Blogging from Chicago: ASCD Conference
I’ve just arrived in rainy and cloudy downtown Chicago for the annual ASCD Conference, and I’ll be blogging about the conference for the next few days. In addition to writing blog posts, I’ll be tweeting from both @CohenD and @AcmpCA_Teachers - and the twitter hashtag for the conference is #ASCD13.
I’m excited to be here for a few reasons. First, I love Chicago, and I’m expecting to get out and about a little while I’m here. My first full-time teaching job (1995-98) was in Chicago, at a Jewish day school on the north side of the city. Fresh from grad school with a brand new California teaching credential, I promptly moved to Evanston, IL, as my wife (then fiancé) began grad school at Northwestern. My teaching experience in Chicago was quite varied, as I discovered how a small private school can always find ways to put your talents to use: in my three years there, I taught various combinations of 7th and 8th grade literature and language arts, plus music and drama classes for grades 6-8. (I also tried my hand at coaching volleyball and baseball, but the less said about that, the better).
I’m also excited because I’m just – dare I say it? – an edu-geek. Maybe a better way to put it is that I’m a student of the game. Throughout my career, especially the fourteen years in public high schools, I’ve been interested in both the teaching of English and the broader trends in educational practice and public policy. I began my efforts to affect education policy through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. After my first experiences talking to legislators and their aides in Washington, D.C., I quickly realized that I enjoyed advocacy for better educational policies and opportunities, and began some of that work at the local and state level. I helped launch Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) about five years ago, and for the past two years I’ve dropped down to part-time teaching in order to devote more time to ACT and its mission – to amplify teacher voice in education policy discussions and public forums, while providing a peer-support network for teacher leaders around the state.
So while I enjoy an English teaching conference as much as anyone, I find this type of conference engages that other part of my teaching brain. I’m among people who work in education, but not surrounded by teachers: after all, ASCD is the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. It’s an opportunity to meet people from around the country and from all sorts of schools and districts. In my two prior ASCD conferences, (the summer conference in Nashville in 2008, and San Francisco in 2011), I enjoyed talking not only to my fellow teachers, but also instructional coaches, site and district administrators, authors, publishers, trainers, and consultants. I have mixed feelings about the layers of coaching, training, consulting and administrating that are piled upon each other in education. Ultimately, I’d like to see teachers taking on a wider variety of roles and responsibilities in education, and if that happens, many of these non-teaching people would find themselves with less work and fewer opportunities. Still, the best of them do some important work, and I’m here to learn from anyone I can.
Those past ASCD conferences also made a significant impact on how I teach, and how I think about education. The most specific examples I could point to would be Robert Marzano’s presentation on grading practices (2008), and Chip Heath’s 2011 keynote on the necessary conditions to bring about significant change. The Marzano presentation, along with his book on grading and assessment, influenced me to abandon the traditional but deeply flawed practices of grading on 100-point scales, using average scores to determine student grades. I’m not saying that standards-based grading has solved everything for me and my students, but it’s a more logical, defensible, accurate way to describe and support student learning. Now if we could ditch letter grades, too… The main take-away for me in Heath’s presentation was the concept of fundamental attribution error - the idea that we too often explain people’s actions, decisions, and attitudes in terms of their character or personality, their individual excellence or shortcomings, rather than sufficiently examining the contexts and experiences that shape the individual. That’s a concept that I think needs much more attention, as I hope that it can be paired with some powerful stories and examples to demonstrate why education reform in the area of teacher quality is missing the mark; instead of picking out the “best” and “worst” teachers and trying to simply treat them differently according to their presumed quality, we should look at the conditions that are producing the best teaching and learning, and focus on fostering similar conditions in more schools and districts. It’s a much different challenge from an equity standpoint, to build a better system for everyone. The next three days will hopefully give me some inspiration, examples, and ideas I can use to push that approach more effectively. With these presenters among the hundreds to choose from, I’m optimistic.
Disclosure: I am attending the ASCD conference as registered media.