Tips for Presenting

All of us have sat through great presentations by the keynote speakers (I hope) and some of us (I hope it’s only some) have sat through not-so-great ones.  Recently I found out  several friends are keynoting for various conferences in the next several months, so I thought I’d ask my PLN for suggestions I could share. These folks are not inexperienced presenters, nor am I, but I recently sent in a proposal for the K12online conference  and am currently writing one for ISTE2010 with Michael Wacker (@mwacker), so have been thinking a LOT about presenting in this day and age.

So, I tweeted: If you could counsel a keynoter in what to do/not do, what would you say?

and got these responses VERY quickly!

* You have 30 seconds to engage your audience and set the tone. 1st 30 seconds crucial-audience has short attention span. via @chollingsworth

* Don’t talk too long w/out visuals/multimedia. Tell stories. Use humour. B engaging. Don’t pretend 2 b an expert unless u r one. via @erringreg

* speak slowly and clearly; many folks speed up the word count if they are nervous (and perhaps a shot of tequila immediately before? ;-P) via @unklar

*  Don’t read a powerpoint to audience. Be funny. Have GREAT examples. via @aldtucker

*  eschew the “uhs”; nothing wrong with small periods of silence Via @Unklar

*  I’d say, change your preso from time to time. We’ve probably seen you do this one before. via @teachakidd

* ditto the one above: Big ideas might say the same but new examples and anecdotes/research keeps it fresh and current. Via @shareski

* found it critical to build into keynote time for audience to turn and talk.process what has been presented.have done with 3000 via @stevebarkley

* What not to do: be late, read us the ppoint, tell us teachers over 25 r ignorant digital immigrants & libraries are wasted space via @turrean

* Funniest speaker ever chided audience for using old-fashioned face-to-face networking…at a conference of over 1000 teachers… who had all paid money to hear him speak in person. via @turrean

* Check your ums, have a plan, have vision, change it up, humor, believe in what you are talking about. Via @mjkrugerross

* don’t read the slides; presentation should be ‘text light’; look @ ur audience; have fun! Via @Nsharoff

* Don’t lecture! Don’t have ppt slides full of stats that no one can read! via @JoHart

* Look to the Presentation Zen work of Garr Reynolds 🙂  Via @Digitalmaverick

I also got a very thoughtful email response from a local principal, Bill Sterret, (@billsterrett) who shared some specifics from one of his planned keynotes that included involve the audience and end five minutes early!

In thinking about successful Keynotes and/or presentations I have seen, the ones that resonated with me included some of the following elements:

*   a backchannel that was projected so the audience could see what others found interesting in the talk as it was happening

*   a website where resources relating to the presentation are posted

*   the presentation posted on that website

*   funny or touching personal stories that helped me connect with the presenter and/or the materials being presented

*   real life examples of the points the presenter was making

*   opportunities to extend my understanding of the presenter materials though quick checks (think/pair/share, turn to your neighbor and. . ., respond to this poll, etc.)

As always, I appreciate my PLN’s support and help and the suggestions were great!  Do you have any to add?

Response to “Badge of Honor”

Lee Kolbert (@TeachaKidd on Twitter) makes me think. She makes statements or shares links or asks questions that get me going.  Thanks, Lee, for pushing my thinking on this issue!

First off, let me say that I think David Jakes is a very smart person and I respect him and what he usually has to say a LOT.  I enjoy following him on Twitter and deliberately attend his presentations when I can to learn from him. However, in this case, he and I may need to agree to disagree.

David recently wrote a blog ( that said get rid of the badges you have been given.  His statement about why is that “they send a bad message” and to back that up, he says what bothers him is the “have-have not mentality that they promote….and perhaps the false sense of accomplishment that goes along with their display.”

I disagree.

