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What Great Educators Do Differently (#WGEDD) - Report, Review, and Reflection

The setting, suburban Chicago during a couple of crisp, clear, autumn days. Trinity International University was the picturesque gathering place for a few hundred passionate educators eager to connect, and learn with our thought-change leaders. It was the first, and judging from the immediate feedback, won't be the last What Great Educators Do Differently Conference. Why did I attend? First, several of the biggest names in my personal learning network were featured presenters. Second, my friend, Jeff Zoul, contacted me earlier in the summer saying, "Mark your calendar. This is going to be something special, and we would love for you to be a part of it." Jeff's got the best smile in the business. How could I say no?

Photo credit; Maggie Bolado - October, 2015
Todd Whitaker - Opening Keynote / Session One - According to Todd, great leaders take responsibility for their school's climate and culture by removing monkeys from the backs of great teachers, and putting them where they belong, on the backs of people getting in the way. Great educators are intentional with the thousands of decisions they make every day. "Teach the bad teachers to be more effective, or they will put their monkeys on everyone else's back."

During his breakout session, Todd put us through several scenarios where we could practice shifting monkeys to the backs of people who've earned them. Todd emphasized that at no time should a teacher argue with, yell at, or use sarcasm against students. This paints the teacher as a bully, and shifts monkeys to where they don't belong. Todd made me laugh out loud. I had a hard time backchanneling my notes during his session because he talked so fast, but more importantly, he ignited my thinking, and this appropriately slowed my typing.

George Couros - Session Two - I have had the pleasure of experiencing George's presentations on several occasions. While not exactly a groupie, I do appreciate his perspective, and his strategies for sharing learning through social media. George, as always, tugs at our emotions as he reminds us that great educators consistently, if not constantly, show empathy. He also recommends teachers experience connected learning firsthand in order to lend an experienced voice to their students as they engage digitally. George says, "Great leaders support learners from where they currently reside." George recommends that all students have an page, a digital portfolio, and a personal learning network by the time they graduate high school. This is sound advice for learners of any age. 

Jimmy Casas & Jeff Zoul - Session Three - Great educators recognize the value of connecting with other leaders and learners. Being connected makes us better informed, and increases our sphere of influence. Jimmy emphasized community building, branding, and telling your story. "Invest in others, and invest in yourself, because teaching is hard work, and connecting creates an added, important layer of support." Jeff emphasized great educators place a priority on the three Rs - relationships, relationships, relationships. Both men acknowledged connectedness is energizing their careers, and fuels their learning.

Joe Sanfelippo - Unconference Session One - This was my first encounter with Joe, but it certainly won't be my last. It's obvious from the onset he is a great educator! When most conference sessions are "sit & get", Joe, thankfully, ran his podcasting sessions with a heavy does of participation, and hands-on learning experience. Joe showed us how he shares his school's story through podcasting. He demonstrated how easy it is to get started with podcasting using the Audioboom app on his iPhone. Attendees then practiced creating their own podcasts. He then answered questions, and offered assistance to those of us committing to stay connected. How effective was Joe? After eating dinner at home after the second day of the WGEDD Conference, I reviewed the FAQs on the AudioBoom site, and started practicing with recordings on my iPad. I chose to continue learning beyond the session. Educators take note, this is a much different concept than homework, and it's a compliment to the "lead learner". Thank you Joe!

Garnet Hillman - Session Four - Grading is an emotional, hot-button topic. Credit Garnet for tackling this head on with a common sense approach that sparked our thinking. Garnet talked about grading for learning. The point of emphasis is grades are communication indicating progress towards prescribed standards - nothing more, nothing less. Garnet shared examples illustrating how unfair many long-standing grading practices, such as averaging grades, really are. I appreciated her emphasis on authentic learning experiences supplemented with opportunities to practice learning skills. Garnet's session was a healthy reminder that just because something has been done a certain way for years doesn't mean that's what is best for kids. Great educators frame their thinking with what's best for kids.

Amber Teamann - Session Five - I have been following Amber Teamann on Twitter, and reading her blog for some time, however this was the first time we had a chance to meet and talk shop. She was engaging, personable, and "real". Like most great educators I follow on social media, I felt that I already knew her based upon her transparency. My takeaway from her session was validation of my thinking that great leaders are learners first. Amber said it's important for leaders to understand and leverage the strengths of their team. Like Todd Whitaker, Amber discussed ways educators can use words in social media to influence change and engage communities.

Dwight Carter - Session Six - Mr. Carter stretched our thinking by taking us through a few discussion exercises contrasting perception from reality. He linked these topics with educational relevancy. Social media can help shine a positive light on the terrific learning that is happening in our schools and classrooms. He also reinforced the message that teaching and leading are difficult, but having an online support system (PLN) can help distribute the load, as well as, provide validation and encouragement. Dwight's message included a reminder that greatness doesn't happen by accident. Great educators strive to be great by intentionally raising learners to new levels.

Angela Maiers - Closing Keynote - There is no denying Angela Maiers passion for empowering each and every student. Her theme, solicited from young students listing desired leadership traits, was about courage. Angela turned me on to Seth Godin and his concept of promoting meaningful change by leaving our comfort zones and intentionally engage in activities that require bravery. A living example of pure energy, Angela shared videos showing students and teachers overcoming fears and doing amazing things. Here's the key takeaway, captured concisely on one of her presentation slides, "you have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs." Angela says, "I matter", and if that isn't a great way to close a conference, then I don't know what is.

Final Reflections - The WGEDD Conference was a terrific experience. Words that come to mind include; fellowship, inspiration, and innovation. Evidence of these terms can be seen in the ongoing tweets, the commitment to stay connected, and the number of attendees sharing blog posts reflecting on this energizing conference. Some of the themes were redundant, but the passion and energy were real. The messages heard at this conference should be shouted from mountain tops for all educators to hear. I would prefer that conferences reflect the innovation we seek for our classrooms, but I understand the limitation of the learning spaces and scheduling. Get more insight, and curate resources from this conference by searching the #WGEDD hashtag on Twitter. It will be worth your time and effort.

Observation, all of the great educators who presented have a digital space for sharing their learning and leading transparently. Wouldn't it be great for every learner to have their own digital palette (domain name) to share their genius? 

Total disclosure alert, I want to thank my friend, Jeff Zoul, for encouraging me to lead an unconference session on digital portfolios. I was feeling a bit outclassed and intimidated during the session build, but our portfolio session turned out to be a terrific discussion where learning relationships were ignited. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Be brave indeed! 

I am off to practice my podcast recording. Greatness is a term that gets thrown a bit too easily. However, in this case, greatness applies. Thanks to everyone at WGEDD for an experience I'll never forget! Peace.

Related Reading

What Connected Educators Do Differently - Todd Whitaker, Jimmy Casas, Jeff Zoul

The Web We Need to Give to Students - Hack Education, Audrey Watters


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