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I often claim to “love” the conference I’m attending. Being surrounded by passionate educators invigorates me–my mind feels sharper, my ideas flow faster, and I can’t wait to come back to revolutionize my classroom…again!

But EduCon currently holds a special place among educational conference experiences. This year was my first, and most certainly not my last. I hope to be a regular, attendee, haunting the halls of the Science Leadership Academy for years and years to come.

IMG_3206What makes EduCon different from other conferences? It’s held in a school.

For three days, I was embedded in a culture that holds deep respect for learning. I was surrounded by the evidence of a place that values authenticity, inclusion, inquiry, collaboration, and success. I interacted with teachers who confidently spoke of their failures, students who respectfully pushed adult thinking, and a leader who poured his heart to welcome strangers into his pride and joy: this 3-story public, urban magnet school.

Did you notice the words that were missing from that description? I didn’t mention “rigor,” “achievement,” or “accountability.” Those words didn’t seem to have a place where student art decorated every wall, where classroom doors were rarely closed, and where teachers spoke much more about how to win their students hearts than help them bring up their test scores.

Before I wax too idyllic, this is a real school operating in the underfunded and under-attack Philadelphia education system. The bathrooms ran out of paper products, scuffs decorated floors and walls, worn out white boards hung along some SMART boards, and there ware a number of empty library shelves. Posters were held up by duct tape in some places.

But who cares about any of that really, when there was also a vending machine selling student writing. And where every student was given a Chromebook to use for learning. Where the teachers are published authors, entrepreneurs, and leaders far beyond the classroom. The strengths of SLA outshine it’s typical public education struggles.

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Posters like the one below begged for students to engage, to think, and to reflect.

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What was so special about EduCon to me, was the spirit of the people and the place. In every session I attended, a lively 90-minute conversation ensued. Those who stood at the front of the room, pushed those of us in desks to collaborate, discuss, and create. In three of my six sessions, high school students were active participants in either the presentation or the small group discussions. Their voice was given space, their experiences valued for the learning of all of us in the room.

The line between teacher and student faded as we all simply adopted the label of learner.

I was constantly amazed by the focus that permeated the school. Shared values were posted on every floor and in every classroom–a constant reminder that no matter what discipline, the real mission of school was to be engaged in inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. These are what tangibly defined learning.

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I intentionally chose sessions that pushed my thinking beyond my teaching strengths. In one of two sessions on addressing race in our classrooms, I formed these reflections:

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In the second session on talking about race in the classroom, I was reminded about the power of relationships to engage students in reflective and transformational conversations.

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The SLA teacher presenters spoke from lived experience and emphasized respecting, knowing, and loving the students in front of you before ever inviting them to have a difficult or risky conversation. It was an amazing reminder about what drives all of us to be vulnerable learners:trust, respect, and safety.

In a session on authentic assessment, I wrestled with a roomful of educators to define “authentic” as it related to the students’ lives and passions. We grappled with how this term feels at odds at times with our curriculum, and how our own biases can blind us to creating true authentic assessments for our students. The presenters were SLA Beeber Campus teachers who openly shared their own struggles to define and create these learning experiences. They modeled co-learning, masterful facilitation, and respect for their audience–a group of passionate, intelligent educators who were ready to contribute powerful ideas.

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The conference model of passive learners was flipped on its head. We weren’t just talking about transforming learning, we were experiencing that paradigm shift in our own learning. That experience means we can better facilitate a paradigm shift for our classrooms, students, and school communities.

Throughout every session, I never felt talked at. Instead, I felt invited to a conversation. EduCon…An education conversation, not just an educational conference. A place to transform your practice, not just strengthen it. An environment that lives its values, doesn’t just talk about them or keep them in nice frames at the front office. SLA and EduCon embody the values they promote.

Want to experience this for yourself? Reserve January 29-30, 2016  and follow @educonphilly on Twitter.

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Art and Science–Not two subject to learn, but just two lenses to look at the world. SLA, floor 2.

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