I had hoped to write a short post last Wednesday, the day I left for the American Classical League Institute in Williamsburg. But the morning was unexpectedly busy, and I’d promised to pick up a friend at the airport at a particular time.
And if you’ve ever been to a conference, you know how busy those days can be! Wednesday evening, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday passed in a blur, as it seems they do every year. But as the time passed, and as I traveled home on Sunday and recovered over the next few days, I had the oddest feeling of being caught half-way between old and new. That’s come to be a familiar feeling over the past few years, but I’d never felt it “at home with the family,” as ACL members like to say of our annual “family reunion.”
Seventeen intrepid souls joined us for our Pre-Institute Workshop about using “innovative techniques” to succeed on “traditional” measures, and they quickly formed a joyful learning community and built meaningful, important things together. Or at least most of them did; one participant felt, quite strongly, that there was nothing innovative and no use of technology in the six hours we spent together. I want to follow up with her, find out how she defines innovative and technology, and see if I have (or can find) some resources that will better fit her needs. But the rest of us were (sometimes unexpectedly) intrigued by finding connections between the ACTFL Can-Do Statements and the College Board’s objectives for the AP Latin course … and by thinking about those objectives in terms of language proficiency rather than task completion.
I suppose it was natural to feel caught between old and new as we presented a workshop about … old and new. And Colonial Williamsburg itself encourages such a feeling. But even during other conference sessions, meals, and conversations with old friends and new, the feeling never entirely went away.
For so many of those friends, this is a time of transition. M, whom I’ve known for at least a decade, is leaving a job and a school that used to be “the perfect fit” … but the school changed in one way, and she changed in another, and it was clear to her that the time had come to move on. Move on to what? She’s not quite sure, but she’s excited and eager for the new chapter to begin. Friend after friend, colleague after colleague, had stories of transitions large and small: a new approach to teaching, a long-planned retirement, leaving the Old Place and striking out toward the New.
Talk about being caught between old and new!
And the conference itself was full of new faces … over a hundred first-time attendees, according to one announcement. Many were young and eager, just beginning their teaching careers or just reaching the point where comfort and fluency as a teacher replaces the struggle for daily survival. Others were veteran teachers who had simply never been able to attend before. I heard a half-familiar voice at a reception, looked around, and saw N … N, who in my memory was still a terrified first-year teacher, more than a decade ago, calling to ask if he could come and observe a class of mine, but who’s now a seasoned veteran in an entirely different teaching context. But he, too, is caught between old and new as his school district contemplates abandoning textbooks and moving on to something still undefined.
And in an age when content and presentations are available all the time, a conference like the ACL Institute itself is caught between old and new. There’s still a lot of value, I think, in going somewhere new and meeting face-to-face, but it’s a different value from what I gained ten years ago, when I made it a point to attend every session and take copious notes. Those notes reside in neatly-organized binders … and the binders sit, unmoved, on a shelf with other physical resources that once seemed indispensable. Today, when I could get the handout online and probably see the video of the presentation anytime, what’s important about physical attendance? It’s not the information transfer anymore; it’s the conversations and the community building and the serendipity of a new friendship, or a deepened old one, over a cup of coffee or a meal.
There’s a lesson for factory-model schools in that, but it’s not a comfortable lesson. Why come, students wonder, when “everything you need” is freely available online? And not just freely available, but probably with better quality than what Those Old Textbooks and That Boring PowerPoint can supply.
When information is suddenly a commodity, the information transfer business gets caught in the “race to the bottom” like any other commodity-oriented business. But when information is a commodity, you need to get out of the information transfer business and find something more valuable, more important, that people seek out.
And somehow, even though I don’t think the organization itself knows exactly how, the ACL Institute still feels valuable and important … and I heard that not just from those old friends, but from new, first-time attendees, too. Somehow the organization has always been a joyful learning community, and that’s why people travel from All Over and keep coming back every year. As all of us straddle the old and the new in our work of teaching and learning, it’s really important to build, sustain, and cherish the learning communities we belong to.
That’s the big insight that followed me home from Williamsburg, the one I couldn’t quite articulate when I was “just too tired” to write a blog post Monday or Tuesday. Build, sustain, and cherish those learning communities, and help others build, sustain, and cherish them!
I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await us all today!