How Was Your Conference?

The estimated reading time for this post is 6 minutes

On the Monday after attending iNACOL in San Antonio, I expect that people in the district office where I work will greet me on the stairs, at the drinking fountain, or at my office door, and say, “How was your conference?”  After all, I’ve been gone for most of a week.  It’s a typical, friendly and seemingly innocuous question. Often, I try to give a quick summary of “what I learned,” name a great session, ask “have you heard of” fill-in-the-blank of any new app, or namedrop the keynote speaker and add the adjective “amazing” or “powerful.”  Sometimes, depending on the audience, I’ll give a critique of the oh-so-awful hotel or food; this can be especially helpful if you feel the person is a bit jealous of your opportunity to travel and learn and is secretly making a negative judgment about you and how you “always” get to go somewhere.  Sometimes, I’ll say, “I’ll share a link with you of the notes I took on a Google Doc,” knowing neither of us are going to review those notes. But this year, the pleasantries and surface level inquiries, the “sludge” managing (tip of the hat to the Work Sucks book for introducing me to “sludge,” or the ways we make people feel guilty at work for not being at their desk all day), and the offers of sharing notes and takeaways, all pale in comparison to what I’m prepared to say.


This year, iNACOL was different. It’s always good; it’s consistently the conference at which I feel like I learn the most.

This year, iNACOL was life-changing.  But the difference wasn’t the conference. The difference was me.


I manage a small department called 21st Century Learning in Santa Ana Unified, and this year, we started personalized learning plans for ourselves: my secretary has one, my curriculum specialist has one, my program specialist has one, and I have one.  I created the template for the plans which we modify to reflect who we are.  We engage in this way with personalized learning plans because we expect that more and more students will be developing personalized learning plans in our district.  We learn by doing. Technically, these personalized learning plans are more like PLP “lite” and we refer to them internally as professional learning journals because they are simple, lightweight, portable and focus on a few key elements:


1) Affirmations. Each person writes an affirmation, a statement of a unique talent, ability, gift, or disposition/trait. After a team member’s first affirmation “feels” right and group members have given feedback about its authenticity and sometimes even the choice of words, we move on and develop two more affirmations each. We meet each Wednesday morning for a stand-up circle where we check in with each other.  We literally stand in a circle, and “we” are the agenda items. We start by stating our affirmations to each other and ourselves.


2) Goals. Each person writes a short term, medium term, and long term goal: 1)  what would you like to know or be able to do in 30 days that you don’t know and can’t do now? 2) what would you like to be able to understand or execute three to six months? and 3) how would you like to be different one year from now? Each Wednesday, during our stand-up circle, we share progress on one of our goals.


We are each working on a learner profile that simply states in a few sentences how we find ourselves learning most often and our preferences around aspects of learning.  There is a section for each goal where we can provide evidence that we are working and making progress on our goals.


I am going to share my personal learning journal with you and explain how it made my iNACOL experience my most engaged and fulfilling conference experience to date. My affirmations:

  •      I am a gifted leader.
  •      I tell stories with light.
  •      I craft timely questions.


Heading into San Antonio, influenced by our weekly circles, I found myself wanting to give back to my team a sense of what I was going to be experiencing and learning. We have a team blog where we share with the district what we are learning and working on, so I decided to contribute “Wes on the Road” blog posts. While I typically use social media to share conference experiences, reactions and insights,

I was struck by a different intent this time: I’m not here (meaning here on this planet) to share reactions and insights, I am here to tell stories.

That squares with who I am, someone who tells stories with light. The background of that particular phrasing and the meaning of that affirmation, is that I first embraced my storytelling power by incorporating photography into my work, first as a technology coach in Fallbrook, then as an online teacher and staff development specialist in Riverside, and finally where it bloomed in Santa Ana Unified.  I found that my photographs affirmed people and validated their existence and contributions in ways that words alone could not do. In Santa Ana, we crafted a series of photo stories focusing (pun intended) on alumni who had overcome obstacles and shared the stories on social media.  Our Facebook stats jumped from 300 views for a typical post to 20,000 views for our most shared and liked story. The stories are a couple of well-wrought paragraphs that I distill from an hour or so interview and a compelling portrait that captures something of the person’s character and story.  After crafting my affirmation, I realized that I could also capture light with video, and indeed, I was already doing that work, too. See Principals of Change. And finally, I realized that I used digital representations, communicated through layers of networks, pixels and screens in a variety of ways to tell these vital stories.


Landing in San Antonio, I began looking for people to connect with, engage with, and to interview, so I could tell their story. I interviewed a former acquaintance whom I knew from participating in the Gates Next Generation System Initiative Challenge who works on personalized learning in Henry County, Georgia. I interviewed a colleague whom I spent time with during our cohort’s time in January of this year in Mountain View as part of the Google Certified Innovator Academy. I interviewed one of my colleagues in Santa Ana to share his story before he headed back a day before the rest of our team. I interviewed my presentation partner from our Administration and Management of Online Programs pre-conference session who works for Florida Virtual School as an account manager. I interviewed a program director who works in New York City schools on competency-based education.


I learned a lot, like always.  I spent time in sessions, like always. Keynotes, like always.  I met people, like always. The difference, and why I say that my time at the conference was fulfilling, rests in my intention to embrace who I am as learner and to actively construct my role at the conference so that I was more fully myself than I often am. I’m often too passive, even though I’m taking notes and tweeting.

Here, in San Antonio, I became a creator,

and changed the lens through which I typically view a conference, to a lens through which I could tell stories of others at the conference.


And that’s how I am helping our approach to the work of personalizing learning in Santa Ana. By slowly developing – with care, quality, and personal accountability – learner profiles, with deep and true affirmations, which are spoken regularly into a learning community which circles around each other, that are at the core of the personalized learning plans of the adult learner.

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Coordinating 21st Century Learning in Santa Ana & beyond. I practice art through photography. I raise funds for clean water with Team World Vision.

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Coordinating 21st Century Learning in Santa Ana & beyond. I practice art through photography. I raise funds for clean water with Team World Vision.

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