“People have one thing in common; they are all different.” – Philosopher Robert Zend
Last summer, Adam Phyall and I were engaged in an interesting conversation. This isn’t uncommon as anyone that knows us knows we can debate and discuss just about anything under the sun, but this time it was different. For one, we weren’t at a conference or a school building. We were “tubing” down a river in central Texas (a favorite past-time of ours down here). I throw that in not as a non sequitur, but to mention that we were both out of our normal “professional” environments which enabled some freedom in what turned into a highly engaging discussion around equity. During our 3 hours down the river we discussed our backgrounds. Where we came from. How we were raised. What we each had to overcome and what kind of supports we had. How we raise our children and how we find and cultivate “our crew” of friends.
We discussed race openly and honestly. This included conversations that might be uncomfortable for some, but with our years of friendship and genuine empathy, it was absolutely captivating. We wondered – how do we help students understand the differences in race and culture in a way that is productive? Too often uncomfortable conversations are avoided or left to HR personnel that come in and talk to staff about equity in the hopes it makes its way into the classroom. Not knowing how to proceed on that front, we stuck a pin in the conversation until a later date.
That later date was a month later. I was about to take the stage at the GAMEIS conference in Savannah when Adam came in to chat. We sat in the front row and re-engaged in the conversation from a month before, albeit in a much more formal setting now. As we went back and forth, we weren’t aware that more and more people began to seat around us and listen in to our discussion. They were both “highly engaged and intellectually stimulated” (their quote, not mine) at not only our content but how we addressed what they admitted was a hard topic to tackle with honesty. At one point near the end of the conversation, Adam remarked, “We should just do this as a session.”
Our opportunity would arrive just a few weeks later. As we are both national advisors for Future Ready Schools, there was an opportunity to present our idea at the February TCEA conference in Austin. Future Ready Schools not only tackles the issues of technology, budget, privacy, and curriculum, but is also an organization that champions opportunities to solve issues of inequity in schools across the country. Adam and I had our opportunity to formalize what started as an informal discussion and turn it into an interactive conversation around equity.
On February 3rd, we walked into our session with both excitement and un-easiness as to how our conversation would be accepted. To ramp up the talk, we decided to wear coordinating t-shirts of “Ebony” for me and “Ivory” for him. As it was a Monday morning session in a week-long conference focused on technology tools, we weren’t sure how many people to expect around the topic. We were pleased to see so many show up ready to engage and discuss the truth about stereotypes we make regularly in our schools and how to use student backgrounds as a way to better inform our instruction rather than pass judgment on their character.
During one of the segments, we asked the audience to list what words we use in education that could lead unintended stereotypes. While Adam and I brainstormed a few, they came up with an overwhelming amount as you can see in the screen shot below:
We also discussed recent cases in Texas and New Jersey of students being asked to change their appearance and what other cultural assumptions we might be making in schools. Technology also has a part to play in this discussion. As was witnessed at the conference, eSports is making a HUGE splash across many high schools throughout the country. Those students on eSports teams can practice in school but many also practice at home on $3000+ computer gaming systems. That immediately eliminates many of our lower-economic students from participating, a talking point many in the crowd hadn’t immediately considered.
While I won’t go through every point of the talk, our main goal was not to tell them how to solve every issue of inequity, but rather to make them think and reflect on their current situations. Neither of us represent an entire race. We only represent a viewpoint of two educators that have lived somewhat mirrored lives only from opposite identities when it comes to race. We listed the following three questions for audience members to reflect on:
At the end, we attempted to summarize our unique viewpoints with passion and emotion in 3 minute co-poetry slam titled “Ebony and Ivory”. After the talk ended, we were overwhelmed with the amount of support and interest from the audience. Many commented on the fact that these were the conversations we needed to be having regularly in schools. What kinds of conversations are you having at your school around equity and race? Too often times, these conversations are not conversations at all. They are a set of bullet points on a powerpoint at the beginning of the year staff orientation or a required video that staff watch along with blood-born pathogens so that schools can “check the box” on equity training.
We had definitely touched on a nerve while at the same time stretching both of us out of comfort zones when it comes to presenting. We’re not sure where this goes next but we do have some plans on how to engage students more in this conversation at the classroom level (stay tuned). We also hope to expand this session to more events in the future, as we feel this is a conversation that needs to take place in district offices and classrooms across the country.
