So far I think my absolute favorite part of this conference is simply the spontaneous conversations I've had with teachers, neuro-psychologists, principals, and other educators. Just waiting in line for registration, walking down the streets of Boston, or random chatting during the happy hour left me excited about the innovations and great teaching and reflection are going on all over the country for our kids. The principal excitedly telling me about the brain-based changes they've put in place & the neuro-psychologist explaining how many new ideas she gets out of the conference so she can collaborate with teachers and parents. I love knowing there are great things going on out there in other schools. How do we never hear about the amazing things other schools are doing? The only thing we ever hear about in education is what's going wrong out there in the public schools.
The first key note speaker was Paul Nussbaum, whose written the book Save Your Brain. And, um, yeah. We know he wrote the book. He mentioned it. A lot. And while some of the things he shared were great, other little "brain facts" were exactly what our text book had cited as "brain myths". (The author of this text book is a speaker tomorrow, so hopefully these little myths will be corrected. One of Nussbaum's slides on Brain Research even showed a cover of Newsweek... not exactly what we want to see at an academic conference. So the first presentation ended and we started to wonder what we were doing here.
10 minutes later the conference redeemed itself with Deborah Waber, a neuro-psychologist, who spoke on the dilemma of diagnosing specific learning disabilities. As someone who spends a lot of time preparing files on students to present them to the local screening team in order to determine whether or not a student has a learning disability, I found the entire presentation fascinating, partly because it offered a different perspective on learning disabilities than I'm accustom to. As teachers we're bound by not only federal law, but also by how our state interprets IDEA, how our school system interprets the state's interpretation, and how our individual school interprets our school system's interpretation of the state's interpretation of the federal law. That's a lot of people to answer to in order to determine what a child needs. Waber's presentation left me with a lot to think about so another post will be coming soon just on learning disabilities.
We ended with Paul Houston, an education speaker who has experience as a superintendent in Princeton, NJ and in Arizona. He's a fantastic speaker. He may have mentioned his new book a few too many times, and he didn't touch on neurology necessarily, but he did give a refreshing look into education policy. After following the education debates in the news and on blogs I'm always left depressed and frustrated with the state of education. Especially after I heard that Arnie Duncan recently spoke about increasing class size, decreasing the students in special education, and decreasing teaching regulations.
Houston counters this by arguing that the problem with school reform movement is that it is led by ameatures. (amen!) As he pointed out, although he flies constantly, he realizes his flight experience does not mean he can tell the pilots what to do. Yet somehow, in education, under a business model approach, people feel the need to tell educators what to do, despite their lack of knowledge about teaching and learning.
Houston continued to argue that it's time in education to use what we know about how people learn to improve our schools. To me, that arguement is everything. Hearing education policy groups praise Duncan's recent speech about how he's going to "fix" our schools causes me to grind my teeth more than when PJ is throwing every item off my desk. My co-workers and I spend a lot of time studying children. We watch what works, we take child development into account, and we are always looking for new insight into how children learn. The more we know about how kids learn the better we do in the classroom. Which is why I get so confused when I hear about policy makers wanting to put people into classrooms who don't have teaching coursework. I get that there are bad teacher prep classes out there but when did someone decide teachers don't need to know anything about children and learning to be able to teach?
I'm hoping that the next two days will give me more insight into how children learn, what the current science is leaning toward, and how we can improve our teaching to meet their needs.
Now, I just have to figure out which sessions I want to go to tomorrow. Do I listen to Jerome Kagan, Stephen Rushton, and Eric Dearing discuss how biology and environment shape children's psychopathology, how education & neuroscience are impacted by NCLB, and more, OR do I go to listen to Jack Naglieri, David Sousa, and James Byrnes discuss a neuropsychological approach to reading and math interventions, how the special needs brain learns, and how to apply brain science to literacy, reading, and math disorders?
Choosing just one seems so unfair...