I believe teachers who get recognition, whether they apply for it or not, should show the honors they receive—for it IS an honor to be selected as an Apple Distinguished Educator, or a Google Certified Teacher, or a STAR Discovery Educator or a Golden Apple recipient, or a presenter at k12online conference, or NECCunplugged, or Edubloggercon, or any of the other badges teachers display. I believe, beyond the have/have not mentality, that it shows teachers who go beyond the classroom, who look for connections to other educators and who share and probably revel in being a lifelong learner.  What David doesn’t explain is that being part of these communities is just that—being part of a larger community of learners, of thinkers, of doers and movers and shakers—and the coolest thing to me is the INCLUSIVE behaviors of these educators through these programs.

I KNOW Apple Distinguished Educators mentored others through the application process in 2009 and spoke for them to Apple.

I KNOW Google Certified Teachers did the same.

I KNOW DEN STARS are always telling others—“You should become a DEN STAR!”

I’ve heard these things, seen them and experienced them.

DEN STARS are always offering tips and tricks about Discovery Education, streaming video, digital storytelling, and sharing the incredible resources available on the DE site.

At the July 09 Apple Institute, ADEs were streaming it and sharing the videos being created as soon as they were made.

At the August 09 Google Teacher Academy, the agenda was sent out publicly and tweets shared the learning throughout the day. I virtually attended the previous two through the notes docs being shared and the agenda and the incredible resources there.

At the conferences mentioned, the presentations are streamed (and often archived) so others can attend and learn virtually.

I, and many others, I am sure, have learned about these opportunities through those badges—seeing one and saying, ”What is that?” It’s NOT about having or not having a badge—it’s about sharing the opportunities to learn, sharing the knowledge one learns through those opportunities and encouraging others to apply the next round. It’s about making the world—and various types of learning—more accessible to a larger group than a company can accommodate. For me, those badges aren’t about exclusivity, but about sharing and learning and growing, and when I see one I see that person as someone I can ask about that opportunity.

What do YOU think?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Last summer I was just beginning to use social networking tools.  I hadn’t begun my blog, hadn’t joined a bunch of wikis, and had more free time, so I was exploring and getting to know Tweeters to follow and talk with. I spent a great deal of my summer sitting in front of my computer learning from the great minds I found sharing online. I lived through a number of conferences vicariously through others’ tweets.  I learned about online conferencing and streaming-and was totally impressed with the amount of work people do to share with other educators. I built a personal/professional learning network online, making friends all over the world, and became more aware of world issues. I had an amazing time and went back to school raving about the new connections I was making, and had made. It was an eye-opening summer where I mostly “took” and learned from the connections I found.

Summer09  was extremely different. I was busy all the time, so didn’t have those lazy summer days to sit in front of my computer and learn from the HUGE number of great minds online. However, I attended a ton of conferences in real life and got to meet many of my twitterfolks.

In June, I began a six day workshop in my county about assessing critical thinking. Several of the teachers involved were twitterfolk and the tweeting we had done throughout the year changed the way we interacted, I believe—there was a level of familiarity, comfort and trust that may not have been there a year ago. One of the reasons I love twitter and the ability it gives me to interact with others is that I have been able to connect to like-minded people and learn from others’ differing perspectives as well. Twitter so reduces isolation for many of us! I’ve watched @mtechman blossom into a GREAT online leader and thinker on Twitter, and consider her a good friend now—I barely knew her before Twitter, despite the fact we had attended meetings and emailed each other.

At the end of June, early July, I attended NECC in D.C and got to meet MANY of my Twitter people. I loved seeing how they were so true to their online personas—see @BenGrey’s post about meeting Tweeps at NECC—that one particularly resonated with me.  I presented at NECCUnplugged (and was streamed!) and participated in a panel discussion organized by @K_Shelton (Ken) with 6 folks I had only met online before. All of those experiences made me even more aware of the power of an online network. (And, I’ll share something few people know—I decided to try an experiment.  Since my county didn’t pay for me to attend,  I decided I would see JUST how far the networking would suffice to make the conference worthwhile.  I went  to NO sessions. I used my time there for that networking, meeting people, conversing, learning, eavesdropping on other conversations (blatantly, so no offense was taken) and reading the tweets from NECC09.) My time was WELL spent, and I didn’t have to sit through uninteresting sessions or walk out of ones, as some of my Tweeps did.

