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    The Transformative Trifecta: Driving Change Through Literacy, Equity, and Social-Emotional Learning

    By Alina O’Donnell
     | Sep 19, 2019

    Eckert_680wIn June 2019, the Ohio State Board of Education adopted a set of social-emotional learning (SEL) standards for K–12 students. This comes as part of the state’s new strategic plan for education, in which SEL is one of four “learning domains” outlined—a move that essentially says SEL is as important to a child’s education as literacy, numeracy, and technology.

    Ohio isn’t alone in these efforts. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of states with K–12 SEL standards jumped from 1 to 18. Outside of the U.S., the popularity of SEL has also grown significantly.

    This isn’t surprising, given today’s social climate. More and more schools around the globe are prioritizing SEL, which aims to develop interpersonal skills, self-regulation, and the ability to feel and demonstrate empathy. Educators are turning to SEL-embedded instruction to foster equitable learning environments.

    What is surprising is that despite this, and despite how SEL-informed literacy instruction paves a powerful pathway to equity, very little has been written about how the three intersect.

    This is the driving goal of the Equity in Education Program at the ILA 2019 Conference, October 10–13 in New Orleans, LA. The program, which has expanded across all four days of the conference, will draw clear connections between literacy, equity, and SEL.

    The intersection of literacy, equity, and social-emotional learning

    Over the past 15 years, the United States has increasingly emphasized assessments as an index of school performance. This emphasis on academic rigor has left many educators feeling pressured to choose between strengthening SEL skills and growing academic skills.

    Justina Schlund, one of this year’s Equity in Education Program speakers, is here to shatter that false dichotomy. Central to her work as director of field learning at The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is her steadfast belief that social-emotional competence is inextricably tied to academic achievement.

    “Foundational to how all learning happens is how students engage socially and emotionally with each other, with themselves, and with teachers in the classroom,” she says. “In order to achieve any other goals, we need to be focused on students as whole people.”

    A long body of research shows that inequities such as disabilities, poverty, and discrimination can pose barriers to children’s social and emotional development. Schools have an important role to play by helping students develop the skills, habits, and dispositions that equip them for success in school and beyond.

    Schlund sees social and emotional development as a lever not only for academic achievement but also for increasing educational equity.

    “I’m not saying SEL is the solution, but it contributes to how people understand each other, how we explore and examine our own biases, and how we make decisions that impact others,” she says.

    Supporting teachers’ social and emotional development

    Although Schlund stands by CASEL’s definition of SEL, she believes it’s often misinterpreted to apply exclusively to children. She views SEL as a lifelong process needed to navigate every context, from the classroom to friendships and first jobs.

    “We do not talk about SEL exclusively for kids, even though that is often the focus of SEL in schools,” says Schlund. “I think it’s important to remember that everyone is engaged in this process of learning and answering questions like, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I relate to the world?’ and ‘How do I make decisions that benefit the community and the world at large?’”

    Just as a history teacher needs to learn history to be effective, educators wishing to teach and model SEL must first build their own competencies in self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

    “In order to do this work, you need to take care of yourself and you need to take care of your own social-emotional needs,” says Katherine Theodore, senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), also a speaker during the upcoming Equity in Education Program.

    The Equity in Education Program session on Friday, Oct. 11, “The Intersection of Literacy, Equity, and Social-Emotional Learning,” will focus on preparing teachers to develop their own social-emotional skills through self-reflection on practice, curriculum, personal biases, and growth opportunities.

    After a short opening keynote, five literacy leaders will share how they build capacity and prepare educators to accomplish goals around SEL in their schools and communities. Along with Schlund and Theodore, attendees will hear from Pedro A. Noguera, distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and founder of the university’s Center for the Transformation of Schools; Jovanni Ramos, principal of Foundation Preparatory Charter School in New Orleans, LA; and Stephanie K. Siddens, senior executive director of the Ohio Department of Education’s Center for Student Supports.

    Following these TED-style presentations, Noguera will facilitate an audience-driven Q&A, allowing time for attendees to respond, exchange ideas, and ask questions.

    Identifying key challenges and outlining next steps

    Led by a panel of classroom practitioners, the Equity in Education Program session on Saturday, Oct. 12, “Integrating Social-Emotional Learning in the Literacy Classroom,” will shift the focus onto classroom implementation.

    Following the same format as Friday, presenters will demonstrate what evidence-based SEL looks like in literacy education, highlight potential pitfalls, and offer recommendations for educators seeking to implement SEL.

    Attendees will hear from Kimberly Eckert, 2018 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, high school English teacher, and reading specialist at Brusly High School; Shawna Coppola, middle school language arts teacher and literacy specialist/coach; Gerald Dessus, middle school cultural studies teacher at The Philadelphia School in Pennsylvania and an ILA 30 Under 30 honoree for 2019; Tiana Silvas, fifth-grade teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan and former Heinemann Fellow; and Tamera Slaughter, manager of educational partnerships with Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

    Eckert will deliver the opening keynote, during which she’ll share her own SEL journey and discuss the main challenges to implementation—one being recruitment.

    “Too often, teachers enter the profession because they still follow the antiquated ideal of ‘you love English, so you teach English’ instead of ‘you love humanity, so you teach,’” she says. “We need to recruit and attract people who are seriously engaged in changing the world and who have a 4.0 in people, not necessarily a 4.0 in physics.”

