Avoid the Conference Overwhelm

Myself, I am a self-avowed conference “junkie.”  Conferences are such a great way to learn new things, develop skills, and collaborate with talented colleagues…but the amount of information given in conferences can be overwhelming.  Let’s look at why we love attending conferences and then address how to avoid the Post-Conference Overwhelm using the “filing system” inherent in the Stepping Stones instructional frameworks and a spreadsheet to organize your notes as you go through your conference sessions.

So, conferences.  How I love them!  I love the energy, I love getting to nerd out with fellow educators and talk about my favorite thing in all the world, nonstop, for days on end, in some far-off place where “real life” gets put on hold for a little while, and I don’t even have to worry about what to feed myself; just pop into the hotel restaurant and order!

Ever since my first language teacher conference, I have been a real big conference nerd…and you might be the same. After all, here you are, reading an email about teaching, like the lifelong learner and professional development seeker you are.

So, why on earth would I – a confirmed teaching nerd – say that conferences can make our jobs harder?

Because when you attend a conference without a plan or a way to catalogue and organize and, eventually, implement, all the amazing creative things you learn from all the awesome presenters, you can leave with a big old bag of shiny new teacher tricks…

…and a big old case of the Post-Conference Overwhelm.

You might have experienced this yourself. You have all these notes and handouts, or (in the online conference scene of 2021) a bunch of downloads and Google Slideshows…and then the hard work begins.

Now you have to organize all the cool new ideas and integrate them into what you are already doing.

It’s like, the more you paid attention, and the more exciting the presentations were, the harder you have to work afterward, because you got so inspired and want to do All the Things!

Because I have struggled with the Post-Conference Overwhelm so much myself, and we will soon be heading into fall conference seasons, here are some tips and a spreadsheet note-taking tool that’s aligned to the Stepping Stones curricular framework.

The spreadsheet is designed specifically for conferences – it offers an easy way for you to keep track of their notes from presentations and integrate them into what you are already doing.

How conferences can overwhelm us

Teaching conferences are awesome because they give us fresh perspectives and new ideas. They’re a way for educators to both learn and teach, which is what the teaching profession is all about!

Conferences are a substantial investment of funds – registration fees, travel, paying for a substitute – and time away from family and friends. Many times, attending a conference means you will need to take days off from school, which means that you have to invest time in the dreaded sub plans. So you definitely want to make the most of your investment!

So, there you are, at your conference, with the schedule of sessions all marked up, a fresh notebook and markers or pens, and a sense of excitement, looking forward to what you will learn!

Let’s imagine that on the first day of your conference, you attend these sessions:

(1) How to use Pear Deck to engage students in personal questions: Asking personal questions is so engaging…when you get interesting answers, that is! But what if all you get is…crickets? How can you get all students – even the reluctant ones – to answer questions? Pear Deck! Learn how to use this tech tool to get answers from ALL students.

(2) Using Film to Develop Communication-Based Units: Learn how to organize and sequence a proficiency-oriented unit based on a feature-length film in your course language: how to gather culturally-authentic resources, utilize engaging discussion techniques, incorporate required grammar and/or vocab, and develop assessments to support the themes of the film aligned with proficiency goals.  Film study can be highly engaging way to provide tons of comprehensible input and cultural understanding. Turn the lights off and turn your students’ language acquisition ON!

(3) Using Songs to Boost Language Acquisition & Engagement: See how music can be used daily in your language classroom. Learn strategies for introducing songs, activities for active listening, cultural extensions, and assessment, including ways to use the lyrics and/or music videos to provide comprehensible input while exploring cultural perspectives, reaching more students’ learning preferences, and having fun.

You could very well leave with three totally unrelated, yet super-interesting and inspiring, ideas…and then be left with the Post-Conference Overwhelm as you work to integrate them into your curriculum.

Or, you could study up on this spreadsheet and use it, right there in the sessions, to catalogue the ideas and put them in a place where you can easily refer back to them in planning your year.

How to File It and Forget It (For Now)

Here’s how you might do this. You can use this spreadsheet as your conference note-taking spot.

First, you will want to become familiar with the Stepping Stones yearlong curricular framework and/or the Scope and Sequence documents. You will want to know what types of content fit with the various cycles (e.g. Description or Narration), as well as with the phases within that cycle (e.g., in Narration: Personal Stories, Literary/Imaginative Stories, Cultural Stories, and Historical Stories).