I also met Sheila Teri, from VA Beach face to face at  NECC.  She and I skyped with several classes last year and have expanded those experiences into a Skype Across VA wiki this year, and we also have buddy classes in first grade skyping each month.  I also have begun another wiki, USA Fun Facts with Paula Naugle (who is from Lousiana) and we have 12 other states participating with us. Both of these connections were made over Twitter.

The second week of July, I participated in a local conference, EDUSTAT, which turned into a national and even international one through the online participation that happened because of Twitter. I got to know and spend some time with @chadratliff and @jonbecker, who attended from their areas.  MANY of our local folks joined Twitter that week and are now quite active!  (@classroots, @trevorprzyuski, @billsterrett, to name a few.) The connections made that week just keep growing:

  • see @classroots blog and the accompanying wiki he and I began to join a conversation about authentic engagement
  • @chadratliff is joining Albemarle County as a Central Office leader—can’t wait to work with him in his new job in Innovation!
  • @trevorprzyuski’s blog, 7 Things I learned this summer triggered this blog. . I had had it floating ‘round for a while, just couldn’t get going. His unblocked me!

The last week of July I went to the Building Learning Communities conference in Boston with a team from my school system. The work as a team there had begun in early summer, and continues now. I am part of a great LOCAL team of thinkers whose charge is (as our Sup’t @pammoran said,) to think about how we enroll our colleagues in innovation!

BLC09 was another amazing experience of meeting Tweeps, and I attended my first EdubloggerCon, a full day of learning that was organized by @lizbdavis (Liz Davis) and @lthumann (Lisa Thumann). I had met Angela Maiers face to face at NECC, and, while at BLC, @AngelaMaiers, @BeckyFisher73 and I began planning a two day workshop we hope to share with Virginia’s ASCD affiliate, VASCD. I spent time with @TeachaKidd (Lee Kolbert) and ALL of those ladies are just as lovely—and SMART–in real life as they are online.

The beginning of August, ASCD informed @fisher1000 and me our proposal to present had been accepted. Mike works in Buffalo, NY—we’ve only met online, but will be co-presenting at ASCD in San Antonio in March! The idea to put in a proposal began when we were building/sharing/conversing about the Visual Bloom’s schemata and the accompanying web sites, Blooms Rubrics, Ideas for the Visual and Professional Practice.

Then August 5, I attended the Google Teacher Academy at Google Headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, to become a Google Certified Teacher. Again, I met tweeps and got to talk to people in real life I had developed relationships with online. I learn so much from the smart people I have found online, and am continually amazed at the new folks I find and who find me. (Thanks, Ken, (@K_Shelton) for urging me to apply!)

The Google experience is amazing—my one regret from the day was that I didn’t get to talk to more people. (Thanks, @ScottElias for recommending Fat Tire and @Wfryer for starting the beer drinking that late afternoon!)  Michael Wacker was my real treat for the day, though, as his Colorado hospitality knows no bounds. Now, @Mwacker and I are collaborating on a proposal to the ISTE 2010 conference. Want to add your 2 cents worth? Join our brainstorming at

And, in the past week, I have worked with and met our new teachers at our New Teacher Academy, where the sharing was just unprecedented, and participated in a 2 hour debriefing about BLC09 with our local team, where the conversations continue over our email.

Last fall I attended the k12online conference–this year I am applying to present AND I am on the PR committee with my usafunfacts friend, Paula (@plnaugle) and Lisa Parisi and Pat Woessner, all online buddies.)

BUT, the most memorable thing about this summer for me will be the fact that I tweeted during the opportunities I had, so others could sit in the comfort of THEIR homes and attend them vicariously through Twitter.

