A Conference for Educators by Educators

At the end of April, I attended two very different conferences back to back. And I literally mean back to back–I flew home, arrived at 11pm, repacked by  bag, and left at 6am the next day. I didn’t even tell my kids I was coming home; I just told them I was going away for a week. And, as much as I love being their mom, there is something nice about jet-setting around the country alone as a professional for a week. It’s a vacation on many levels.

First, I attended the Urban Sites Network conference of the National Writing Project in Birmingham, Alabama. Next, I attended the American Educational Research Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California. You can see my post about the latter conference here. These two conferences could not be more different.

As a professor early in my career, going to big name conferences like AERA is good for my CV. Folks in the academic world of education recognize AERA when they see it, and while they might have various viewpoints on the organization, they know that it has a certain standard and that presenting/participating in AERA holds a certain weight. It’s part of playing the academic game, a skill I am slowly learning to refine during these early years of being a professor instead of a high school teacher. There is a great deal more self-promotion and networking needed to bolster my CV in order to obtain the much sought-after status of “tenured” (a seven year journey).

Just as conferences like AERA are good for the CV, conferences like the Urban Sites Network (USN) of the National Writing Project are good for my soul. The USN conferences are put on by those who are on the ground, in the classrooms, and teaching reading and writing. Every presentation or panel is led by educators, those who attend and participate are educators, and the conference’s program is organized by educators. Everyone is there to  learn more about schools, teachers, and best practices in various urban sites around the country. It sounds simple, but it is very powerful.

My favorite part of the USN conferences that I have attended (Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2012 & Birmingham, Alabama in 2013) is that Day 1 of the conference (usually a Friday), you get to know the city where you are staying through school visits and/or historical tours. I LOVE to visit schools, so each conference I sign up for school visits. In Birmingham, I visited James A. Davis Middle School where I was wow-ed by Ms. Cox-Johnson’s beautiful print-rich room and her students work on The Outsiders. We listened to students read aloud persuasive essays and gave them feedback on post-it notes. We were then served an amazing southern lunch (I would weigh a million pounds if I lived down south again from sweet tea alone…) and were shuttled off to a high school. Student ambassadors gave us tours of the school and escorted us to various classrooms where I saw amazing work being done by teachers with students of all levels (Each classroom had a document camera! I was jealous!). The principal and assistant principal hosted us for a Q&A session with snacks (because they are smart and know snacks are the key to happiness).

Overall, I came out of the school visits impressed by their transparency and their hard work, and feeling very welcomed by the students, faculty, and administration.

Saturday (Day 2) is a typical conference day–sessions to choose from, lunch in a hotel ballroom with a keynote speaker, more sessions, a wrap up. The sessions are led by teachers and you actually *DO* something with them, they don’t sit and talk TO you (because we all know that that is NOT how anyone learns…). It’s a collaborative space and everyone contributes to the presentation which makes it more rich. It’s informal yet very professional. Everyone there is a serious educator dedicated to their craft. There is very little ego. It’s all about sharing and taking away something you can use in your classroom at a later date. Practical, practiced, and shared. A great combination.

The Urban Sites Network annual conference is a great space for educators; there you will be treated like the professionals you are. I highly recommend that any/many of you who teach in urban areas (Brenda in Baltimore, Brook in St. Louis, all my NYC peeps…) keep your eye on their website and advocate to your school that you go for personal professional development. Either attend or apply to present!

Even though conferences such as this one aren’t the glittering star on my CV, I’m going to keep going. These folks are my tribe. The more teachers I meet around the country and around the world, I am more and more convinced of that. I might be a professor in title now, but teaching is still where my heart lies.

Thanks, Birmingham and the Red Mountain Writing Project for a fabulous conference. Y’all are sweeter than your tea.

Following are photos from the trip:

This teacher even wrote her daily objectives in various colors of dry erase marker!


Young girl reading her persuasive essay to us at Davis Middle School.


My notes to the readers on post-its. Great review format.


This insane sheet is what every teacher has to have posted outside their door. It lists everything that will be done that week. So much for creativity or changing your lessons to meet the needs of your students as the days go by. There is no teacher’s union in Birmingham, btw. Obvious?


Walking to the Civil Rights Museum and 16th Street Baptist Church I saw this. I had visited Birmingham on a cross country drive in February of 2000, and I remembered the Ans-O-Phone! Can’t believe it’s still there.


I also saw this sign 13 years ago. Parking has gone up from $20/month to $25/month.


Many a moment of pause from standing in the presence of this church and going to the Civil Rights Institute.


Birmingham has amazing old buildings. I walked from my hotel to the Civil Rights Institute, to Railroad Park, and across to Fish Market for dinner and didn’t see hardly a soul (minus some friendly homeless people). It was like an episode of The Walking Dead . Very bizarre.


I have died and gone to southern heaven: shrimp & grits, fried okra, hush puppies, cole slaw, and sweet tea.