ASCD Empower18: A Time for Reflection and Learning

I attended my first annual ASCD annual conference in 2000. I was a second year middle school English teacher at the time and was passionate about anything that would expand my knowledge and thinking about all aspects of education. I paid my own way to attend that conference in New Orleans, and I remember feeling that it was a small price for what was truly a “who’s who in education” event. This was before Twitter, before social media actually, so the only way to connect with the “big names” was at a place like the ASCD conference.

I remember seeing Todd Whitaker present at that conference. His focus was on “dealing with difficult teachers,” and as I took notes on my yellow legal pad I thought about how I aspired to be just like this inspirational principal from Illinois. Fast forward a few years later and @ToddWhitaker has made a pretty big name for himself. I also remember seeing some of the “newer” voices in education speak at that conference. People like Carol Ann Tomlinson, the late Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Robert Marzano were changing the landscape of education. I remember being mailed a full ASCD conference catalog, and I spent hours in advance reading the descriptions of every workshop for every session while carefully mapping out my days. My “ticketed session” of choice was “Interviewing for the Principalship.” Pretty gutsy for a second year teacher, but that was the type of young teacher that I was.

Fast forward to 2018 and while much has changed for me professionally, many things are still the same. I’m still drawn to ASCD because it simply represents the very best in terms of publications, professional development, and of course regional and national conferences. Add Boston to the mix and attending this year’s conference became a “no-brainer” for me. The areas of focus for this year are also compelling, and directly speak to me in different ways as I move toward the end of of my seventh year as the principal of Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

As a high school principal, I spend time each summer creating school-wide goals and professional goals that build off previous years’ work. As a school leader and English teacher, I truly believe that in the importance of reflecting and “taking stock. ” It is especially critical for teachers and school leaders who are in positions that are incredibly multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. The annual conference allows for a perfect opportunity for this type of reflection, and the areas of focus (below) provide a jumping off point to do just that.

  1. The Whole Child: Focusing on the “whole child” is certainly not a new concept though the importance of doing so is now more important than ever. It seems that more and more students are facing some form of emotional crisis by the time they reach high school. Despite this trend, and a now national call to focus on the mental well-being of students in light of tragedies like the one in Parkland, schools continue to put the majority of their focus on academic skills and preparing for admission to college.

Questions for Reflection: How are resources allocated in the school budget to support the whole child? What type of professional development do teachers receive to identify students who may be in crisis? Is empathy embedded into the fabric of the school? How can schools integrate mindfulness on a daily basis for teachers and students?

  1. Transformational Leadership: The misconception by many is that transformational leadership falls solely on the shoulders of the principal. Sure, the best schools have dynamic leaders who push the instructional agenda while creating a culture that promotes collaboration, professional learning, open-mindedness, risk taking, and a true belief that all students can succeed. But show me the best schools and I will show you a staff top-to-bottom that has individuals who possess these traits and beliefs.

Questions for Reflection: Are faculty and staff truly empowered to make decisions? Are teachers empowered to take risks in their teaching and professional learning? Who sets the vision and mission for the school? How is a sense of ownership achieved by all? Is the principal a lead learner or a building manager?

  1. Global Engagement: The world is more connected than ever before, and words like “interdependence” are quickly replacing “old school” words like independence. Social media has certainly played a role in facilitating this shift. For schools, the implications have been tremendous as students are now developing the skills needed for success in potential careers that don’t yet exist in places well beyond our borders. It is no wonder, then, that more and more schools are looking to programs like the International Baccalaureate (IB) because of its focus on international mindedness and “real world” application.

Questions for Reflection: How is international mindedness emphasized in all aspects of the curriculum? What opportunities are students given to think globally and act locally? How is diversity and culture promoted in the school? How is technology used as a vehicle for promoting connection and understanding? Are students being provided with a 20th century or a 21st century education? (think hard about this last one)

  1. Poverty and Equity: There is inequity in every school, including the highest performing schools in the most affluent suburban towns. All schools have students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, all schools have students with special needs, all schools have students who require ENL services, all schools have students who struggle to “fit in,” and all schools have students “in the middle” who are most likely to fall through the cracks. Despite these inequities, all students deserve an education that allows them to maximize their potential while providing opportunities for all students to connect to the school outside of the traditional day.

Questions for Reflection: What programs and organizations are in place to level the playing field for all students? Are all students challenged with the most appropriate academic program? How are resources allocated to ensure access and equity? What co-curricular programs are in place to further connect all students to the school? Does the school truly offer the very best education for every student? What systems are in place to ensure that no students fall through the cracks?     

  1. Redefining Student Success: It is inspiring to see so many workshops at this year’s conference focusing on topics such as authentic learning, real world application, performance-based assessments, and “soft” 21st century skills. How we define student success in 2018 has certainly shifted significantly from 18 years ago when I attended my first ASCD annual conference. Despite this, too many schools are still defining student success through a quarterly number on a report card while operating within the old school paradigm of memorization, content regurgitation, and hours of homework each night.

Questions for Reflection: How do administrators, teachers, parents, and students define success? How is student progress shared with parents and students? Do assessments focus on application of understanding or a retelling of facts? Are assessments varied and ongoing? Do students have opportunities to apply their learning outside of the school building? Does the school truly support teachers who introduce alternative forms of assessment? How is student success communicated to parents and colleges?

6. Teaching and Learning: How a school defines student success will (or at least should!) directly impact all aspects of teaching and learning. The last few years have seen massive shifts in teaching and learning as many schools have transitioned to full one-to-one environments, an emphasis on independent research across the disciplines, and at least an equal focus on the development of 21st century skills over memorization of content. The workshops at this year’s conference certainly reflect this shift, and there is great hope that a renewed focus on teaching and learning will positively impact all of the “areas of focus” discussed above.

Questions for Reflection: Is the principal a true instructional leader? How do students learn best? Are teachers differentiating to meet the needs of all students?  How do teachers learn best? Is professional development differentiated to meet the needs of all teachers? Is technology truly enhancing teaching and learning? Are students being prepared with the skills necessary for success in jobs that do not yet exist?

The Empower18 “areas of focus” provide a wide (yet specific) lens for all attendees to design a conference schedule that is truly differentiated based on individual need and interest. ASCD represents the very best in curriculum and leadership, and this year’s conference provide a perfect opportunity for all educators to learn, reflect, and enjoy!  

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