I hope I gave this summer as much as I took last summer. . .

I know I’ve learned so much in both, and am a different person due to that sharing, taking, learning, teaching, growing and twittering!

Engagement and Quality Work

Chad Sansing, (@classroots on Twitter) is a brilliant educator in my school division.  I have known of Chad for many years (he’s been middle school, I am elementary, so we’ve had little opportunity to interact personally, but we’ve met.) During the recent PD opportunity, Edustat, we joined each other’s online PLN and I am thrilled to have him as part of mine.  I highly recommend him to others–he’s an educator who interacts and is a great thinker!  Recently, he posted a definition of authentic engagement on his website,

Chad had run an earlier version of this by several people on our county email list and received some feedback and additional resources (posted on our wiki), and then he synthesized what he was thinking.  Part of his post and my response is below. There are many of us exploring engagement in many ways.  Some of us are using the hashtag #AE on Twitter to thread the conversation.  We have begun a wiki, Authentic Engagement. We invite you to join our conversation and involve others… that’s why I am cross-posting my response to Chad on MY blog–to hopefully get my readers to go see and participate in Chad’s site and join our wiki.  🙂

Disagree with me, add to my knowledge, share your resources on engagement, think WITH us!

The more we think together and share our questions and thoughts, looking at context and quality of student work and how to be better teachers, the more we’ll all learn.  🙂

Chad’s blog excerpt:

Authentic engagement is a powerful means to the end of learning.  Authentic engagement connects students to content through real-world work that allows for social learning, inquiry, and products that contribute to students’ communities.

Characteristics of Authentic Engagement

  1. Students master content through project-based, inquiry-driven learning with access to multiple types of media and outside experts.
  2. Students work and learn from one another collaboratively and socially.
  3. Students evaluate for and select the best tools for their work and are free to use them.
  4. Students’ work is published for an authentic audience outside the classroom.
  5. Students receive feedback on their work from experts before and after publication.
  6. Students revise work until it shows mastery of content and follows experts’ guidelines.
  7. Students’ work benefits their community.

My response:

I appreciate the references above gathered in one place, especially because I am not familiar with the Bob Peterson one, so I now have something new to read.  🙂

The different terms, quality work, engagement, authentic engagement, etc. are all variations on a theme, but I don’t think are synonyms. The definitions of quality work have to do with the product. The definitions of engagement have to do with the student’s attitudes, habits of mind while involved and intensity/persistence/passion about the task.

So, for me, it’s not about engaging with experts inside or outside of my classroom for kids to be authentically engaged in learning. That’s about authentic WORK. It’s not about benefiting the community–that, too is about the work. So, I wouldn’t agree that your 4, 5, 6, and 7 describe authentic engagement so much as they do authentic work/products.

For me, engagement is all tied up in the level of effort the student is willing to invest in the task. So I agree with Schlechty’s statements:

• The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
• The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he persists in the face of difficulty.
• The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
• The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”
(MY addition–this does not mean getting it right on the test, but getting it right for oneself–truly understanding the content, the material, the process, the work so that it becomes a part of your skill and knowledge repertoire.)

It’s not about compliance, as Marzano seems to say when he says engagement is the kid doing what the teacher asks.  It’s not about doing work for outside experts or even the teacher. That stuff is about worthwhile work, quality work, important tasks or whatever you want to call them, but those are all about the product, not the student’s engagement. (Now does worthwhile work (such as that described in 4, 5, 6, 7 above) engage the student?  Absolutely.. .but it’s not necessary in the definition of engagement.)

For me, engagement is about personalized, meaningful learning for (mostly) intrinsic reasons–persisting and persevering through challenge and difficulty to develop deep understanding and increased process skills.

Your thoughts?

Organized Tweeting? Is that a good thing?

