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Thousands of instructors, administrators, staffers, and innovators in education came together March 25–27 in Anaheim, California, to collaborate on new ways to empower educators and bring change to their schools and classrooms. The conference offered hundreds of sessions in six main areas of focus: the whole child, transformational leadership, global engagement, poverty and equity, redefining student success, and teaching and learning. After hearing from a diverse group of speakers, many participants said they have gained takeaways that they will be able to bring home to their respective school communities.
Amy Kennedy, director of technology assessment and instruction in Regional School District No. 6 in Connecticut, said she has been a member of ASCD for the past decade and that every ASCD conference she has attended “always exceeds” her expectations. She added that she felt motivated to attend the conference this year to continue looking for strategies for school and district improvement.
Kennedy said she especially appreciated the conference this year for its emphasis on providing tools for teachers to help elicit educational improvement from the bottom up. “This year there was a definite tone of teacher empowerment and a grassroots movement, which I really feel is something we need to look forward,” Kennedy said. “It’s not just about the top-down approach; it’s really about collective responsibility.”
Some educators focused on finding practical tips for broad schoolwide changes, like David Thompson from New York, who attended “Edupreneur: Unleashing Teacher-Led Innovation in Schools” by presenter Dave Faulkner on Saturday morning.
“My biggest takeaway was we’re looking at … our new strategic plan and trying to give teachers some more control over some of the smaller decisions that are being made in the classroom and then even facility-wise. And so he had some really nice tips for that,” said Thompson. “I loved his enthusiasm, and there was nice collaboration at the tables.”
Other educators, such as Jeff Kirby, curriculum director for the Ottumwa District in Iowa, came to the conference seeking specific solutions. Kirby said he attended to find strategies to help combat external factors, like chronic stress, that he has seen inhibit student learning. Located in a district with above 60 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, Kirby said he especially benefitted from hearing speaker Eric Jensen, who presented “Teaching and Engaging with Poverty in Mind: New and Updated” on Saturday. “Now we can continue to expand our knowledge about students who come from poverty and how that affects the brain and student learning,” Kirby said.
Shelly Burghardt, a principal of a preK–5 grade school in Omaha, Nebraska, attended the Martha Kaufeldt’s Friday Pre-Conference institute, “The Motivated Brain: Strategies to Improve Student Attention and Engagement.”
“It was really powerful for me from the standpoint [that] we’ve always known play and exploration is important for kids, but I think we’ve always tried to drive it in some sense,” said Burghardt. “One of the big takeaways for me was to allow my students—their thought-process and their exploration—to be the drive.”
Burghardt said the conference was powerful because it allowed her to connect with other educators. Because working in education is challenging and often draining, she said, coming together with others who are experiencing the same struggles helped to lift her spirit.
Daniel Steele, principal at Thompson Sixth Grade Center in Alabama and copresenter of the Saturday session, “Blueprint for Awesomeness: Transforming Your School’s Culture Through Collaboration,” said attending ASCD Empower17 represents two landmarks in his life—his first time in California and his first time presenting at a national conference. As principal of his school, Steele said he valued being able to interface with other educators who hold similar positions in their schools.
“It’s the camaraderie of being with people who walk in your shoes,” Steele said. “Leadership can be a lonely position, so being with people who do the same thing you do day in and day out, who share your passion and your values, makes this a very rewarding weekend.”
Empower17 also allows educators to hear from influential voices in education that they follow. Andrea Meiers, an executive director of the Alliance for Curriculum Enhancement in Montana, said she attends at least one national conference every year, so she plans ahead of time for speakers she wants to hear. Meiers attended sessions with Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Jay McTighe, and Peter DeWitt—all educators she follows online.
Meiers said that because she works with numerous school districts, she will take back different practices and ideas to share with different districts, depending on what they are working on.
Themes from ASCD Empower17 resonated with participants from all corners of the globe. Anabella Martinez, an academic director for Marymount School in Barranquilla, Colombia, said hearing from speakers and other participants has helped her find common ground with educators from around the world.
“Regardless of where we live and where we are and where we work, there are some common issues and challenges facing education,” Martinez said. She cited the “Four Cs of Education”— communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking—as a particularly salient concept for teachers internationally. “I don’t think you’ll find any schools that don’t agree that that’s what they’re working toward,” she added.
Originally in the higher education sector at the Universidad Del Norte in Colombia, Martinez said ASCD Empower17 has further given her insight into K–12 teaching. She said she hopes to take the concepts she learned from the conference to better prepare younger students for higher education and beyond.
“We don’t have a way of knowing what the world is going to look like, what the students are going to face,” Martinez said. “But what we can do is help them develop those skills that we think will be the most beneficial for them to be successful and happy with how they want their lives to turn out.”
Kristen Hardy is a fourth-year communication studies student at UCLA. She works as a copy editor for the Daily Bruin and a writer for the UCLA Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Emily McCormick is a third-year student at UCLA with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Entrepreneurship and Music History. She is also currently the Music | Arts editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin. Contact Emily at email@example.com.
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