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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

We've just returned from Learning Forward's 2012 Summer Conference where we welcomed a record number of summer conference attendees. Given the conversations I engaged in and the passion I saw, I am overwhelmed by how much I hope we moved the needle forward on professional learning.

Every year I hear questions about whether attendance at a conference is a smart investment. Based on what I heard and observed, the school district administrators and individual families who helped to support teacher participation in this year's conference will get a great return on their investment.

More than 1,600 individuals, the vast majority teacher leaders, were able to secure funding to spend three or more days focusing on the power of school-based professional learning. In addition to the deep learning they engaged in from among 10 full-day preconference sessions and 70+ two-, three- and four-hour sessions, they also convened for networking lunches and keynote addresses. During these large group gatherings they were introduced to or reminded of the importance of standards-based professional learning to advance student learning. While motivational speeches have a place in our lives, these keynote sessions are best described as substantive, meaningful, and pertinent to their purpose for attending.

Everyone who spoke from the podium delivered powerful messages this year, and I want to highlight a couple of themes I noted across speakers.

Most compelling to me was how clearly I heard the message that our leaders believe in the responsibility of our systems and our educators to ensure that all children learn at high levels. Stating such a belief isn't particularly daring anymore. However, taking steps at a systemic level remains a daunting challenge, and our speakers demonstrated how it happens.

Opening keynoter Tom Boasberg (superintendent of Denver Public Schools) demonstrated what it means to be an authentic leader - one who can articulate a compelling and coherent vision, describe a theory of action, and empower all parts of the system to take the actions necessary to ensure that both educators and students continue to grow and achieve.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, wowed attendees with her clear and compelling evidence indicating all children have capacity to learn and grow. It's a matter of how we view children and how they view their own capacities. We can succeed with all children if we approach education with a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset.

Canadian educator and policy maker Avis Glaze spoke of Ontario's journey to become a high-performing nation in terms of improving student achievement. She described how the province was deliberate in identifying and then developing the knowledge and skills educators must possess to ensure all students succeed at high levels. Her work provides compelling evidence that turnaround can happen on a large scale, impacting all children and the adults who serve them. Professional learning for adults is one of the three levers she credits for the turnaround.

Lily Eskelen, vice president of the NEA, rose through the teacher ranks to become one of the country's leading Hispanic educators. During her inspirational message, she shared how she and her colleagues took lessons from Heifer International as they worked to ensure that NEA's Priority Schools are successful. Among other lessons, Eskelsen noted the importance of focusing on assets rather than deficits and to develop collaboration from the bottom up.

The final keynote was delivered by Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Lehmann reinforced that this or any great conference experience is for naught if participants don't take the ideas back home and act upon them. It is the inherent responsibility of each attendee to take the next step.

At the conference, I was so struck by how deeply so many educators are committed to learning so that their students achieve more. Almost 50% of this year's attendees work in schools that serve our most vulnerable students. These educators understood the privilege of being able to attend the conference with many colleagues and used every minute possible to learn from their colleagues and collaborate on their school improvement teams.

We will check in with several of them throughout the year to learn how they keep the momentum going and how their students benefit.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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