Recently I attended Edustat, a national conference held in my school district put on by UVA, my school system and Schoolnet. It was a unique conference experience for me, partly because my Superintendent had invited several people I tweet with, Chad Ratliff (@csratliff) and Jon Becker (@jonbecker), and partly because I had spent the prior two weeks reading Jay McTighe‘s book, Schooling by Design and had previously read The Global Achievement Gap.  Both Jay McTighe and Tony Wagner were invited speakers. The goal of this conference for Albemarle teams was to basically learn, talk, and figure out how to take what we learned back to our schools and make a difference.

Chad’s attendance was a catalyst for me, because he is a questioner, a thinker, a listener and currently NOT a practicing teacher, but an entrepreneur. His constant questions had me thinking all week about our structure, our systems and the teaching and learning that happens in Albemarle. The fact that Jon Becker drove in daily from 70 miles away also had me thinking–what was it about this conference that interested a professor from a nearby college? He was obviously engaged, and he, too, asked questions and conversed about the topics being discussed. I’m looking forward to seeing his thoughts about it at some time in his blog, Educational Insanity.

The uniqueness for me was coming in with high levels of expectations for learning (I really liked both Schooling By Design and The Global Achievement Gap), high levels of expectations for engaging in great conversation with my colleagues (both local and my Twitter buddies) and an air of excitement because Becky Fisher (@beckyfisher73 on Twitter), with the blessing of our Superintendent, (@pammoran on Twitter) had organized people to tweet and blog throughout the conference, and I was one of those. I was looking forward to being a catalyst for conversations among my Twitter following as well as engaging new local folks in tweeting.

What happened I should have expected. Twitter is always viral, and I should have known it would take off. . .

Those of us initially tweeting (@pammoran, @beckyfisher73, @mtechman, @csratliff, @jacatlett, me) involved MANY folks from outside of our county on Twitter.  The Edustat hashtag was followed by folks from all over, and as we were streaming the sessions, people from three continents and all over the US were watching. Because of that interest from outside, many of our local shakers and doers became tweeters and they were voracious about tweeting out what the presenter was saying and asking quick questions–reflective questions we should-and will- return to later.

I simply couldn’t keep up with my usual twitterstream, the presentation, the #edustat hashtag tweets AND another stream (the TED conference) I had going at the same time.  Twittering wasn’t a conversation as much as it became a place to report what the presenter was saying in both the Edustat hashtag stream and the TED stream. The fast tweeting caused me, at least, to back off and try just to keep up with reading and listening and responding to questions outside folks were asking.

The Twitter use definitely evolved over the three days of the conference and some of our local folks became quite hooked on it. (I am going to school tomorrow to answer some of my principal’s questions, in fact!) As a county, we have begun to use another Twitter hashtag, AE, (for authentic engagement) to continue some of the face to face conversations begun at the conference. As a county, many of our teacher leaders now have a feel for the impact of a PLN that is not simply local.

As a county, we have been transformed by our Twitter experiences.

It certainly made a difference when the superintendent, Pam Moran, (@pammoran on Twitter) asked her folks to use and experience a tool that she believes is powerful for teaching and learning.  It certainly made a difference when attendees began to realize we had an international audience.  It certainly made a difference when some of our administrators and teachers got on Twitter and saw the vast amount of information being shared. It made an even bigger difference when they began to USE Twitter.

So, Organized Tweeting-is it a good thing?  I say yes. .  .

And, thank you, Pam and Becky, for designing the task so our folks sought out the tool, the instruction and the learning!!

backchannels–silently in their heads

I have a colleague, Nancy, who is part of the county team going to BLC09.  I think she’s a personality type called an owl–she listens carefully in group conversations, speaks rarely, but when she does, what she says is incredibly insightful, thought-provoking and often downright brilliant.

