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The Ten Best Education Conferences

What's the best education conference you've ever attended? Members of the Education World Teacher Team describe their favorite conferences -- and their favorite conference speakers. Included: Ten top conferences and five inspiring speakers you won't want to miss.

Recently, we asked members of the Education World Teacher Team to tell us about the best education conference they've ever attended -- the most interesting, the most valuable in terms of practical information and resources, the one that offered the best networking, the most engaging speakers, the most helpful workshops.... Their responses were enlightening. Keep them in mind when you plan your next professional development "field trip."

"One of the best conferences I've ever attended," Linda Villadniga told Education World, "was the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Conference. ACTFL holds its annual conference -- one of the world's largest gatherings of languages teachers -- in a different city every year, and I've been fortunate to attend twice; once in Boston and once in Washington, D.C. The variety of seminars and presentations is awesome and the presenters are inspiring. It always is wonderful to attend those conferences because I come away with new ideas, new ways of teaching, or a new perspective on some other aspect of foreign language acquisition. I also have found an extraordinary sense of camaraderie when speaking to other language teachers. We exchange stories, but most importantly, we exchange ideas and best practices. Those conferences are so affirming!"

The Top Ten Conferences

Conferences recommended by our teacher team members include the following.
* American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages Conference
* Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development Conference
* International Reading Association Conference
* KATS Kamp
* Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning Conference
* National Board of Professional Teaching Standards Conference
* National Business Education Association Conference
* National Education Computing Conference
* National Science Teachers Association Conference
* Northwest Council for Computers in Education Conference
* Virginia State Reading Association Conference

"I attend the Northwest Council for Computers in Education (NCCE) Conference every year," said Bob Sharp. "I also have attended the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) when it was here in Seattle. There are some similarities -- expert presentations, hourly sessions, poster sessions, and so on. However, the people who present at NCCE are mostly classroom teachers talking specifically about what they are doing to integrate technology into their classrooms. Visit their Web site and take a look at the advanced program to see what I'm referring to. I have gone to other conferences, but I have never come away with one-tenth of the ideas I get from NCCE. There is just so much synergy."

"As far as non-tech conferences go," noted Midge Liggan, "the Virginia State Reading Association sponsors a statewide conference each year that is always well-planned and well-organized. Usually held in March at various locations within the state, the primary draw to this conference is the outstanding selection of featured speakers. Past conference speakers have included Mem Fox reading her stories and describing the art of writing for young readers, and Jack Prelutsky describing the influence of his environment on his writing. Exceptional in-depth work sessions with various authors and illustrators are another plus. They've included Jerry Pallotta, who inspired every attendee to write an alphabet book, and illustrator David Biedrzycki, who described the development of the illustrator's relationship with an author in order to match the author's vision with his own. Nothing, however, could top eating dinner while being read to by Christopher Paul Curtis from his yet unpublished novel after he had done a stand-up comedy routine about his life. You don't have to be a member of local reading associations to attend, but if you can't make the state conference, you might want to look at its big sister, the International Reading Association Conference."

"The two best conferences I've ever attended," Nancy Flanagan told Education World, "were the National Board Certified Teachers Annual Meeting, in Washington, D.C. and the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) Conference.

"I'm a music teacher, and I regularly attend both state and national music education conferences, but I find the workshops and sessions are about such topics as "Tuning the French Horn" or "Quick Tricks for Your Choir." Teachers expect to go to conferences to get information and materials to take back for immediate use in their classrooms. It's the make-it/take-it philosophy of professional development that hit its heyday 25 years ago. You get quick fixes and short-term lesson ideas, but it's the professional development equivalent of eating at McDonalds when what you really need is a nutritious meal.

"The National Board Certified Teachers Annual Meeting was different," Flanagan noted. "It pulled back the camera and asked teachers to become leaders in policy and educational decision-making, to seek input into big-picture issues that feed cynical talk in the teachers lounge. In fact, the annual meeting begins with 'Hill Day,' when teachers are connected to legislators.

