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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Student Becomes the Master: Redefining Conference Learning

Yesterday was an amazing day full of learning and student leadership at Chicago Public Schools' 2013 Tech Talk Conference. While there were many amazing sessions, I must say one of the best was put on by students.

The session, App Speed Dating, joined thirteen 1st - 7th graders from Burley School and National Teachers Academy - two Chicago Public Schools on opposite sides of the city. The concept (adopted from Maine's Leveraging Learning Institute) was that ten stations would be set up around the room, each led by a student. Groups of 5-6 adults would rotate through each station in 4 minute increments, getting a hands-on tutorial of a high-leverage educational app. Click here for the session website with a complete list and description of the presented apps.

While there was certainly room for improvement - better "entry ticketing system" so that participants knew which table to start at and perhaps longer station times - overall the session went amazingly well! In the feedback form, participants unanimously agreed that it a great experience: energetic, hands on and engaging.

So what were some ingredients that made this work? Here are a few thoughts:

(1) It was student-led.
Students were the presenters here, and their voices are so much more credible than ours. They spoke from a place of experience using the app, and genuinely demonstrated that yes, a 1st grader can operate it and no, a 7th grader will not be bored by its interface. They were open, earnest and able to answer questions that many adults could not. Moreover, it empowered them to take charge and have agency in their own education. (Here is a great example of one of Kristin Ziemke's first graders sharing her zeal for the day. She was so excited about presenting that she posted a Croak.It blog post from home the morning of the conference.) Too often we have conferences and events where we talk about student learning, but don't do enough to showcase it. Events like the SIT Conference and sessions like iPad Playgrounds or App Speed Dating begin harness the power of student leadership and voice. I'd love to see more sessions like this in future Edu Conferences.

(2) It was hands-on.
This session was hands-on, 95% of the time. With the exception of the first and final few minutes (in which we went over the objectives of the session and structure, then did a wrap up and evaluation), the participants had their hands on devices, working through the apps and learning through doing. So often we attend or present at educational conferences to talk about "best practices" yet, ironically, most conference sessions are presented with the worst possible pedagogy - 40-60 minutes of lecture. No assessment, no differentiation, no learner engagement or collaboration. I myself am guilty of talking at countless participants and yabbering on without giving them time to do or explore. A shift is needed and more conferences are headed this way - EdCamps and PLAYDATE being two great examples.

(3) It was a collaboration of many educators.
Instead of sessions that come from the minds of one - perhaps two educators, this session was not only facilitated and planned by six educators, but also two different schools. Three Burley School educators, Ben Kovacs, Kristin Ziemke and Carolyn Skibba, joined with three National Teachers Academy educators, Autumn Laidler, Anita Orozco and myself. We collaborated from across the city using Google Hangouts and Google Docs. By combining 6 different minds and 2 different schools, we were able to blend perspectives, background knowledge and presentation styles to come up with a more well-rounded session. Moreover, our schools continue to collaborate through cross-grade/subject/school integrated units. Ben, Kristin and Autumn just did a great unit on bats and are currently engaging their 6th, 3rd/4th and 1st graders in an identity unit! Follow #BurNTA on Twitter to learn with them! (Update: See Kristin's post below for more info on these units and also a link to one of her 1st grader's reactions to their conference experience!)


  1. Great event, I can't imagine how much time it took to prepare for the day. Well done.

    1. Believe it or not, it wasn't too much work! We made a list of the apps, each school did one dry run through with our kids, then we created table tents, the info website and some numbers to pass out. The day of the conference we mostly set the timer, sat back and took tons of photos of our awesome kids! You should definitely try doing it with your students!

    2. Very good idea, Jennifer! We will try the same with our students.

  2. Thanks for sharing this post Jennie!
    It was a great day for "student teachers" in CPS. My kids were empowered to have a voice and an audience to share with. They truly believed they impacted how people think about using digital tools in the classroom. And, they were honored to teach adults and meet their SLN (student learning network) from NTA!
    I just looked at our Kidblog page and one student was so excited about the event she posted a blog about it from home. Check it out: http://bit.ly/VEvI3k
    I look forward to more #BurNTA collaboration!

    1. Great comments! I'm editing this post to include Becca's blog link and also to reference your thoughts here!

  3. This is really amazing. I've sent this blog off to my school district's twitter feed with hopes that maybe we can think about doing something like this too. I know I have some rockstars in my classroom that would love this opportunity. How authentic and empowering for our students. WOW! LOVE IT!

  4. Thanks for this posting Jennifer. As you know, a by-product of speaking at an event is you miss other sessions. This is one I would have loved to attend. At least you posted detailed information about it. Please pass along a thanks to the students and share my appreciation for being able to meet them as well.


  5. I am going to try this out with my district. Thanks for sharing !!

  6. My district hosts a Student Led Tech Conference next weekend. I was going to have our 3rd graders share a short keynote and then walk around and share. This seems like a much better format. Hope you don't mind if we use it. Here is a link to an article about last year's conference.

    1. Please do use the model - it was thought up over in Auburn, ME for their Leveraging Learning concept and we adopted it for Chicago. Great ideas are worth sharing :)!

  7. I love the idea!
    I just visited Becca's blog where I discovered Croak It. Oh so cute.
    Could you share the other apps that students were teaching?
    Thanks so much.