At our recent team conversation (see previous post) we were talking about the conference themes and which ones we’d like to center on, how to go about it, and looking at a few logistics.  Some of us in the group are avid tweeters, others have joined but not gotten into it, and others don’t even know it. Some of us have experienced conferences with backchannels going, some of us haven’t.  I spoke to the power of backchannels (even had to define and describe what a back channel was) and was raving about how cool it was going to be to experience the backchannels at this particular conference.  I talked a bit about how some of my twitterverse has shared about using backchannels in the classroom, and people were asking great questions and thinking about it. We talked about how this is a contemporary skill/practice and how we need to think through how this can be done in the classroom.  As almost always happens when a group of innovators are thinking about how to move others along the continuum of technology use, someone said something about how teachers would say, “We don’t want them having backchannels in the classrooms.”

Then Nancy zinged: Instead, we want to them to have it silently happening in their brain.


Does that not run counter to anything we know about learning?  Does it not run counter to Vygotsky, to Bloom, to any name you can name in education writing? Does that not take the social out of learning? I don’t know about you, but when I can talk about something I am learning, it makes more sense to me.  I make meaning out of it more quickly and more deeply. Shouldn’t we be providing our students that opportunity as well?

No wonder our kids are bored stiff and give schooling no quality points in their world. What gets the points?  The social parts of school. . ..LUNCH. . RECESS. . .IN BETWEEN CLASSES. . .the classes where teachers set up collaborative projects, conversations, activities. . .

Maybe if we made school more social and made it NOT about “happening silently  in their brains” we would get more buy in.  Maybe if we listened more and talked less. . .maybe if we gave them the tools and supported what THEY want to do with it, then maybe, just maybe the majority of our kids would say they loved learning, rather than they hate school.

What about those backchannels?

We need them to keep it from


What about the “backchannels”?

Recently I was one of a group of people in our system invited by our Superintendent to go to Alan November’s BLC 09 conference as a team to bring what we can back. I was honored and thrilled–and even more so a few days later when I was also invited to be part of the practitioner’s strand and present at the Building Learning Communities conference. So I am going–as part of an austere group of educators from our county–and I am presenting!

Last week, the group going was called together to begin to pre-plan and strengthen our own community of learners who will converse, listen, think and learn together before we go, while we are there, and after we return. Our team consists of some amazing educators, many of whom are on Twitter–@BeckyFisher73, @jacatlett, (Janelle)  @dld1, (Donna DeGroat) @dharding3, (Diane Harding) and Beth Costa, Kristen Williams, Nancy McCullen, Christa Livermon and John Hunter. Many of these folks are our new instructional coaches (Christa and Janelle will be in my region) and I am looking forward to going with this group.

Last week, we talked about our goals in going:

Where do we, as a school system, go next?  As we incorporate more 21st century tools, what do we want to accomplish? What can we bring back?

When many of us saw Alan November at VASCD, we heard him talk about new literacies and redefining or recognizing new literacies–just what IS 21st century learning? How do we ensure that students do new things? We wonder about student involvement in creating the questions. . do they get to? Students need choices  that are open-ended and creative; we recognize it’s not just about the technology, but what the technology is forcing us to see and understand about our world. That’s a foundational understanding many teachers don’t have.  What foundational underpinnings do we want for ourselves, our teachers, our students? How do we best help students think for themselves?

We reminded ourselves visual literacy is crucial–how do we make that a vital part of our curriculum?  Back channels came up–we talked a bit about how conferences are changing because of back channel conversations–and the power of networks like twitter.

Our notetaker recorded these questions:

  • Redefining what literacy means, what is the “new literacy”?  Does everything 21st century mean “just technology”?  What about collaboration?
  • How do we hold ourselves accountable for addressing 21st century teaching and learning (beyond “you have to have 2 technology projects each year) information literacy, visual literacy, inquiry, collaboration
  • How do we stay on top of all of what we need to know and be able to do?
  • What do we mean by “21st century learning”? Not all wikis are 21st century?
  • If it sounds too intellectual and we don’t make it practical enough and related enough to the learning environment, are we pointing out the right stuff in the examples?
  • Examples that cut across specific projects but illustrate how we can just do this as what we do?
  • How do we make this more about who we are and not just something a few people do?
  • What does inquire, collaborate, etc. mean for students?
  • Why do we wait until after the SOLs to do cool stuff?  creative productions with choices…why aren’t we doing this all of the time?

