a bar) to facilitate discussions and learning. I’m the type of person that thinks and creates better collaboratively and having these two share and bounce ideas off of was amazing. Krista agreed to lead the opening session with an activity called “Collaborating with Strangers” and Tracy was going to MC some “Flash Talks” – quick, 5-minute talks with no slides, for anyone that wanted to get up and speak. We had poetry, topic mixers, round-tables, and immersive experiences. Late Monday night some signage was put together and name badges were created.
I reached out to some local vendors like Bulb, Kahoot, Squarecap, Firia Labs and Brainpop to cover items like waters, coffee and snacks for attendees. I contacted good friend Humberto Perez to see if his band MariaBloom and another band could play both days to wrap up the event. All of this happened in less than 48 hours. My INCREDIBLE wife, Renee, who always is so supportive of my crazy creative ideas, was by my side for the next two days helping run registration, logistics and answer questions.
Then Tuesday morning arrived. I didn’t know what to expect. As people started to arrive, I grabbed my portable speaker and started blaring some Stevie Ray Vaughn to welcome our international guests to the event. The learning could not be stopped!
In all, over 120 people would attend and over 30 sessions were shared either face to face or virtually. Using my daughter’s portable karaoke speaker, I kicked off the event by telling everyone that they were not attendees….they were organizers.
We shared ideas.
We invented the #AltHandShake (photo left)
We argued about educational strategies and theories.
We collaborated on how to address the rapid shift to online learning that was about to take place.
As the event wrapped up on Wednesday afternoon, I was physically exhausted but mentally and emotionally fulfilled. I made connections and learned ideas that I rarely do at a large conference. This event COULD NOT have happened without the support of the amazing companies like those mentioned above and amazing people like Ryan, Tracy, Krista, Renee, Anne, Jami, Humberto, Vitor, Meghdut, Pauline, Anna, Claudio, Carolyn, Al, Nikki, Rebecca, Sarathi, Maru, Suzanne, Reyna, and many, many more that made this event happen.
Minds from all over the world, brought together because of a virus, showing me that learning can’t be stopped even when the world around us is facing uncertainty.
I will cherish the new connections I made, the things I learned and the memories I made for the rest of my life.
We did have a few news agencies come by to see what we were up to. If you’re interested in hearing more, here are links to their stories about AltSXSWedu:
As I approached the my new school, I had some serious apprehension. Why did mom make me transfer to Zed Middle School? None of my friends were here and the stories about this school were unreal. Scary stories. Stories I really don’t want to believe.
There were rumors of vampires living in the attic and strange creatures living in the basement. Stories about detention being one of those spike-enclosed coffins where you couldn’t move without fear of losing a limb. As I walked into the front doors a loud creeeeeeak echoed down the dusty and cobweb-filled hallways. Were the stories true? Or were they worse?
The front office secretary was a witch. I’m not sure if this was because today was October 31st or if she was an actual witch, but after speaking with her, I supposed it was the latter.
“Where’s your transfer slip?!?” she screeched.
“YOUR TRANSFER SLIP!” she bellowed.
“Oh, you mean this?” and I handed her the slip of paper that had come with me from Viva Middle School, along with my tattered backpack and my Ghostbusters trapper keeper.
“Go down the hall. Room 666. You are late for Mr. Stein’s class. And he HATES it when kids are late.”
I approached my first class and looked for room 666. Frank N. Stein had been a teacher at this school for what must have seemed like hundreds of years. His style of teaching was a mash up of body parts and trendy instructional approaches of years past. Think Madeline “Vampire” Hunter-style with some SAMR (Scary Anthrax Mummified Ruins) model thrown in for good measure.
“Come in. So nice of you to join us.” Mr. Stein grunted.
My teeth were starting to chatter as I made my way towards my seat where my first of a series of horrors would begin. Unlike the nice flexible furniture at Viva Middle, the desks in these schools were akin to all-in-one torture devices. A metal arm bar dug into my ribs as I sat on the hard, flat chair. My back began to ache but I dare not move.
“I wonder what it looks like to collaborate with other students?” I asked myself inside my head. The truth is, there was no collaboration in this class. In fact, I’m not sure exactly sure there was even learning taking place in this class. I looked around at my classmates to see if there was any hope of friendship or salvation in this hostile environment.
That’s when I noticed it.
Something was off.
All the kids had their heads down, noses buried in their textbooks. I looked at the kid to my left. He had blood coming out of his ears.
“Um, excuse me,” I whispered, “you have blood coming out of your ears.”
“GRrrrraaaaachhh!” he moaned back.
His eyes seemed to have a cloudy haze over them and brownish-drool began to drop from his mouth. I looked around the room frantically for help. All the students seemed to be in a dazed stupor as they looked at their Fearson textbooks. Mr. Stein continued to speak to the class in what seemed like some sort of spell or chant. I leaned forward and tapped on the shoulder of the student in front of me. She turned to reveal greenish, torn skin and black teeth.