The Stepping Stones Cycles & Phases
The Most Common Language Functions, Topics, & Communicative Purposes in Stepping Stones

You will also want to understand the components of the Daily Instructional Framework, and especially the purpose of each component. For example, Reading Workshop can be simple free-choice reading or it can also be a daily shared reading experience of a short text, or a portion or excerpt of a longer text, perhaps a culturally-authentic resource like a website, comic, or article. So, any strategy whose purpose is to engage students in free-choice reading or in a whole-class discussion of a shared text could be a good fit for Reading Workshop.

The worksheet has tabs along the bottom that correspond to the cycles. In each tab, there are columns that correspond to the components of the Daily Instructional Framework and rows that correspond to the phases within that cycle, and topics that you can cover within those phases.

By using the rows and columns in these sheets, you can quickly zero in on where to fit the ideas you learn in your conference sessions.  In order to do this, you will need to think, when you learn a new idea during the session, about:

(1) the “language function” the idea corresponds to,
(2) the topic or possible topics the idea could be
used with, and
(3) the communicative or pedagogical purpose
of the idea.

In “Stepping Stones Speak,” the language function can indicate which cycle to fit it into, the topic can give you a good idea of the phase it can best fit into, and the communicative or pedagogical purpose can indicate which part of the Daily Instructional Framework it can be used with.

For example, let’s say that you are in your first session of the day, “How to use Pear Deck to engage students in personal questions.”  

Before you make notes in the spreadsheet, you will want to determine:

(1) The language function:  Describing, Narrating, Informing, Giving Opinions, or Constructing Arguments.

Well, using Pear Deck to engage students in personal questions could very well fit into several of these functions.  You could ask students to describe, or tell a story (narration), or tell information, or give opinions, or even state a claim about an argumentative-type topic.  So, because this session could apply to multiple cycles, you might want to choose a cycle for which you actually need more strategies.  So, if you have a ton of ways already to have students give their opinions, then you might want to focus on Narration.  Let’s use Narration in this example.

(2) The topic:  What topic could this idea be used with?

Sometimes, the presentation contains a specific topic.  For example, in a presentation on “Telling the Stories of Freedom Fighters and Resistance to Colonialism,” the topic is very likely “historical stories.”  But other times, the ideas presented in the session could apply to multiple topics.  So, again, you might want to prioritize topics that you feel a little “thin” on.  In this example, let’s imagine that you could use some more strategies for eliciting historical stories.  The more obvious choice might be “personal stories,” but you could ask students to give answers to questions that are designed to elicit historical stories, for example, “Tell about a person who is no longer living who made a big difference in the world.”  You could also ask for personal answers to questions designed to elicit cultural stories, for example by asking, “What stories does your family tell?”  For this example, let’s go with historical stories.

(3) The communicative or pedagogical purpose:  What type of language interaction is this idea designed to elicit?

Again, sometimes the presenter will come right out and say the communicative purpose, or the session title might just flat-out say it, for example, “In this session, you will learn how to support students to read independently,” which would strongly suggest that it would fit best in Reading Workshop.  Other times, you will need to infer the purpose.  This example seems to be designed to support Guided Oral Input, as it shows you how to use Pear Deck to get students’ input so that you can discuss their responses.  So, let’s put it under “Guided Oral Input.”

So, now you know where to take notes.  The “language function” of Narration would indicate Cycle Two.  The “topic” of Historical Stories would indicate Phase Four of Cycle Two.  And the “communicative purpose” of “whole-class discussion” would indicate Guided Oral Input.  So, you can just go right to that box in the spreadsheet and make notes there.  

You might prefer to make a Google Doc and LINK it to the box in the spreadsheet, to give you more room to write.  You can link from the Google Doc to any digital materials that are shared in the session.  You might take pictures with your phone or other device, and upload them to the Google Doc.  You could also link to a Dropbox document or any other system that you prefer to manage your files.

Voilà, you now have the beginnings of a useful little cataloguing system that you can keep using again and again, to build a handy and not-overwhelming document that can hold all the ideas from any conference or training you attend, ready for you to use in your planning sessions in the future when you get to that cycle and phase.

It’s just one of the benefits of having a “curricular framework” such as Stepping Stones to guide you. Read more about Stepping Stones here:

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