We decided to meet again closer to the time we go, and also go to the opening reception together. We also agreed that we should pair up to go to sessions so we could bounce ideas off of a teammate.

And, again, we were reminded:

“Watch the back channels – this will be very interesting.”

24 Hours of Innovation

I heard today (May 2, 2009) on Twitter about a day for 24 Hours of Innovation.  The quote on the web site said,

“We are happy to invite all bloggers to take part in the My half time pep talk for 2009 blog action, organized during the 24 Hours of Innovation event.”

Having never done anything like this, I was intrigued and am interested in participating.  I don’t think it was intended for education, but if we can’t be innovative–and support our students in doing so, will there be innovators in the future?

So, if you’re reading this,  do you have ideas for innovative education?  Would you share links to YOUR ideas for it, or react to the ideas listed below that I may blog about?

  • the iPod Touch Pilot we have going on in our school.
  • meeting gifted students’ needs in a regular classroom–and how to innovatively differentiate for that.
  • planning for summertime professional development that makes a difference in the level of work (regarding higher level thinking skills) that students will engage in  the second half of 2009.

Thanks for any input you share.

I’ll be blogging May 15 at 11.15 pm CET or 5.15 pm EST as part of the 24 Hours of Innovation event.



As we near the end of the first nine weeks, our system requires classroom teachers to have parent conferences for all students. Each year, that makes me reflect on past conferences, remembering the parent who called ahead of time to ask me what kind of flavored coffee I liked, or the parent who showed up in the middle of that marathon day with a picture their child had drawn for me, or the parent who brought me a bagel for our 7 AM meeting. I also remember some of the parents, who, at the time, I sometimes describe in my head, as just plain mean. They come in defensive, angry or hurt–and sometimes seem to attack me in their attempt to take care of their child. Sometimes the tone of voice simply puts me on edge–I hear criticism where there may be none (or there may be), but it is clear they are uncomfortable questioning the teacher and wanting change. These are the conferences we all struggle with–because it’s too easy for us all to walk away with disgruntled feelings that may affect future interactions.

Every teacher has their conference nightmares–or their fond memories of parent conferences. We remember the parent who brought us coffee or a treat just as much as we remember the parent who came in angry, defensive, accusatory or timid. Each has an opportunity to teach us something, if we can only step outside of ourselves to listen.

One of my most difficult ones happened with some GREAT parents several years ago, when I was a fairly new GRT. The parents smiled rarely, despite my sharing their child’s wonderful work and talking about what an amazing thinker and intuitive mathematician she was. There were no comments about the child sharing or enjoying at home what we do in class, other than questions about why we did this or that. Mom and Dad clearly wanted to support school and their daughter at home, and were asking for homework, asking for information about what we do each day, asking for information about how she would improve and continue to grow in arithmetic skills throughout that year.

I heard criticism. I heard dislike. I heard anger (the dad particularly had a tone I heard as upset, and I named it angry). These may not have been the parents’ feelings, but I heard and read those emotions in the parents’ body language, tone of voice, and lack of smiles and my perceptions are what I remember.

We had to end quickly because of a prior commitment (I had another meeting), so we didn’t come to a consensus or conclusion. It certainly ended unsatisfactorily for me, and I knew it did for the parents as well.

Both of these parents were active in the building, as both worked at home, and that year they volunteered in three different grade levels. They had a reputation for being extremely demanding, and frankly, for not being nice in conferences as well. I had known these parents were coming in with questions. I knew they were probably coming in with a different view of what is going on in my class than I have. I felt they were coming in looking for a more traditional approach to teaching and learning than I have. I prepared differently for this conference and slept poorly the night before for worrying about it.