“Arrrrrrraaaach” she growled as her head turned and red eyes looked me up and down like a piece of meat.
What is this place? Where am I?
The next class wasn’t much better. In fact, it was worse. The teacher was some sort of banshee. You couldn’t see her face through her stringy black hair and she walked almost like in fast-forward at times. Jumping around the room from desk to desk. In her hands, she clutched a piece of paper with lots of little dots on it.
Oh no. I had heard rumors of these. The scrolls of the dead. They were called Scaretrons. Little bewitched pieces of paper that you have to fill out with blood and slowly suck away your soul.
It was at that moment that I realized where I was.
Zed was a school for the undead.
Torture-device desks in rows.
Scary, unapproachable staff.
And the soul-sucking high stakes assessments filled out via Scaretron.
This was not a place to learn. This was a place where brains go to die.
Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a large faction of educators. While we respect the way you have run the training methods of your organization in the past, it is time for a change. As such, we are holding your teachers’ learning hostage. Their learning is safe and unharmed at this time, however, if you would like to release their learning, you must meet our list of demands when it comes to how you provide training for adults. Failure to meet these demands will result in the wide-spread lack of professional growth and lack of improvement in pedagogical practice by your staff.
It doesn’t hurt to spend a little energy and effort promoting professional learning and getting teachers excited for it. Come up with a theme and make it feel like an exclusive “members-only” type event. While some of them may come because they “have to”, it helps start the training off with excitement and energy. One example would be to send out a video or graphic that highlights the training in a fun way. Here’s one that takes a “Point Break” theme to make learning about High Quality Assessments just a tad more exciting:
Building on the buzz and excitement from your promotion, take some time to create an atmosphere for your training event. This can be as simple as having some appropriately-themed music to adding some simple decorations around the tables. When someone walks into your room, they should be excited about being there, not dreading it. Know that many educators are entering your room with the expectation that this will just be another 6 hours of “sit n’ get”, which is why it’s important to create that exciting first impression when they walk in. Have fun activity for them that involves more than just making a name card like “tweet what your first job ever was” or “find a picture of what super hero best represents you”. This will give you as the trainer an opportunity to connect with the attendees as well as give you some material that you can use later.
Research shows that hunger affects the brain and cognitive development. While we know funding is always tight and food is the first thing to get cut, this is a list of demands. If you want your staff to learn, make sure they are not hungry. This doesn’t mean you have to provide a 5-course meal, it can be as simple as a basket of chocolate or some protein-heavy snack mix. Having protein in your diet not only creates better avenues for neurotransmitters to help with learning and retention, it increases happiness according to this study.
And this doesn’t mean have 10 minutes set aside for walking around and adding notes to those giant sticky chart papers on the walls. Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the attendee. Would you attend your own professional learning? “Fun” can sometimes be a negative word when it comes to learning and it shouldn’t be. Making learning fun, even for adults, will not only increase engagement in the learning, it will keep them coming back for more.
Having periods of movements or “brain breaks” throughout your training not only provide some much needed breaks from what is being input into the brain, research shows that movement facilitates brain plasticity (essentially the science of having the brain learn something new). Doing a brief improv activity or having your attendees move and stretch increases oxygen flow to the brain as well as this plasticity. A side-effect of doing a group improv activity is that it creates an environment of trust and risk-taking as well as collegiality between staff that might not normally be working along side one another.
How many times have we heard that adults shouldn’t lecture children all day? Do we think that what’s best with pedagogy wouldn’t also apply to what’s best with andragogy? Who’s doing the work and talking during professional learning? If it’s more the instructor than then the attendees, you need to rethink how you are engaging your adult learners. When outlining your day for professional learning, try and employ somewhat of a “chunk n’ chew” method to the day. Break the day up into 20-30 minute segments that involving both introduction of a new skill, but also time for attendees to try it out and discuss ideas for application.
Taking into account the demands for engagement, movement, and making things more student-led, you must create opportunities for staff to collaborate on an idea or solve a problem. Providing time for collaboration in your professional learning allows opportunities for staff to discuss best practices around a topic or share strategies around a particular pedagogical problem.
Learning new things and skills takes a lot of cognitive ability. Having a training where all you do is show a series of new tools or tricks can be overwhelming to the brain and makes it nearly impossible to internalize all of it. As mentioned in demand #6, creating “chunk n’ chew” learning opportunities throughout the training will give staff an opportunity to try out the new skill as well as plan for application. Taking time to plan for application of the skill when it is learned, has a greater chance to translate into actual practice in the classroom.