Interested in having Adam and Carl come to your district or event? Reach out here: Mrhook.it/speak
This year marks the 22nd year that I’ll be attending the TCEA conference. For those of you joining me at the event this year, I thought it might be nice to share a few ideas on how to make the best of your TCEA experience. I created this “manifesto” of sorts for those that are either going for the first time or are just needing help not being overwhelmed by all the great sessions in their lineup.
If you are a first-time or veteran TCEA-er, hopefully some of these tips will help you as you make your way towards Austin next week.
If you are with a group, create a back channel
Attending a large conference with a group can be engaging but you also can run into serious FOMO (Fear of missing out) on sessions you don’t attend. At my previous district, I invited all of our staff attending to our own district Slack channel. Slack is a great way to share resources and communicate in a group format that won’t crowd your inbox during an event like this. I consider it kind of like a group text on steroids. If you aren’t comfortable with Slack, using a running Google doc or a Wakelet board would be another way to collaborate and share resources. We will still encourage staff to follow along at the #TCEA2020 hashtag, but using a private back channel can be powerful when reflecting and sharing after the event is over.
Download the app
Once on site, you’ll want to make sure you have a mobile version of the schedule. You can grab the giant paper notebook schedule if you prefer, but lugging that thing around can be cumbersome and you won’t know when sessions cancel at the last minute. Create an account and save sessions you’ll want to attend on the app. There’s also a social feed, a map, and a few other goodies located in the app. Be sure to upload a profile picture so you aren’t just a walking silhouette. 😉
TCEA has several vendor-sponsored events that happen each evening of the week (especially Tuesday-Thursday). While it’s nice to have free food and beverages, I’ve found that these events are where I make the best professional connections. Sharing stories about our successes and failures over a malted, fermented beverage can be quite the bonding experience after all. The Exhibit hall opens at 3pm on Tuesday this year, so be sure to visit some of the vendor booths and see what is going on in terms of evening events and the tons of amazing giveaways they seem to always have. Also, check your email, as many VIP or after hours events may get lost in your spam.
TCEA doesn’t follow traditional conference schedules (1 hour sessions repeating throughout). There are variety of sessions from 50-minute talks to 90-minute hands-on to 2-hour poster sessions and even half and full-day workshops. When you are locating your favorite sessions in the app, be sure to pay attention to the start and end times as many overlap. Also, note that this year, TCEA has a dedicated time slot for the Exhibit hall (2:00-3:00) on Wednesday and Thursday, so that will likely be when it is most packed.
Sessions that intrigue me
I’m lucky enough to have 5 sessions accepted this year, but as they are spread out throughout the week, I’ll likely get a chance to check out many more sessions than I normally do (see my session list at the bottom of this post). Here are a handful of the sessions I’m intrigued with by day:
Fake News, Alternative Facts – Jennifer LaGarde
Empowered by What You See – Kasey Hutchinson & Adam Phyall
Making OER SMART – Leo Brehm & Bruce Umpstead
Curating Virtual Reality w/Spark – Monica Burns
Future Ready Culture: Creating Equity through Empathy – Brianna Hodges
Digital Wellness: Engagement Toolkit – Lisa Johnson & Chris Hanson
Educated by Design – Rabbi Michael Cohen
Creative Story Telling with Spark – Claudio Zavala Jr
Personal & Authentic – Tom Murray
Let’s Bring Literacy to Life with Making – Shannon Miller
Infographics: Not Just Posters, 25 Creative uses – Rachelle Poth
Top Apps and Practices for Busy Administrators – Leslie Fisher
Create Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality – Jaime Donally
Takeaways and Reflections
Attending an event like this can be incredibly rewarding and energizing to those of us in education. However, it’s important that those that attend also bring back and share their learning with others on campus.
Here is a list of questions to keep in the back of your mind as you attend sessions and look for things to bring back. (shout out to Lisa Johnson @techchef4u for these)
- What are the top sessions/topics that you liked?
- What are the top sessions/topics that you would like to take back to your campus to impact change?
- What are the top sessions/topics that challenged your beliefs?
- Who was someone you connected with that impacted you?
- Who are the top people that engaged you?
- What are the top resources you found most impactful?
- What are the top pieces of research or studies you feel are most impactful for our students and/or teachers?