As I pondered those interactions that year, and wondered what I could have done differently, several things came to mind–and I think of this conference (and others) each time conferences come round.  Here are my thoughts and suggestions. And if they help me–or another teacher–then my time writing this is well spent.

First, I almost always begin conferences by asking parents if they want to begin with their questions or if they want me to share their child’s work first. This allows the parents to feel some control and often gives me a feel for how intense or critical the questions might be. In this case, the parents asked me to go first. That left their questions to the end, and we didn’t have time to address them all, much less come to any common understandings or consensus on plans for the future.

Knowing they requested the conference, I should have asked them to go first.

Secondly, as a gifted resource teacher, my class is less centered on isolated arithmetic skills than many classrooms, and more focused on arithmetic skills within the context of problem solving, and so the work on skills is not as transparent to parents as it is in many classrooms. I felt like these parents walked away feeling like I don’t work on arithmetic, and that was a major question for them.

I should have set up a situation that explained how I do that more clearly.

Thirdly, they asked about homework, and my answer was incredibly lame, as I was trying to save time. I actually had a pretty complicated system going on, and this child completed hers in school most of the time.

I needed to address that with them-and my other parents. I also needed to make sure she took it home so they could see it.

This year, I am actually collaborating with a classroom teacher to do problem solving homework in a way that really is going to stretch my kids–and I haven’t taken the time to share that yet with my parents just because I have been so busy. That is no excuse to not communicate clearly with parents, and I need to take care of that!

Lastly, they asked for information as to what was happening in my class so they could follow up at home. That is a reasonable request and I know they left feeling like I wasn’t going to do that, because we just didn’t have time to make a plan.

I asked them to reschedule another time for us to talk, and we addressed the issues we didn’t have time to in the first conference. It was a MUCH more pleasant situation as it was not rushed.

Just because we experience things once doesn’t mean we never make those mistakes again.  As a teacher, I hope parents understand that we are human–and sometimes aren’t as good as we want to be.

A new teacher talked to me the other day (in WalMart, of all places!) about a conference that went similarly to the one I describe here. I counseled her to call the parents and ask if they wanted more time–something I often do, if the conference is rushed. I also counseled her to let it go and just make sure she does her part to encourage good communication for the rest of the time she has these students, (and others in the future).

Conferences are about communication–and if either side lets that not occur, then everyone may lose.

Why Tzst Teacher?

I believe in teaching kids to think, so when I taught Kindergarten, I would often play with them with language–if they asked “can I go to the bathroom?” I would respond, “I don’t know, can you?” They soon learned to ask “May I go to the bathroom?” I would then respond, “Of course you can, you don’t have to ask.” (We had a bathroom in our room.) They soon learned to just go when necessary.

Or, when a child would come up and say “Can I ask you a question?” My response would be “Of course not, You’re not allowed to ask questions in school.” Some little ‘uns would then turn to walk off. . . .(I would catch them) but some would stand there a second and look at me, pondering what to do. I would tease them a few more sentences worth and then let them ask their question. . . but what happened is that they began paying attention to how they phrased questions and thinking about my responses.

I would give silly answers whenever I could–especially to questions they already knew the answer to, so they would say “No, that’s not right.” I could then ask them why they asked me if they already knew the answer. My goal was to get them to think and engage the other person thoughtfully.

They would often say “Ms. White, you’re teasing again!” One child, Aynsley, called me the teasiest teacher. I was actually pretty proud of that label. 🙂

The next year I moved to another school and again taught Kindergarten. In that school, I had another child, Joseph, say almost the exact same words–“Ms. White, you’re the teasiest teacher in the whole world!” At that point I knew what my vanity license plates would be and promptly ordered them–VA license “tzstchr”.

The name has stuck, and when I began a blog, I knew that had to be the name of it.