"The MACUL conference also was a revelation," Flanagan added. "Finally, a conference that wasn't only about tips and tricks! The keynote speaker, Jennifer James, a cultural anthropologist, spoke on "Thinking in the Future Tense." Hearing someone assert that all our programs and cherished myths about education might be washed away by a wave of technology was so refreshing. Too bad Bill Gates' recent public pronouncements about revamping high schools weren't as insightful or innovative."

Marsha Ratzel attends lots of conferences -- usually 2-3 national conferences and several state conferences a year -- and she has spoken at several. She told Education World, "I've been to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference, NECC, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference, ASCD, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) conference, Classroom Connect conferences, Understanding by Design (UbD) conferences, and Stonington Retreats. It's hard to compare them because they each target different audiences and purposes.

"It's the professional development equivalent of eating at McDonalds when what you really need is a nutritious meal."

"On a quasi-local level, however, the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science (KATS) puts on the greatest conference every spring at a 4-H Camp. Science teachers from all over come to KATS Kamp for the weekend, give presentations on their most recent work, and help one another become better teachers. The highlight of the weekend is Saturday night when the "Grand Illuminator" presides over an evening of chemistry fun presented by one of the high school Faraday Societies, and awards state teacher prizes. Everyone stays in bunk beds, of all things, and eats camp food. Despite its humble setting, the professional growth is huge and the collegiality is fantastic. Repeat attendance is the rule rather than the exception, and the camp is the way many teachers across the state stay in touch.

"A national convention where the same feeling abounds," said Ratzel, "is the annual National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) Conference held in Washington, D.C. At that conference, attendees have the chance to learn so much about what it means to be a teacher leader, and to expand their thinking in ways unparalleled anywhere else. Suddenly, you see yourself as more than you were before you got to the conference. You feel empowered to go out and change the face of education. You believe you can make a difference, not just inside the four walls of your classroom, but in your community and in the country. It's a powerful place and everyone you meet is humble and giving and brilliant. The concurrent sessions offer more ideas than you could use in a lifetime and make you want to run back to your students with a whole new approach to doing things. If it weren't so darn expensive -- and typically teachers have to pay to go to the conference -- I'd go every year. That's the only downside to this conference --.the cost."

"You can see why I have several favorites," Ratzel said. "They're all so different in style and purpose. I've been to the big conferences with thousands of attendees, where all the spotlight speakers do their thing, and cool commercial vendors have their special dinners (I'll never forget going to a vendor's "Tara" for dinner ala Gone with the Wind while attending a NECC in Atlanta), but the charm of the smaller conferences seem to grab me."

"I'd recommend two conferences," said Robin Smith; "the National Business Education Association Conference (NBEA) and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development Conference (ASCD). The NBEA conference offers a wide variety of sessions dealing with technology and all other aspects of business education -- accounting, business management, entrepreneurship, law, ethics, math, finance, and so on. (I originally was a business education teacher and have presented at the national conference in the past.) It really is a worthwhile conference to attend.

"As I've moved out of the classroom into a more administrative role, however, I've found other great conferences. NECC is my favorite. It always has more fantastic sessions than I could ever attend, great networking opportunities, and more. One of the best things is the exhibit area -- just visiting that is worth the expense of the conference. Many of the programs we have implemented in our district were found at NECC.

"The ASCD conference offers a wide range of topics, including reading, math, science, and others," Smith noted. "It also offers sessions on effective teaching, classroom management, NCLB, special needs students, school culture, school improvement, gifted education, multiple intelligences, leadership, staff development, teacher retention, ESL, accountability, and more. That conference has something for everyone.

"All those conferences give you more than your money's worth. They're ones I would recommend to administrators, teachers, and others."


Many of our teacher team members have favorite conference speakers as well.

