Takeaways from The School Improvement Network’s Innovation Summit: “Making 100% Happen”

The “Innovation Summit,” sponsored by School Improvement Network and held in Salt Lake City, UT, on July 8 & 9, delivered on its title. The two-day schedule, line-up of speakers, and breakout sessions allowed for up-close access and interactive discussions with both the keynote speakers as well as collaboration time with the technology and education experts from the School Improvement Network’s PD 360 and Observation 360 divisions.

Speakers included:

  • Alan November, International Leader in Education Technology
  • Tammy Davis, Principal, Central Elementary, Artesia, New Mexico
  • Ken Grover, Principal, Innovations High School, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • LaTisha Vaughn-Brandon and Sherrie Snipes-Williams Charleston Promise Neighborhood North Charleston, South Carolina
  • James Mahoney, Battelle For Kids

From the lineup of speakers, to the topics covered, to the working breakout information sessions, there was continually something interesting for the nearly 500 attendees (some from as far away as Australia, St. Croix and Kuwait) to take back to their respective schools and districts.

The two-day event was centered on presenting the latest innovation in education. Speakers introduced meaningful dialogue about what we know works and does not work in the field. Three of the best practice examples I was able to take away from the summit were:

  1. Looking at what it takes to make the students, the center of the learning experience: The number one factor credited with engaging students as presented by the conference’s student and teacher speakers was the importance of focusing on the social and emotional needs of students. The personal connection between a caring and non-judgmental teacher and students is the single greatest motivator in their academic success.
  2. What do students really need in order to stay engaged and invested in their own learning? Embracing the use of cell phones and learning how to bring social media into the classroom can awaken a child’s interest. These tools tap into the mainstream lives of students to make school look more like the rest of their day, rather than keeping classrooms functioning like they were two hundred years ago. It is necessary for education to start to embrace a more flexible approach to the school day and learning.
  3. How can we utilize the existing human capital in our buildings to ensure that 100% happens? By tailoring professional development around issues that directly impact teachers in the building, and using personality questionnaires to find out which faculty members should be teamed together, will result in a more efficient approach to PD, and to finding creative solutions to reach the student are possible.

The summit format allowed for one morning and one afternoon general session (a TED Talk format), which was followed by a breakout session that allowed us to attend a session of my choice or visit a PD 360 or Observation 360 working session.

I attended the morning session with presenter Cassandra Kessler, who discussed why students should be at the helm when it comes to measuring their own progress. Her presentation delved into an extreme level of differentiation where high school students were able to work on a subject at their own pace and track their own progress with the teacher aiding them in their development. This ideology was reiterated later in the conference by Principal Kenneth Grover of Innovations High School in Salt Lake City, where students have a running start time to their day and can focus on a single class for a three- to four-week period while working with the local community college. This allowed for accelerated learning of any subject area, and not simply traditional STEM area classes. This student-centered approach was reinforced with multiple accounts from both students and faculty as to how it has increased the level of student investment in school.

In the afternoon, I attended the Educator Effectiveness Training session, which included keys to understanding the Observation 360 App. This session was led by School Improvement Network developers, and allowed me to begin to explore how the new features could make my teacher observations and evaluations more effective. The observations can be used more as a teaching tool rather than as a final document that is looked at once and submitted into a file. For example, the app’s feature of being able to run reports on your observations expedites the time needed to look for strong and weak trends across the building when it comes to observed teaching practices This will only help to drive effective professional development.

There are two key reasons why this summit kept me thinking and motivated. First was the opportunity to network with a wide range of professions in attendance. Second was the breakout sessions that served as a continuation of the speakers’ presentations. Here, we could follow up with questions related to the session and there was ample time to ask questions of the presenters--as well as to sample new features of School Improvement’s Observation 360 product.

In addition to serving the most delicious food that I have ever had at a conference, the breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner times allowed me to share ideas and discuss topics from the summit with other educators from around the world. The mood of the conference was inspiring and I left knowing that the students in these districts will surely be better off after their teachers and administrators attended this summit.

Stafford Thomas is the principal at Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull, CT.

NEWS: Announced at the conference: School Improvement Network (SIN) announced a 2013 school year release of programs such as Evidence 360, which will allow observers to script classroom observations and later post them onto their Observation 360 accounts. This new feature was received by the attendees with a boisterous round of applause, considering the massive remodeling of many teacher evaluation plans across the nation. This new feature alone will continue to reduce the amount of time administrators will need to spend on completing an accurate and thoughtful teacher observation.

The second release will be a change in the PD 360 opening page interface which will call for a “less busy” look with easier access for users to find their observation messages and professional goals. Again, we see a quick response from SIN to make the Internet or app experience of their clients more intuitive so that they are able to spend more time innovating.