We try to differentiate for learners in our classrooms, why not do the same for staff? Every single person comes into a training session with a different set of prior skills, knowledge, and preferred learning methods. When planning your professional learning, you need to allow opportunities for both the struggling learners and the high-flyers to be successful. This can be as simple as sharing your outline for the day ahead of time on Google docs or a website so that some can go at their own pace, while others can revisit a newly learned strategy.
Our final demand is that you provide some time for staff to reflect on what they have learned. When planning the professional learning experience for your staff, make sure there is time to reflect throughout the day. This doesn’t mean just spend the last 5 minutes reflecting on something they learned that day, but rather actual pockets of time throughout the day where they can reflect in the medium of their choosing. After all, educational reformer John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
We feel our list of demands are not unreasonable. Please secure these demands prior to your next professional learning event or your teachers’ learning will suffer the consequences.
The E.B.P.L. (Educators for Better Professional Learning)
Being in education, I’ve come across several names that are, well, just plain crazy. Having grown up with a last name like Hooker, I heard all sorts of jokes as you might imagine. My sister, Anita, had an even worse time of things (go ahead, say it out loud and you’ll figure out why). One of the first questions I always get is “what were your parents thinking?”
Since my parents never could come up with a believable answer to that question, it inspired me to look for other names out there that might prompt the same question. What follows is a list of some of the names that either I, other educators, facebook friends, or twitter followers have come across in their lives. I realize this has nothing to do with technology aside from the fact that social media is great for even the minutia (credit Dean Shareski for that one)
To keep this in some sort of orderly fashion, I’ll list these in categories:
Food Related Category:
I’m not sure why parents like to name their kid after food items. Maybe it’s America’s fascination with eating. Perhaps it’s what was on the menu the night of inception. Who knows, but here goes:
Pepper Mint (I think these two were related)
Cinnamon Danish – A middle school student from Sweetwater
Brocolli (I kid you not, can’t remember who told me this, but at least it’s a break from
the sweet names)
OrangeJello (or-ange-ello) and LemonJello (Le-mange-ello) – Again, relatives.
Mister Alfredo (Actual spelling – Not quite a food, but close)
Razi Berry (pronounced like raspberry)
Alternate Spellings and Pronunciations:
I’m not talking about adding a “y” in Robyn or anything either. I’m talking blatant disregard for the English dictionary.
Butiful Mellody (supposed to be “Beautiful Melody”)
La-A (pronounced La-dash-ah)
Neveah (Heaven spelled backwards)
Nirmal (wonder how normal this kid will turn out)
Espn (Pronounced Es-Pin)
ABC (Pronounced uh-bee-cee)
ABCDE (Pronounced Ab-sud-ee)
Pajama (Pronounced paj-ee-may)
CacheMonet (Pronounced like “Cash Money”)
Name, Profession or Both?
Bus Drivers – Mrs. Sippi (probably not a good name for a bus driver) and Mr. Safety (much better name for a bus driver)
OB/GYN – Dr. Cassinova and Dr. Hurt – Which one would you go to as a woman?
Kindergarten teacher – Mrs. Gizzlebox – Just sounds like a teacher’s name.
And of course, Dick Chopp – A famous local urologist who’s motto is “There’s more vasectomies to be done”. Seriously. Here’s his site: http://www.urologyteam.com/?q=dr-richard-chopp
A family of three named: Lamblight, Moonbeam and Starshine
Another family of three: Sir Galliant, Sir Courage, Sir Valiant
Twins: Dorothy and Dorothea
Ima and Eura Hogg – Former Governor of Texas Jim Hogg’s daughters
April May – Her last name was June ‘
Three girls – Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday
The Liss Family – Ruth and Dick
Ferrel Hogg (no relation to Jim from above)
Howard E Butts (Founder of the famous H.E.B. grocery store – probably a better name than Butts Market)*
John The Baptist (that’s his first name)
Borderline Inappropriate Category:
Already mentioned my sister Anita Hooker – Especially fun when a principal calls her down to the office, comes out like “I need a hooker to the office”
Harry Dick (Senator)
Phillip Ajarapoo (a teacher in Round Rock)
Shitthead (pronounced shi-thead)
While all these give me more inspiration than every to name my next child “@” or “Google”, I think with a name like Hooker he/she will have a hard enough time. Finally, I bring you one more late addition:
Batman Bin Suparman
This one actually comes with a picture of a driver’s license:
Thanks to contributers Chris Parker, Jolynn Rettig, @Kristy_Vincent, AJ Muller, Mary Ries, Shawn Clark, Sean Forkner, Joan Hughes, @computerExplore aka Lisa Johnson, Jim Ford, Sheri Ford, Shawn Clark, Donyle Clark, Karen French, Tracy Lord, Sue St. Germain, Jane Mullen, Catherine Searcy-Edmund and of course, my sister, Anita.
*Thanks to Molly May for pointing out that Harry E. Butts of HEB fame, is actually Howard E. Butts