Reflections from ISTE 2016


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[We are honored to welcome this guess post is from our friend, Julie Hambree, a teacher-librarian in the Issaquah School District in Western Washington.  Thanks, Julie, for sharing your thoughts on ISTE! ~Ed]

The “see you next year” posts on social media tell the story. ISTE 2016 is a wrap. Nearly 20,000 teachers home after three mind-exhausting days of professional development. As I reflect on my experience, I wonder what their ah-ha moments were and if they are similar to mine. This was my third ISTE convention and each has been both similar and unique. As each day ended, I asked myself and friends, what was good today? What are you taking home that’s new or different? What moments will stick with you when school begins again in the fall? Here are my ISTE2016 takeaways.

There’s no right or wrong way to approach this convention.

The literally 1,000 choices of sessions, posters, lectures, playgrounds can overwhelm even the most experienced convention attendee. I heard some people bragging how they never make a plan. I can’t imagine how this works. Personally I would be paralyzed by sheer magnitude of choics once I got inside the convention. ISTE is HUGE. I have to have a plan, and each time I’ve attended the style has changed. This time I focused on a few limited topics – Minecraft, coding, makerspaces and digital storytelling. I’ve left the conference feeling like I have had a solid, satisfying dinner, rather than still hungry because I’ve snacked on appetizers of a large variety of topics.
The poster sessions and the playgrounds are the heart of the conference.

Walking through the poster displays is like walking through a candy store. There are so many fabulous ideas that have been tested with students in classrooms, and it’s nearly impossible to visit them all. I always want a sample of everything. I love the passion these teachers have for their projects and their willingness to share their experiences. Even better, the projects have been tested by real students in a real classroom, who were there to share their ideas with teachers.

Somehow I missed the playgrounds in past years. I configured my plan this year to visit as many playgrounds as possible. This decision was the best one I made. The playgrounds give you the chance to test the latest and greatest gadgets without a vendor hyping their pitch in your ear. Teachers are there to talk to you and explain how things work. It will take me hours to review my notes and QR code links, but I know I have an exciting assortment of ideas in my virtual notebook.

What is the future of face-to-face conversations?

I’ve always thought that where the sessions and posters are the heart of the conference, talking to the people there is the life-blood. AT ISTE you have the chance to reconnect with friends from around the country who you might only know through social media. Meeting these people in person and engaging in conversations fills my bucket. In past conferences, I’ve spent hours in the Bloggers Café chatting and sharing ideas in a way I can’t do virtually. However, this year I was struck with the volume of people who weren’t talking. I read on StreetInsider.com that there were more than 221,000 tweets and nearly 4,000 photos uploading to Instagram. Many times I walked by the Blogger’s Café and witnessed educators consumed by their devices. Heads down and fingers flying across the screen, these people were talking to someone, but not to the person they were sitting next to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my device and often spend too much time on it. The ability to share what’s happening at ISTE with millions of people around the world is staggering. Yet, it struck me that more people than ever were conversing virtually. My observation made me wonder about the future of face to face conversations.

The digital divide is worse than ever.

Depending on who you ask, somewhere near 16,000-20,000 educators attended this conference. They are the risk-takers and true believers of how technology can expand and enhance learning. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of classrooms in this country where technology is largely ignored or not available. What is happening to the students in these rooms? I’ve talked to numerous teachers who shared stories about how technology is largely unavailable in. I’ve heard from librarians who tell me that they don’t have the budget to buy books, let alone add technology to their libraries. The US is the wealthiest country on earth, yet we have 3rd world conditions in too many classrooms. The new ISTE standards for students emphasize using technology as a means engage students as global, creative and innovative designers. I just wonder what’s happening to the students who don’t have the opportunities to learn with technology. What are we doing to help them?

Creativity is back in the classroom

At the 2012 ISTE, Dr. Yong Zhao, author of World Class Learners and Catching up or Leading the Way talked about the Common Core curriculum and whether it could produce talented and creative people like Lady Gaga or Steve Jobs. I remember being particularly struck by his words because I was witnessing classrooms where creative teachers were stymied by having to teach a prescribed curriculum. We were well on our way to killing creativity in the US classroom and leaving talented students in the dust.
At ISTE2016, I was thrilled to see the sheer amount of augmented reality, makerspaces, coding and gaming sessions proving that creativity is working its way back into the classroom. Personally, I believe the backlash against vanilla curriculum and constant assessment has produced the maker movement. If every teacher who visited a maker or coding session actually implements these ideas in their classrooms, we will see a monumental shift into education. I’m more hopeful than ever that soon, we will be able to strike a balance between creativity and curriculum.

Next year the ISTE conference will be in San Antonio and the call for proposals open up in September. If you haven’t had the chance to attend an ISTE conference, I really urge you to attend. Even better, apply and present the great things you are doing in your classrooms so others can learn from you.

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