08/21/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Summertime for Educators: Soaking Up the Conferences

Ahh, summer vacation. The weather's great, the hallways are quiet, and there's plenty of time to strategize for the upcoming academic year. One of my primary focuses this summer has been preparing to implement a new "coded curriculum" this fall at Beaver, which, as I described in my last post, will ensure that every student learns to code by graduation. In addition to meeting with teachers and faculty members to design the curriculum, we've submitted a session proposal to host a panel entitled "The Coded Curriculum" (video) at SXSWedu (you can read about and give our session a 'thumbs up' here).

I'm a strong believer in continuous professional development, and conferences are a great way to learn from fellow educators. My colleague Melissa Alkire reaffirmed this belief when I sat down with her recently to see what she learned from attending conferences this summer. Her takeaways from BlogHer and EdTechTeacher were both compelling and informative. Read on to see what she had to say.

1. Finding Voice:
While attending the BlogHer Conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to listen to Sheryl Sandberg give a talk about her life, her book, and her Lean In organization. I won't go into depth about everything she said and my thoughts and feelings on all of it, although I would love to, that's perhaps another post. Instead, I want to focus on one of her talking points. Early in her speech, Sheryl mentioned that writing this book allowed her to find her voice. It struck me as something so profound. Isn't that what we are all trying to do, find our voice? Aren't I always asking my students to find their voice in the classroom discussion or debate? Yet, having a voice and finding your voice are not the same thing. It could take a lifetime to truly find one's voice, although I hope it comes to us sooner. Finding your voice, the essential "you" in the crowded world, neighborhood, school, class, or the virtual world, is quite the undertaking. Yet, finding it is essential for one's own empowerment. As educators, we seek to find our voice in the classroom to craft our teaching style and classroom community and we seek to challenge students to develop their own. It is by encouraging our students to find their voice that will help them speak up, speak out, and be unafraid (or afraid but still apt to take on the challenge) of confronting the world around them and the courageous conversations that we all inevitably have to have.

2. Teacher Designer:
Have you ever been asked, "What do you do for a living?" Most likely you have and most likely, if you are a teacher and have said so, you have heard these responses, "Oh," "Really?" and "Must be a nice schedule." This is not going to be a rant about the under appreciation of the educator in our country, though my second reflection stems from this place. While attending EdTechTeacher this summer and in previous professional development sessions at Beaver by Ideo, I have been confronted with the concept of the Teacher as a Designer, and I love it! Teaching is not just about summer vacations but about being a human factors engineer in the classroom. A human factors engineer's goal is to create stuff that fits the human body and its cognitive abilities. Educators may not design for the physical size of their students, but we absolutely design the learning environment and content for them. Each day a teacher makes on average 1,500 decisions. From the placement of desks or tables, to how to write on the board, to moving around the classroom, to asking questions, to designing curriculum, discussions, projects, debates, essay prompts, and fielding questions, a teacher designs, prototypes, and reiterates each day. When interviewed, David Kelley, founder of Ideo, said "We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. What we, as design thinkers, have, is creative confidence." It is this creative confidence that needs to be continuously fostered in teachers so that they can effectively design and respond each day in step with the speed of their students' creativity.

3. Connectedness:
One of the major criticisms voiced at the summer technology and education conferences I attended was the way in which technology dampens a student's ability to connect and build interpersonal relationship skills. Now, to a certain extent, I agree. I would love to see my students put their phone down a little more and engage in face to face dialogue with their peers while their cellphones rest in their pockets. However, they are growing up in a technological world very different from the one I grew up in merely a decade ago. And, instead of bemoaning the good ole days, it is more beneficial perhaps to meet the students where they are in the digital world and foster connectedness there (Because seriously, technology won't turn them into automatons so let's stop worrying about that). At the BlogHer conference, I was struck by the connections that were made through blogging. Blogging in the virtual world in fact enables deep, meaningful connections made over common shared life experiences. As bloggers bare pieces of themselves in writing, meeting in person then allows for intensely dynamic friendships to form. The anxiety about losing human connections falls aside. Similarly, in our classrooms at Beaver, students are engaging in real and difficult conversations with students around the globe through Skype. Here the technology has allowed them to make connections with places like Syria, South Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the walls of the classroom extend beyond the physical space, students inevitably gain a sense of their role as a global citizen instead of merely as a member of a four-walled classroom.

4. What is a Technology Integration Specialist?:
Many schools have introduced the new position of "Technology Integration Specialist" (TIS). How this individual(s) functions really differs depending on the school environment. Speaking with fellow TIS at the EdTechTeacher conferences, I learned that some of them are the only ones that use their school's provided laptop in their classroom, and that this garnered them the position. Others are their school's technology department heads in charge of networks and support, and others provide internal professional development opportunities for their fellow teachers on how to use technology effectively in the classroom. So what do I think my function is for Beaver? While this position has existed at the school for a little over three years, it has not been concretely defined. Here is my attempt at defining a position that is constantly evolving. Similar to the third group of teachers, I seek to provide internal professional development opportunities both for the whole community and individual. Meeting with teachers one-on-one, I hope to build an approachable presence with my colleagues to problem-solve, brainstorm, and implement ideas. In larger group settings, I hope to demo new tools, tricks, and trends. In this capacity, it is important to not only instruct colleagues on new technologies available, but to implement them myself. A TIS cheers on, shares, and curates the good work being done in the classrooms and supports the quality learning that my colleagues engender. In doing this, I hope to help spread Beaver's work to a larger teaching community and foster significant conversations about what it means to be an educator in this ever-changing technological landscape and how we continue to effectively educate through blogging and podcasting. I am passionate about my school, colleagues, and students and see this as the cornerstone of the position.