Disney for Teachers! My 1st AMLE Conference

By Laurie Lichtenstein

It reminded me of Disney World. Sprawling, with eye candy in every direction. Except instead of Mickey Mouse and princesses there was lush greenery and a man-made stream winding through the property past waterfalls and fountains.

Guitars hang from the ceiling and Christmas lights adorn the walls. I was not in Orlando; I was in Nashville at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, attending the Association for Middle Level Education’s national convention (November 7-10). My first!

Nine of us – seven teachers, our principal and our Director of Literacy – trekked down from New York to the Music City for a few days of learning and networking. Admittedly, I was overwhelmed at first. The more than 60-page document describing the sessions was downloaded to the AMLE app on my phone and it seemed that every time I scrolled through I clicked on another presentation I wanted to attend.

So really – kind of a Disney World for teachers. Did I want to focus on social and emotional learning, an initiative in which my school district is involved? Or perhaps I could sharpen my technology skills and torture myself and my students as I tried to master cutting edge apps that promised to transform my classroom into a 21st century laboratory for tomorrow’s leaders.

Overwhelmed – in a good way

I found it very difficult to make these choices, stressful even, and I worried as I walked into Canal E for a workshop on 50 Nifty Tech Tools for the Blended Learning Classroom that maybe I should have been attending Workshop Busters: Easy Low Prep Activities You can Use Again and Again for any Content.

Then, when two of my colleagues raved about “Generation Z: Facing Four Hidden Realities of the Most Anxious Population,” I was jealous. Had I made the wrong choice? Even with the Google doc our principal had set up so we could share information, it wasn’t the same as being in the room.

This was, I told myself, very much like our family trips to Orlando where I had to remind my kids and my husband that we just simply couldn’t get to do every ride we wanted to, even with fast passes (Disney’s answer to the long lines).

Perhaps #AMLE20, to be held in Baltimore next November, should issue fast passes – as some of the workshops at #AMLE19 actually got closed out. More than once I took inspiration from my principal who refused to leave the overcrowded sessions. I snuck in quietly, sat on the floor, and opened my laptop hoping I wouldn’t be called out for trespassing. But I was here to learn, and learn I would!

Why conferences are worth it

Teaching is an art. It is a creative endeavor that requires us to develop engaging curriculum that will usher our students to grasp concepts, master content, grow their thinking and build their skills. But as we become caught up in the day to day of meetings, grading and student issues, it is easy to go on autopilot and lose the inspiration to invent.

The opportunity to engage with ideas and strengthen our practice often gets lost between September and June, and while the summer is prime time for professional development, I often find it hard to muster the same enthusiasm when the participants in my living laboratory have scattered for their various July and August adventures.

So the luxury of being able to learn in the moment, away from the pressures of school, and spark ideas that I could immediately bring home was truly a golden opportunity. And once I designated my #AMLE19 focus, with a reminder that I couldn’t possibly accomplish all I wanted, I settled in. I looked for sessions where I could hear about exciting practices in classrooms across the country and generate my own ideas based on what other teachers had done. Pearls of curricular wisdom. Little gems.

What I’m bringing home

To that end, I left the conference with seeds of ideas and strategies for my own classroom. One had been germinating for three years – the last time I taught 7th grade social studies – which in New York is early American history.

At the time, Hamilton on Broadway was all the rage and I capitalized on its music during our unit on the Revolution and the early republic. While the Hamilton fervor has died down just a bit, its music is just as compelling, and I blew off a sushi lunch to go to a speed learning session and hear David Childs and Michael DiCicco of Northern Kentucky University in their session, Hamilton, Hip Hop, and the Classroom.

As I listened, my idea came to fruition: create a unit where my students, who have me for both English and social studies, can study the lyrics of Hamilton as poetry, as an art form, and also analyze the text to explore the facts (and myths) surrounding the American Revolution. A rich interdisciplinary experience.

Even before I sat down to write this article, I forced myself to move out of my comfort zone and explore the apps I heard of in 50 Nifty Tech Tools with Dr. Cody Raper and Emily Raper. I cheated a bit – my own seventh grader helped me navigate Gimkit.com (billed as a game show for the classroom that requires knowledge, collaboration, and strategy to win). We succeeded in creating a review game for an upcoming assessment.

Then, all on my own, I devised a lesson on NowComment.com, a site that allows students to analyze a document and have a conversation with one another online. I am confident it will not be perfect, and there will be glitches, but it’s a start!

This time I gave in to instant gratification

Perhaps I looked for instant gratification with my convention strategy. I am sure some middle grades colleagues took a more philosophical approach to the conference and honed in on educational trends or philosophical ideas. This would have suited me too, and maybe next convention I will do the same. But for my first national convention I carved a path, and I know that my instant gratification will lead to long term changes as I implement and play with all that I learned.

And I promise myself as I return to work, I will keep the stack of goodies I amassed at #AMLE19 in full view of my work station. I thrive on improving my curriculum, and as I begin to dig out files for the next unit of study, or look for a new form of assessment, I will reach toward my conference papers, look at my notes and return to the Music City and #AMLE19 in my own head.

There is an incredible amount of inspirational “stuff” going on in the world of middle school, and it’s ours for the taking.

Laurie Lichtenstein has been teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies in Westchester County, NY for two decades. In whatever spare time she can scrounge up, she writes about education and parenting her three children. Her work can be seen in Motherwellmag.com, the Bedford Patch, and The Jewish Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @thriceblessed. Read her other MiddleWeb posts here.


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3 Responses

  1. Betsy Weiner says:

    Laurie, I enjoyed your article. As a retired middle school social studies and English teacher, I liked your references to Hamilton. As a friend and colleague of your mom, I am extremely proud of you.

  2. Dennis Schug says:

    Laurie, this is a truly wonderful snapshot of the wonders of middle school! Not only did you make the most of an amazing AMLE experience, you’ve captured your takeaways for those of us who were unable to attend this year’s conference, but who also love and appreciate serving adolescents.

    Looking forward to reading future posts!

    – Dennis

  3. Joe Mazza says:

    LOVE that you took your learning public – what a model for your students! I really enjoying learning alongside you last week, and look forward to how our study team will make 7B an even better place due to experiences stemming from this trip.

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