By Dawn Wilson

When I attended my first Learning Forward conference in Vancouver several years ago, I made a commitment to attend every year, and have. Although the topics and technologies have changed, the culture of learning has remained constant.

During this year’s closing, Stephanie Hirsh shared her favorite conference moments and invited audience members to reflect on theirs.  In that spirit, here are my most memorable moments from Learning Forward’s 2017 Annual Conference in Orlando.

1.  Inspiring Keynote Messages

Each keynote speaker had a compelling message. Kaya Anderson’s journey from classroom teacher to the Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, was a testimony to the passion and purpose of all educators.  Hahrie Hahn’s heartbeat story was a resonant reminder that students are at the core of our work.  Watching a student, Josh Ward, @joshwxo, perform his interpretive dance demonstrating that actions can be more powerful than words.

A common message from the keynote speakers was that leaders are shaped by transformative events that define who they are as people.  Who we are comes from our life experiences. When we look back at these experiences…invariably, lessons learned from the challenges are what define us. The real life messages of hope and change from the keynote speakers inspired the audience open their hearts and minds to learn something they hadn’t seen, known, or believed before.

2. Attending the Principal’s Playbook session

Fenwick Academy is an example of a school that created its own playbook for success and transformed its school culture, professional practice, and increased student reading scores steadily for the past six years. Principal Woods eloquently shared the Fenwick Academy journey from a low performing school to a high performing school of learners and leaders – students, teachers and parents. The strategies and tools she shared for shifting the school could be immediately applied in participants’ settings.

After the session Ms. Woods shared more tips from her playbook and responded to questions.  This informal coaching from a principal practitioner promised to continue as social contacts were exchanged.  The session was a powerful example of how a conference presenter can positively impact the professional practice of educators and student learning beyond the boundaries of their settings.

3. Learning with thought leaders

Joellen Killion is among my favorite thought leaders. Over a decade ago at my first conference, I attended Joellen’s session.  Listening to her informed voice on assessing the impact of professional development caused me to realize how much more there was to learn. An informal conversation with Joellen during the conference about program evaluation tools expanded my thinking.  Thought leaders are positive, disruptive forces that change perspectives and inspire learning. Sessions with thought leaders are offered throughout the conference.

4.  Reconnecting with the Long Beach team

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to get to know the professional development team from Long Beach Unified School District.  They were on a learning journey to assess how their district’s investment in professional learning impacted teacher practice and student outcomes.

This team stays on the leading edge of learning and innovating.  Reconnecting with Nader Twal, Jennifer Crockett, and Amy Pendray was another conference highlight…. evidence that important learning can also happen in the hotel lobby.  To learn more about the Long Beach team’s learning journey, their JSD article, Making Evaluation Count, is available at

5. Coaching the 2018 Academy

As a co-coach for the Academy Class of 2018, I have the privilege of helping educators establish and sustain highly effective professional learning in their organizations.  The genius of the Academy is that the work is the genuine, everyday professional work of the participants.  Educators join the Academy to solve a problem of practice from their workplace. Personalized learning plans are a natural outcome of the Academy members’ efforts to solve this problem, not extra work disconnected from their professional purpose.  They graduate 2 1/2 years later with solutions . . . and so much more.

The Academy focus is improving student outcomes.  Members learn how to connect their daily work with student achievement and use evaluation tools to measure student progress. During the Academy, members also become advocates for professional learning. The Academy is an amazing learning experience for both the participants and the coaches.

6. Connecting with kindred spirits

An effective way to grow your professional learning network is connecting with new colleagues at the conference. Joining a table conversation in a session or during lunch is a great way to learn different professional perspectives.

As fellow Floridians, the Orlando host committee members were special kindred spirits. Debbie Cooke and the committee of “love bugs,” “tater tots,” and other terms of endearment assigned to them were an amazing, irrepressible group of volunteers.  Kudos to them for making magic happen at the conference.

7. Volunteering at Ticket Exchange

Helping attendees find just the right session and hearing their stories, especially the red dot first timers, was affirming.  First time attendees infuse new ideas and attitudes to the conference experience. Change is important for any organization to thrive and grow. Many of these new faces will become the next generation of professional learning leaders.

My most memorable moments were a mix of formal learning like the keynote messages, practitioner sessions and the Academy and informal learning such as connecting with colleagues and volunteering.

8. Leading a session

Another unique learning opportunity the conference offers is leading a session.  If you have a professional story to share, a desire to learn, and the determination to improve instructional practice, student outcomes and your organization, you are invited to submit a proposal for the 2018 Learning Forward Annual Conference.  A space is reserved for you. Many bright and curious minds are presenting at the 2018 Learning Forward Annual Conference in Dallas on Dec.1-5, 2018. Will you be one of them?

Apply to present at the Learning Forward Annual Conference.

About the author

Dawn Wilson is a lead coach for the Learning Forward Academy who has served in a variety of district and school roles including teacher, instructional coach, director of curriculum and instruction, director of testing and evaluation, director of instructional technology and executive director of professional learning.

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