Deeper Thoughts on Presenting at Conferences
This series of blogs is written in past tense because I don't think I'll be presenting at any other conferences.
Who Gets to Speak
All conferences have some form of a selection process to determine who speaks and on what day and time. Depending on the size of the conference, that process might generate thousands of applications for hundreds of slots.
I mentioned in the first blog post on this topic that I was part of that selection process for the 50th Anniversary national conference of the National Science Teachers Association. I was the chairman of one strand of conference content. The committee of four people and I spent hours reading and rating session proposals.
Some of the proposals were outstanding, some were good, some were okay, and some were horrible. When we submitted our list of sessions, I learned that politics is never far from any process.
The powers that be cut our last five sessions and replaced them with five of the horrible ones, which were incomplete and lacking substance. When I asked why I was told that they were from one of the major sponsors of that year’s convention. As such, they were guaranteed five slots in each of the four content strands.
Picking Sessions to Attend Is a Crap Shoot
In spite of the due diligence of selection committees, unless you are familiar with a speaker, choosing which sessions to attend must be based on the quality of either the Title, the quality of the Description, or Time of the presentation.
I’ve sat through some terrible sessions by presenters who must have blackmail material on their school district administrators because the presentations were a mix of ineptitude, incompetence, and/or confused misinformation. When I found a quality speaker, I checked future conference programs for sessions they were presenting.
Being a Repeat Presenter with Good Rating Forms Helps
I presented a lot of sessions at a lot of conferences. As a general rule, attendees like the content and the style of those presentations. I recognized several teachers who faithfully came to session after session of mine because they knew that they’d get quality materials and an engaging presentation.
I can’t complain about my treatment by selection committees. It wasn’t uncommon for me to submit three or four session proposals. It was common for all of my proposals or all but one to be included in the program.
I got to know the NSTA employee responsible for notifying presenters of the acceptance or rejection of session proposals. I suspect that was primarily the result of the number of sessions with my name as the presenter she processed over the fifteen years I was a regular speaker at science conferences. While we never met face-to-face, I did talk to on the phone more than a few times.
One of my favorite presentations started out with a very creative title.
What Do You Do If Betty Crocker Wrote Your Lab Book?
The description promises teachers instruction on a way for students to think more and “fill in the blanks” less. In other words how to make student lab directions less like a recipe.
Description: In this session, you will learn how to move your labs from cookbook toward inquiry. Steps in the process of developing open-ended labs will be discussed. Specific examples will be given. Handouts will be provided.
I had a tremendous response to this session . . .
Until one conference when I distinguished-looking female approached me before the session began.
“Are you Dr. Downing?”
“My name is Betty Crocker,” she said while handing me her business card. She was faculty at a university in Texas and was an advocate of doing what my session promoted.
I apologized profusely.
She laughed and said, “I would appreciate it if you’d retitle your presentation.”
I agreed to do that and emailed her a copy of the replacement name and description.
Performing Pedagogical Alchemy: Transforming lead-en labs into gold-en opportunities for student learning
Description: Learn how to change lead-en labs, heavy with cookbook procedures, to gold-en opportunities for student learning through inquiry and writing. Specific examples and handouts provided.
Betty responded positively. Ultimately, that title and description were more successful than the Betty Crocker versions.
Tricks from an Old Dog
The above heading is the title of my favorite session of all time. It’s 60-minutes of stream-of-consciousness speaking on a variety of topics dealing with teachers and teaching.
The idea for the session came by way of a visit from a first-year science teacher. Her mother also in the Grossmont District. The new teacher was feeling overwhelmed and didn't want other teachers at her school to know that. Mom told her to take a sick day and watch me teach.
She arrived before school on the assigned day. She shadowed me--LITERALLY. I mean every time I turned around, I ran into her. She asked A LOT of questions and dutifully wrote down my answer to each one.
At lunch, I told her she couldn't ask me any questions. I wanted her to talk with my colleagues. She did. I'm sure it gave her a broader perspective.
When she was ready to leave, we had a short final conversation.
"You have to send me a copy of all the questions you asked," I said.
"Okay," she answered.
"And, you have to include the answers you wrote down."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I have no idea what I told you, but I think other new teachers might like to hear those answers."
I got the questions and answered in school mail the next week.
The first time I offered Old Dog was at a San Diego Science Educators Association’s conference. Although run entirely by the local group, over 2000 teachers attended the conference on several occasions. It wasn’t uncommon for the SDSEA convention to out draw at least one of the National Science Teachers Associations regional conferences in a given year.
The session was scheduled in the curved foyer of the San Diego Civic Theater. While unhappy when I found out, I suspect they ran out of rooms for sessions and knew I’d be okay in that venue.
Probably 40-50 teachers followed my ramblings. Below is the handout from that session. The title page has been updated for the last time I presented. Unless you were a teacher in one of Old Dog presentations, you didn’t know all the stuff on the first page, even if I worked with you. I wanted attendees to know that I “can do” and still chose to teach!
|Cover Page and Agenda for this session.|
Filling the Gap
You never know when a presenter won’t show up for her/his session. At least twice, as I was wandering after one of my sessions I came upon a room full of people with no one presenting.
The first time, I walked to the front and asked if they wanted to hear my session. Most of the audience stayed. A couple came up afterward and thanked me. One said my topic was more interesting than the other anyway.
The second time, I knew the presenter. In fact, I worked with him on part of what he was presenting. I got up and explained that something must have happened because I knew that the speaker wouldn’t bail.
Fortunately, my friend arrived late. He’d missed his shuttle. Since I’d run out of knowledge on his topic, I was glad to see him.
The most novel “presentation” I’ve ever done was in Ft. Worth, Texas. It was around 8:00 p.m. on the proverbial “dark and stormy night.” The wind was blowing so hard that the rain was “falling” parallel to the ground.
The electricity in the hotel went out. The only light was from emergency lighting in the hallway. Within minutes, about a dozen science were seated on the hallway floor.
I asked if they wanted to hear the session I’d presented that day. Possibly because it was that or nothing, they agreed. I did an abbreviated version that was punctuated by building-shaking thunder.
The power was restored. People returned to their rooms.
All but one young woman.
“Would Y’all stay and sit with me out here in the hallway for awhile more. When I was growing up, my family’s house was struck by lightnin’. Nobody got hurt and there wasn’t no damage we couldn’t repair. But, since then I’ve been terr’fied by big lightnin’ storms.”
I sat back down
We talked about nothing special for about an hour. By then the thunderstorm passed. We said good night. I never saw her again.
Next is the final blog in this series: Dissecting Conference Attendance