After two decades of work in any field, you tend to have a pretty good sense of What Things Are Really Like. As a teacher, I’ve attended conferences large and small, well-organized and … not so well organized, more than I could easily count. The American Classical League has taken me as close as Winston-Salem, North Carolina; as far as Albuquerque. My face-to-face school district sometimes does “conference-like” staff-development sessions; there was one, a few years ago, that almost felt like a “regular” conference, with a series of concurrent sessions, some keynote speakers, and even a conference bag and some sponsors. And of course there have been others — so many, many others — so many that, over time, they start to run together in the mind. Which year, which venue was it where Speaker X shared that amazing strategy? Where was it that we heard the anecdote from Distinguished Presenter Z about That Incident?
But nothing had prepared me for SXSWEDU 2013. And it will be difficult indeed for its sessions and memories to blend themselves in with the others.
For one thing, the venues are spectacular, and the sessions were particularly memorable. Austin is a beautiful city, and the three of us panelists found a remarkable condo through AirBnB(thanks again, Gerol!) only a few blocks’ walk from the Hilton Austin Downtown and the Austin Convention Center. Wednesday began with a brisk morning walk, bagels and coffee in the park as a band played, the most trouble-free registration process I’ve ever encountered. Then came a product demo of what the vendor described as a “personalized” learning platform … and I think, in the end, it will become that, but at the moment it’s a very well-done platform for teachers, not learners, to personalize and remix content, with basic analytics in place (for teachers) and — the good, encouraging news — a company team that is really committed to building and improving their product over time by listening to their users. Then came the first of three sessions that left me in tears, from a professor at UT-Austin who, with his wife, has started a school built around the theme of heroic quests, the principle of learning from and teaching each other, and the guiding notion that “every child is a genius who will change the world in some way.” The three panelists met for lunch — at a delicious restaurant not-coincidentally called The Old School — came a session about “BYOD and the Digital Divide” whose presenter, a teacher-educator who himself grew up in generational rural poverty, was talking about the critical importance of digital devices of technology as a way to open doors for kids like him. We talked after the session, of course, and were both in tears. And then, after a huge session about funding innovative approaches to innovation, I reconnected with some faces from my adventures in New Orleans last summer …. and then came a walk through Austin, a just-in-time Wednesday evening service at a truly lovely church, meetups and dinner and so many other things.
But no, they’re not all running together, even though it might sound like that from this rather disjointed post. Moments are crystallized, and I’ll say more about them, I’m sure, as the days and weeks go by. What really struck me, though, wasn’t the individual moments so much as the pattern … and the feeling that these thousands of people, all gathered for a few days, share something more important than “just” a commitment to educational change. I had a strong sense of joyful learning community, not just from our little panel of three but from everyone I encountered. I also had that welcome feeling, “I’m not crazy! This factory-model educational system of ours isn’t broken or alfunctioning; it’s functioning as designed, but the design just isn’t meeting anyone’s needs anymore.” That was a strong, consistent message, and of course it carries through into our session today … and into the work I do, and have done, and will be doing when I return home.
SXSW EDU is a mountain-top experience, and the thing about those is that you need them, but you can’t stay there. You have to leave the mountain, go back down into the valley, and do the difficult daily work — in this case, of building joyful community “where you’re at,” where conditions are less than perfect, where X and Y will have trouble concentrating and Ms. X will sometimes complain and the Powers That Be will send out the occasional Absolutely Essential Mandate. And, in time, the harder work of building new structures, new communities, “connected adjacencies” at don’t challenge the factory system, but quietly provide a better way for people who need something better, something different. And then who knows?
The other thing about mountain tops, since I grew up near a bunch of them, is that if you did stay there all the time, you’d stop appreciating them. Even the most beautiful surroundings turn into “same old same old” after a while; teenagers complain that “there’s nothing to do in this boring old town” whether it’s a town of 400 or four million. What will I need to do in the days and weeks ahead to hold on to the vision in those same-old surroundings? How will we work to deepen our joyful communities? And what other unexpected graces will there be?