Mary Jackson, for example, recommended "Spence Rogers and the PEAK Learning Systems team. Rogers' teachings are compatible with other speakers, such as Robert Marzano, but he shows you how to use the research in your classroom. Our district has been developing a core group of PEAK coaches for several years now, and the success in these people's classrooms is constantly inspiring. PEAK offers weeklong summer institutes in Florida, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, and North Carolina."

According to Camille Napier, "By far the best speaker I have ever heard at an education conference was Lily Eskelsen, the Secretary-Treasurer of the National Education Association (NEA). I heard her give a presentation called "No Child's Behind Left -- Testing the Butt Off America's Children." It was both charming and terrifying -- offering information about our past and our future. It certainly galvanized me to step outside my classroom and work for education on a broader level. After the conference, Eskelsen offered a free video of the presentation to anyone who e-mailed her." (Click here to view Eskelsen's PowerPoint presentation.)

Marsha Ratzel recommended several favorite speakers. "I recently attended a 3-day conference with Heidi Hayes Jacobs on curriculum mapping. It was brilliant, and I thought she was outstanding. I learned so much it hurt my head. She taught all day long, standing and delivering high caliber professional development to a ballroom of teachers. When the day was over, she pulled up a chair, sat down with anyone who had questions and stayed until all their questions were answered. One-on-one help with the featured speaker -- when has that happened at any conference you've attended? Access to one of the most well-known curriculum experts in the world? I learned, was inspired, and wanted to go back and tell as many teachers as I could about what I'd learned, so they too could learn about curriculum mapping. I'm going to do everything in my power to see that they get to go and hear her speak, and to bring her to my area to give a workshop.

"Lynn Erickson is another speaker I'd listen to anywhere," Ratzel said. "She isn't as well known as Jay McTighe or Grant Wiggins, but she's every bit as good as either of them. Her work in unit design -- conceptual curriculum design is the only way we're all going to survive -- is so important. She's easy to listen to, she makes hard stuff sound doable, and she's funny. She's so accessible and wants every teacher to get better at what they are doing. I just love to listen to her speak.

"My favorite conference speaker, however, hands down, is Rick Wormeli. He's brilliant, funny, and makes so much sense about teaching and teachers. I'd listen to him speak anytime, anywhere, on any topic. I suppose I'm biased because he was a middle school teacher and that's what I love to teach myself. But he's well-versed in many topics. His book on summarizing is fantastic."

Cossondra George also voted for Rick Wormeli as one of her favorites. "The best conference I have ever attended," she said, "was the conference for Michigan Middle School Educators put on by Staff Development for Educators (SDE). The highlight wasn't the conference itself as much as it was hearing Rick Wormeli speak. Rick is the most enthusiastic and motivating speaker I have ever seen. He offers realistic suggestions that are easy to apply to your classroom, and he talks in a way that makes you feel he's speaking directly to you. Most importantly, he has the ability to leave you with an overwhelming sense of "I can do this! I am making a difference!"

A worthy goal for any speaker -- or any conference.

Who Are They?

The Education World Teacher Team includes more than 30 dedicated and knowledgeable education professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following educators contributed to this article:

* Nancy Flanagan, K-4 music teacher, Round Elementary School, Hartland Consolidated Schools, Hartland, Michigan
* Cossandra George, middle level math and technology teacher, Freedom to Learn Super Coach, Newberry Middle School, Newberry, Michigan
* Mary Jackson, teacher, Tyrone Elementary Gifted Center, St. Petersburg, Florida
* Midge Liggan, library media and technology specialist/teacher trainer, Mary Munford Model Elementary, Richmond Public Schools, Richmond, Virginia
* Camille Napier, English teacher, Natick High School, Natick, Massachusetts
* Marsha Ratzel, district coordinating teacher, Blue Valley School District, Overland Park, Kansas
* Robert Sharp, 6th grade science teacher, Mountain View Middle School, Bremerton, Washington
* Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
* Linda Villadniga, CIE Program Coordinator, Spanish teacher, St. Augustine High School, St. Augustine, Florida

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Updated 04/25/07