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Think Broadly—Plan Thoughtfully: Advice from an Experienced Conventioneer

by Michael Henry
March 20, 2014

Conference AttendeesAs a teacher, literacy coach, chair of the Advisory Committee of Teachers (ACT), and experienced conventioneer, I feel compelled to offer some helpful tips for attending this year’s 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. If your plan was to scan the program for the words Common Core like a colleague told me, or to look at only the sessions and workshops as I used to, then this piece is definitely for you. If this doesn’t sound like you, I challenge you to think about your own plan for the conference because everyone needs a plan. My suggestion—whether it’s your first conference or twenty-first conference—is to engage a variety of ideas in a variety of formats. As Woodrow Wilson, our nation’s only president to earn a PhD, once said, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” I hope you see this as your first step toward the exhaustive “brain borrowing” the conference can offer if you plan accordingly. 

To plan your conference, I suggest that you go through the program and rank your top sessions in each even type. For me, it’s important to attend board sessions, poster sessions, sessions, and workshops. With this in mind, I thought I might offer you a glimpse at my thought process for the sessions in each category that I have labeled “DON’T MISS.”

IRA Board Session:
01267 - Coaching Toward the Common Core: Strategies to Enhance Teacher Practice and Improve Student Learning in Grades K–5
Saturday, 1:00 p.m.

My thought here is that if someone is good enough to make it to the IRA board, well then it’s a sure bet that the sessions will be fantastic. And this board session is sure to be great. Laurie-Elish Piper, who is in her second year as IRA board member, along with her colleague from Northern Illinois University Susan L’Allier, will be running this board session. Not only is Laurie a board member, but I have attended sessions with Susan and her in the past, and every session has been highly thought-provoking. I promise you this session will be no different.

What’s my advice?
My thought process here employed two strategies that are sure to work: attend relevant board sessions, and look for names you know. (1) Look at the IRA board sessions. As an ACT member, I have had the privilege to meet almost every board member, and they are all unbelievably intelligent and, perhaps more importantly, they are all highly engaging and approachable. And Laurie is no exception to this. (2) Look for names you know, presenters you have seen in the past. If you enjoyed one of their presentations, odds are you will enjoy their next. For me, Laurie Elish-Piper and Susan L’Allier’s sessions have always stretched my thinking in ways I never know possible, and I’m sure this session will be no different.

Poster Session:
2080 - Examining Multimodal Composition in Teacher Education
Saturday, 1:00 p.m.

Please, please, please don’t forget about the poster sessions. If you’ve been to them, you know what I mean. If you’ve never been to a poster session, you have to go this year. This particular session being offered by Donna Werderich and Michael Manderino seems to me to be cutting-edge research. Although their focus is on teacher education and you may be more concerned with classroom practice, I have no doubt there will be something in their research that is meaningful to you. As teachers it’s sometimes important step outside our classroom world and engage in research. And let’s face it; we live in a world of multimodal composition. So why not learn about how new teachers are experiencing it in their training?

What’s my advice?
Make sure you attend poster sessions. I would recommend starting with the one I listed here. My thought process here is that it can be easy to get lost in the immensity of the convention. A good poster session, and I believe this will be one of the better ones, can make you feel connected and grounded. The poster session format allows for intimate conversations with the researchers, allowing for you to have your individual questions answered—even if you have many. There is no more intimate, no more individualized, no better way to engage in thinking about education research than in poster sessions at the convention. If you are a classroom teacher, administrator, or coach, the poster session will allow you to shift your thinking from the classroom to the research that might ultimately inform what you do.

1908 - Creating Café Culture: One School's Effort to Engage Adolescent Readers
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.

In looking for sessions to attend, I have found the following criteria have been foolproof. Because sessions are not necessarily designed to be highly interactive, it’s good to look for a good story. To do so, read subtitles carefully because that’s where the story should be. This subtitle in particular uses a word that jumped out at me: efforts. The reason why this word popped for me is that the presenters are not claiming to have discovered a phenomenon the rest of us have not been lucky enough to find. Nor will these presenters preach to the audience as if they have some divine power. If you’ve been through these types of sessions, you know what I’m talking about. If you have not, you will know it when it happens. The phrase On School’s Effort though does not convey that message. Rather, it conveys that these presenters will be sharing the ups and downs and everything in between that they experienced. It will be your job as an audience member to take away from their story what you wish. And good stories make the best sessions.

What’s my advice?
When looking for a session to attend, my advice is this: look beyond the catchy title and read the sub-title with a critical eye. Read carefully for words that reveal the presenters intentions. Look for words that convey a range of experiences—good, bad, and everything in between. These sessions will be the most fruitful.  

1963 - Bridging the Gap Between Content-Area Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.

I love workshops because they are active, but not all workshops are created equal. Because workshops should be meant to be interactive amongst groups of smart people, they should require addressing challenges that take a group of really smart people to solve. To change teachers’ thinking, as this title implies, from content area literacy to disciplinary literacy is no easy task—making this workshop one that will be worth your time.

What’s my advice?
When picking out workshops to attend, read carefully to see that the workshop is addressing a difficult topic that requires active participation and the power of the group. Look for workshops about changing, re-thinking, moving, or shifting as change is sure to be difficult. These workshops will require audience input because they address issues too difficult for individuals. As a workshop attendee, you should expect to be challenged. You should expect to have to rely on your fellow attendees to work through difficult problems. You should expect to provide input and to challenge the presenters as well as others in attendance. This can only happen if the workshop is designed around a highly challenging topic.

Concluding Thoughts

As you begin planning your journey to New Orleans this May, I ask you to plan your conference with an open mind, and to think outside your box to experience the full range of intellectual opportunities offered at the greatest of professional conventions. As you plan your convention, do your best to borrow from as many brains in as many different ways as you can. See the convention as more than an opportunity to grab some activities that you can use as soon as you get home. See the conference as a way to stretch your thinking in ways you never imagined by thinking broadly and planning thoughtfully.

Michael HenryMichael Henry is a high school reading teacher and literacy coach at Reavis High School in Burbank, IL, and is a member of the International Reading Association's Advisory Committee of Teachers (ACT), MHenry@d220.org.

Teaching in ACTion is a series from the Advisory Committee of Teachers (ACT), an International Reading Association committee comprised of exemplary reading and literacy teachers from around the world. Educators who best exemplify the mission of IRA are chosen from a pool of applicants to serve a three-year term. Among other responsibilities, the main charge of ACT is to be the conduit between IRA’s members and the board of directors. 

ACT invites member to engage in the conversation by sending responses to us. ACT’s goal is to get a feel for how members feel about current hot topics, so that we may better serve members by sharing their concerns with the board of directors. 

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