- How will I share my new discoveries from this event with my staff?
While there are many other questions you are thinking about than the ones above, keeping these in the back of your mind while attending TCEA allows you time to reflect when it’s all over and also think about ways to share your new discoveries with others when you return. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation.
For me personally, my barometer of success is fairly low. If I walk away every day and have both learned something new and met a new colleague, I consider the day a success. I hope you all have many successes next week and please come by and see me either at my sessions or somewhere in between!
On January 16th, 2014 I held a press conference to announce my retirement. There comes a time in every person’s life when they know it’s time to move on. I’ve seen some of the most memorable sports retirements and wanted mine to be modeled in the same vain.
Unlike those memorable speeches held in stadiums around the country, mine was held in my kitchen around the table. No microphones or press (unless you include the 3 precocious girls running around at the time).
It was time.
And so, with a heavy heart I told my wife that I was retiring from the DJ business. Instead of tearful goodbyes and interview questions those athletes face, my exit interview was much more steeped in reality. My wife’s response was, “that’s great honey, can you change the baby’s diaper?”
From a career that had humble beginnings DJing a friend’s wedding as a favor in 2010 to the height of my career in 2012, I had a lot of joy in getting the crowd up and moving during a wedding. I’m not blessed with much musical talent and I’m notorious for singing the wrong words to songs. One thing I’ve always been able to do well is motivate an audience to get up and dance.
I realized something those last few wedding gigs – good teachers are essentially classroom DJs.
Think about it.
Your job as a teacher is to motivate the kids to learn. The good ones know when things are going slow, when the crowd is starting to get bored and they change the song. Sometimes, you even need to get out into the middle of the room and get the kids up and moving. I mean, if we didn’t do that, we could essentially be replaced by a really good Pandora station for learning. Here are four traits that really good teachers and DJ’s share:
Just as there are classic songs that we play, there are classic lessons that teachers teach. However, the same songs don’t always work for the same crowd. If I tried to play some hip-hop at a predominately country wedding, I’d get a lot of listless, slack-jawed stares. The same is true for the how we teach. I used Google Docs with the Bride and Groom to request songs for their ceremony in advance. This “formative assessment” told me a lot about their styles and tastes and I could tailor the music to fit their needs. I see teachers doing more and more of this in classrooms as they change the direction of a lesson based on the crowd’s tastes. Sometimes, you have to remix it, change the style and suit the interests of your audience.
One other thing I loved about DJing was discovering all the new music the “kids these days” were listening to. Keeping my material fresh and up to date was a big key to my success. There’s nothing more embarrassing than playing MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit to an empty dance floor. As teachers, we also must make an effort to stay up to date. The influx of technology and tools available on the web are infinite and sometimes mind-numbing. However, using these fresh tools can keep your crowd more engaged and often will save you time in your day.
This one was a challenge for me early in my career. I felt it was so important to keep people dancing non-stop for 4 hours that I never planned for breaks or mixing in slow songs (“drink-getters” we call those in the biz). A good DJ knows when to change things up by reading the audience. With the amount of content we are “forced” to get through in the classroom, it’s easy to put the petal to the metal for 180 days straight. However, you’ll leave your students exhausted and drained if you went at that pace every day. Instead, change it up a bit. Have a “slow dance” from time to time to allow kids to catch their breath, reflect, and then get ready for more.
Some of my most memorable moments of being a wedding DJ are when the crowd responds to a song. (The Isley’s Brother’s “Shout” being the ultimate audience response song) . Sometimes in the classroom there can be that magical moment where the kids are so engaged you can almost feel them learning together “out loud” as a group. While you can do you best to anticipate this by judging your audience, adjusting your music and pacing, sometimes, you just have to let it go and let them take control. Pass the mic around and let them sing their rendition of “Sweet Caroline” so they can make those memories.
While I may be retiring in name, I’m not retiring in spirit. My crowd has shifted from inebriated party-goers to teachers and administrators that are thirsty to learn. My music is now the infusion of technology and dynamic learning in every day classroom life. I still need to judge the crowd for interest, avoid the empty dance floors, and allow them time to get a drink every now and then. So, in a way, this isn’t a retirement, it’s a melding of my previous career with my current one. I’m teaching like a DJ.
And that is sweet music to my ears….even if I get the words wrong from time to time.