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Electric Opening Session Kickstarts ILA 2015 Conference

by April Hall
 | Jul 19, 2015

Shaq and teachersThe official start of the ILA 2015 Conference was electrified from the first note of dance music to the final strains of the hip-hop violin.

As thousands of attendees streamed into the hall for Opening General Session, DJ A.K. ramped up the crowd with tunes before ILA Board of Directors President Jill Lewis-Spector welcomed the crowd, pointing out that half of attendees are first-timers.

Executive Director Marcie Craig Post then took to the stage to also welcome the crowd, followed by a representative of the St. Louis mayor’s office who presented her with a proclamation designating July 18 Literacy Day in the city from now forward.

Social entrepreneur, activist, and Malala Fund cofounder Shiza Shahid spoke about the importance of education not only in her life, but in the life of children everywhere—particularly girls in regions of the world where their education is restricted.

“Your profession is amongst the most honorable and meaningful in the world,” Shahid told the audience of educators. “You are the guardians of our combined human advancement.”

At a young age, Shahid not only learned about social causes, but became part of them, starting with volunteering in women’s prisons at age 14 followed by a year serving at an earthquake relief camp in Pakistan, helping mostly women and girls.

As a student at Stanford University—on full scholarship—Shahid returned to Pakistan during the summer of her sophomore year to host an educational retreat to mentor and build the confidence of girls in the capital city of Islamabad who desperately wanted an education. One girl she worked with was a then 12-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who at that time said she wanted to grow up to be president of her country.

After Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban soldiers who wanted to silence her, Shahid flew to her bedside. Over the next days, weeks, and months, Shahid worked on keeping Yousafzai’s story from becoming “a day in the news cycle.”

Together the women, with Malala’s father, founded the Malala Fund and traveled the world supporting education, particularly for girls.

During a question and answer session with ILA Board Member Shelly Stagg Peterson, Shahid expanded upon recent statements she’s made about philanthropy and education.

“We come from a culture of using charity to make ourselves feel better,” Shahid said. “We are tweeting about one cause, donating to another, learning about a third. We need to focus on one.”

For example, she said, “literacy is not something you can dip into and dip out of.” She said by focusing on one goal, people can gain context and depth of understanding and truly make a difference.

She also said the cause facing ILA and its members is one of the most critical in the world.

“Education and literacy are the interventions that can equalize all of us,” she said. Through it we can rise above the circumstances into which we are born.

During Shahid’s speech, she showed photos and videos that chronicled their journey and Yousafzai’s resilience, bravery, and strength. After her talk, she received two standing ovations.

At the pinnacle of the session, Shaquille O’Neal hit the stage with a smile nearly as big as his feet and a reverence for teachers that he referred to several times.

First, he said he had met a teacher before coming on stage who reminded him of his favorite teacher from the fourth grade, Ms. Swan. He asked “Kathy from Chicago” to join him on stage.

"It was inspirational to hear about Shaq's great respect for teachers," Kathy Horvath said. "While on stage, I could see his giant stature, but feel his giant heart.

"I was also so proud to hear him say that I reminded him of his fourth grade teacher who changed his life."

O’Neal then asked two other audience members to join him. He asked the teachers how long they had been teaching and to share their educational philosophies. They shared their passions for equal educational opportunities and literacy.

Before they left the stage, James Poplau, an elementary school principal from Kansas City, KS, received loud cheers when he simply shouted, “I believe literacy is a civil right!”

Once he was alone on stage again, O’Neal talked about his journey in education, from class clown to EdD. He said he pursued higher education to make his mother proud.

He then shared three thoughts with the audience.

“Dream big dreams,” he said. While his parents struggled financially, O’Neal never realized they were poor. They stressed the importance of education and the idea he could be whatever he wanted to be.

“Number two: A picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. O’Neal labeled himself a visual learner and he used images to improve his literacy skills. Soon he was an eager reader and devoured literature.

“My dad always said, ‘Be a leader, not a follower,’” he said. “Leaders read. And soon I found the world became a more exciting place every time I opened a book.”

He said it became a dream of his to be a children’s book author and it was teachers who supported his upcoming book, Little Shaq(Bloomsbury, 2015), and made his dream come true.

“Number three:Imagination will take you everywhere,” O’Neal said, quoting Albert Einstein. He said he would daydream often about being a DJ, an actor, and an athlete. With the encouragement of his family and teachers, he’s achieved all his goals.

The Opening General Session was far from over after O’Neal’s talk and Q&A with new ILA Board Member Cathy Collier. Once he left the stage, the lights dimmed and out came Svet, an “electro hip hop violinist,” who not only got the crowd pumped, but also incredibly inspired with images of ILA’s mission combined with an equal amount of shocking statistics and hopeful calls to action displaying on the large screen behind him.

Many crowd members rushed to the stage to get photos and video of the unique performance.

Joyce Fine, a longtime conference attendee from the Florida International University, said the excitement was palpable during Opening General Session.

“The technology was beautifully done and integrated,” Fine said. “It all started very serious and then Shaq came out and was so funny.

“The music was great,” she added. “The energy was fantastic.”

April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for about 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.

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