This summer I went to the annual iSummit conference, which was being hosted this year by St Agnes Academy/St Dominic School in Memphis, TN. This was the first iSummit I ever attended and, to be completely honest, I wasn’t quite sure what the conference was all about — my school applied and received a scholarship to the conference, and I was asked if I was willing and able to go.
It turns out that iSummit is a conference of independent schools implementing a 1-to-1 laptop program using Apple products. Every student in these schools, in other words, is given a standard-issue Macbook to do academic work in. Now, it was evident that there were a number of attendees that came from schools without such a program — but were open to or curious about such a possibility. Hence, I’m guessing, the scholarship I had handily received.
The conference began with a stirring presentation by Carol Anne McGuire, who talked of her experimentations into technology as a teacher, which eventually led to a very impressive project called Rock Our World. It was one of the more inspirational keynotes I’ve ever heard in a conference like this, and it was mostly due to Ms. McGuire’s humble and self-effacing personality. Her account of her journey made us all feel that we just needed to go out and do something and say heck to the naysayers, solving the problems and details when they come up.
A second keynote the following morning was given by Dr. James Kelley who stressed how innovations in technology were disrupting current ways of doing things — especially education. As Lucy Gray pointed out in one of her seminars (quoting Will Richardson), students are already utilizing these new technologies; we need to step in and guide them in using these tools ethically and effectively. A 21st century education, according to Dr. Kelley, requires us to familiarize ourselves with these tools of collaboration, creation, distribution, and access. One of the useful tidbits in his presentation was his delineation of teacher adoption and integration of technology:
- Substitution: just changing the tool, not the praxis
- Augmentation: supplementing current practices with technological opportunities like the internet
- Modification: letting the use of technology tweak classroom practices and attitudes
- Redefinition: letting the possibilities of technologies transform one’s mindset about learning and pedagogy
There was an interesting diversity of seminars over three days. There were a number of seminars that were how-to introductory courses to software applications like Garage Band, iMovie, and HyperStudio. Other seminars were brainstorming and sharing sessions about the opportunities and difficulties of using technology to teach; it was interesting, for instance, to see how Otto Benavides
had a very organized approach to teaching podcast creation (look under “Class Projects”). I went to one session about Professional Learning Networks with Lucy Gray from the University of Chicago, whose blog I follow in my feed because she constantly posts interesting links and articles that comes up in her own PLN. There was a whole track of seminars specifically geared to the tech admins and another track of seminars specifically geared to general administrators.
One of the more interesting sessions I went to was headed by Howard Levin about the oral history projects he has launched on Telling Stories.org. What struck me about his presentation was how bare-bones his endeavor was — students merely show up, ask questions, man the camera, and, later, transcribe the interview — but, at the same time, how richly authentic it was. It definitely echoed one of the takeaways from the keynote — that is, to start with something simple but profound and then scale and extend it up and out.
St. Agnes/St. Dominic had a very impressive distance learning auditorium which allowed convenient video conferencing sessions with large groups. I attended one session where we were in discussion with Dr. Toni Guglielmo from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who demoed for us how she could show artifacts from the LACMA collections as educational touchstones.
Of course, one of the major pulls for me to go to this conference was a chance to visit Memphis. I didn’t have enough time (or a car) to visit places like Sun Studios or Graceland, but I did get to explore a bit of downtown with some of my fellow conference-goers:
Dinner at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill:
Dry rub ribs at Rendezvous:
We even attended a minor league game, with the Memphis Redbirds beating the Albuquerque Isotopes 4-2:
Nice stadium. I like that little grassy knoll where people could picnic and watch the game at the same time.
The great folks at St. Agnes/St. Dominic even arranged for an Elvis impersonator to show up the first night. Here he is, wooing Amy Moody, who did so much to help me get to the conference:
The best thing about these conferences, of course, is the people you meet. I had a great time hanging out with other teachers, especially Lourdes from Oakland and Jen from Baton Rouge. Lourdes and I actually had an energizing discussion in the airport as we were waiting for our respective departing flights. She brought up this great anecdote about how Wayne Gretsky’s dad used to set up these complicated slalom courses in their backyard ice rink and then challenge his boy to run through them again and again, constantly changing their configuration.
It made me think of how we, as teachers, need to be wary of the pitfalls of the two competing ideologies in teaching. An unthinking progressive approach stresses stimulation at the expense of mastery while an unthinking traditional approach stresses a fluency without the contextual understanding to prevent it from being inflexible and irrelevant. It made me think of this video by Dr. Tae:
On the flight back home, I couldn’t help thinking of the Memphis Pyramid, a monumental structure built in the early 90’s promising to revitalize the city as a giant 80 acre, 32 story tall sports arena. It never was fully completed and, for the past three years, has pretty much been vacant, most of the sports teams migrating over to the FedEx Forum built shortly after and a hop and skip away. I couldn’t shake thinking of it as a cautionary tale against getting all gleamy-eyed over the one glittery gift that whispers it will solve all one’s problems. Teaching, like learning, is instead about scrapping and adapting, taking on new tricks and hopping around as the ground shifts from under you.
Like dealing with this guy, the best thing I’ve seen in several days: