Long before I arrived in Philadelphia for Educon 2.1, I was picking up clues that this was going to be a different kind of education conference. There would be no sit-and-get workshops, according to organizer extraordinaire Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, which hosts this annual event.
In advance, he provided session facilitators with several suggestions for generating good conversation. And if you couldn't make it to Philly in person, you could watch the live feeds and join the dialogue using a range of online tools.
An Unconventional Conference
But the real eye opener came when I walked into the Science Leadership Academy on the eve of the conference and met my tour guides: two students in SLA-issue white lab coats. Freda and Brett explained that they applied to this new magnet school in downtown Philadelphia for several reasons: Pervasive technology is part of the draw, but certainly not the main attraction. Both like the opportunities SLA offers -- to work hard on meaningful projects but also to have teachers and staff take you seriously. They like the energetic, predominantly young faculty. And they absolutely love their principal, whose open-door policy is so generous that students use his office as a hangout.
Little things about the school appeal to them as well. Freda, for instance, says she feels happy every time she sees the colorful hallway walls -- a bright contrast to the dark corridors that line so many high schools. (Read more about the Science Leadership Academy in this Edutopia.org article.)
Over the next three days, Educon 2.1 delivered on the promise of inspiring lively discussion about the future of education. A Friday-night panel of luminaries gathered at the Franklin Institute -- an SLA partner -- to talk about the purpose of school. Over the next two days, dozens of classroom-sized sessions dug into more narrow topics, ranging from 21st-century assessment to how to teach writing in the digital age. There was also plenty of time -- over box lunches and hallway chats -- for participants to brainstorm with one another about ideas that captured their imagination.
All that conversation naturally fostered new connections. I heard inspired teachers brainstorming about collaborative projects they were now ready to start. A group of science teachers formed a loose alliance on the spot, pledging to help each other move good ideas forward. And administrators and state-level education leaders were equally engaged in plotting how to channel all this passion and good thinking into lasting change. A middle school principal from the Bronx, Jason Levy, brought along a team of 20 teachers to take part in the dialogue. You can be sure they'll have plenty to talk about when they return home.
Student as Teacher
Throughout the three days, I kept noticing the presence of SLA students. They asked the illustrious experts the toughest questions. They videotaped sessions for the live feed and video archives. An SLA student designed the conference logo.
One of the best sessions I attended was entirely student led. Six students shared their perspective on the school's core values: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. Rather than narrating a slide show presentation, they rotated among the tables to demonstrate each value with a sample project. One girl described a project in which she investigated the topic of police brutality in Philadelphia. It was tough research, she admitted, and caused her to think hard about the trustworthiness of information. Although her assignment is complete, she's not done with this topic. Next, she wants to work toward identifying solutions for her community.
Over the years, I've heard many school-reform experts talk about the importance of shared values. I've visited plenty of schools where they've posted core values on walls throughout campus. But never before have I heard students so clearly articulate why core values matter. One student said, "These values enable communication between people." Another pointed out that the same values travel with her as she moves from class to class, so that learning through a collaborative inquiry process becomes second nature. Yet another explained how she applies these values to her life outside school. "I might be cleaning out my garage," she said, drawing a laugh, "but I'm thinking about inquiry: 'Hmm, I wonder what's in here?' I'm thinking about research: 'Let's find out.' And so on."
Unlike as with most education conferences, Educon has a student co-chair. Jasmine is the high-energy SLA student who took on this task. I noticed that attendees immediately picked up on and widely circulated on Twitter -- where people were covering Educon minute by minute -- one comment she made in the session on core values. She said, "You can't be a student without being a teacher, and you can't be a teacher without being a student." When Jasmine mentioned that her career plan is to become a teacher, the room exploded with applause. The future of education will look considerably brighter if we remember to engage students in this conversation.
If you didn't get a chance to attend Educon in person, you can still watch the Educon video archives. (Thanks again to the student videographers.)
How do these conversations shape your thinking about the future of education? In what ways can your students actively participate? Please share your ideas.