    In addition to the Friday and Saturday sessions, this year’s Equity in Education Program is also bookended by events on Thursday, Oct. 11, and Sunday, Oct. 13—Institute Day and Children’s Literature Day, respectively.

    These all-day events require separate registration and are not included in Core Conference.

    On Thursday, educators Kathy Collins, Shawna Coppola, Matthew Kay, and Aeriale N. Johnson will lead the Equity in Education Program institute—“Equity in Education: Roles, Tools, and Approaches for Engaging in Bias-Free Practices.” During Children’s Literature Day on Sunday, a morning session, “Equity Through Empathy,” will be led by educators, authors, and activists including Chad Everett and Tricia Ebarvia, who will examine the role children’s literature plays in social-emotional learning. Finally, an afternoon workshop, “Empathy and Identity,” led by Everett, Ebarvia, and San Diego State University’s Virginia Loh-Hagan, will unpack the latest research about representation in the classroom.

    Takeaways

    When asked about what they hope attendees will take from this year’s program, presenters said they hope attendees will start to see SEL as an indelible landmark in today’s educational landscape rather than a fleeting fad.

    “It needs to be tightly embedded within the curriculum. You can have an SEL program, but when you are designing your lessons and your curriculum, you need to have that SEL language in there,” says Theodore. “It cannot be taught in isolation of the curriculum.”

    “SEL is the underbelly of everything that we’re doing,” adds Schlund. “If we care about our kids and we care about the world at large, we have to care about SEL.”

    Alina O’Donnell is the former editor of Literacy Daily and communications strategist for ILA.

    This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Roads Old and New

    By Charles Moore
     | Sep 16, 2019

    roads-old-and-new_w680Driving back from Austin, TX, last July felt like flying. The road back to Houston is pretty enough: rusting barbed wire fences, rolling hills covered in bluebonnets rising and falling like waves on the ocean. I left the International Literacy Association (ILA) 2018 Conference ready to conquer the world, feeling euphoria course through my nerve endings, yearning to write about my experience, seeking more of those who share this passion for literacy.

    I knew, as I left ILA 2018, that I was rushing back to a new school, a new team, and that newness would be both a challenge and a blessing. What I later learned was that I would find myself welcomed with open arms.

    The energy of those I met in person at ILA 2018, or revered from afar, filled me with confidence and reminded me that traveling familiar roads can lead me back to people and places that provide comfort and much-needed reassurance as I face what is certainly the greatest work I’ll ever do.

    Soon, I’ll follow a new road that will lead me east, through the crawfish farms on the Louisiana border, to Lafayette, and on to the Big Easy: New Orleans and ILA 2019. This time, though, I won’t be at ILA as an attendee. By some stroke of luck, my badge will read: Presenter. Nor will I be traveling that road alone; I’ll ride in the company of two teachers who are passionate about literacy in ways that I can describe only as inspirational.

    Finding familiarity in the passion for literacy that my coworkers embody empowers me to continue down that new and unfamiliar road. Megan Thompson and Helen Becker, two incredible educators, feel the pull of that road too. That subconscious force that compels them to advocate for students and teachers in our school and across our country. As culture creators, they throw their hearts and souls into their work.

    Teaching feels a lot like traveling down a road. Sometimes I feel too robotic, like my GPS took control, and other times I feel lost in time and space with a sense of panic spreading over my consciousness like spilled ink. But when I lean on our culture, our literacy ethos, the panic and fear vanish, and suddenly those post-conference emotions emerge from the work we hurl ourselves into every morning.

    Creating a Culture of Literacy, this year’s conference theme, implores us to bring our best ideas together. Roads far and wide converge on New Orleans in October and, at this point of convergence, literacy culture will reflect on itself and radiate back across our world, empowering teachers and students to explore their place in it.

    Please join us at ILA 2019. We’ll be the trio with matching outfits and nervous—but determined—expressions on our faces.

    Charles Moore, an ILA member since 2017, teaches sophomores and juniors at Clear Creek High School in League City, Texas. He blogs monthly for threeteacherstalk.com.

    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

    The trio of Charles Moore, Megan Thompson, and Helen Becker will present “Not Averse to Verse: Using Novels in Verse to Engage English Language Learners” on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM. For more information, visit ilaconference.org/iplanner.

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    Disrupting Your Texts: Why Simply Including Diverse Voices Is Not Enough

    By Tricia Ebarvia
     | Sep 05, 2019

    disrupting-your-texts_680In May 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released its Hate at School report. Using information gathered from teacher questionnaires and news media reports, the SPLC found an alarming uptick in the number of incidents of hate and bias occurring in U.S. schools. Teachers reported that the most common driver of these incidents was racial or ethnic bias, with anti-LGBTQ bias a close second.

    Furthermore, a majority of these incidents occurred in spaces where adults were present: 32% in classrooms and 37% in shared spaces such as hallways, bathrooms, or other parts of the building.

    Think about what that means. The majority of incidents of hate and bias occur in the presence of adults.

    As teachers, we do our best to make sure that all of our students are safe and seen in our schools. But the truth is that even the most well-intentioned teachers will miss things—harmful things— sometimes in our own classrooms. What might be the microaggressions, for example, against Indigenous students, students of color, and LGBTQ students occurring in our classrooms that teachers—who are overwhelmingly white in the United States—may not notice? What unexamined biases do we as educators bring into our classrooms that could have a potentially harmful impact on our kids?

    As literacy teachers, we have one of the most powerful resources available to fight against hate and bias: We have stories. The stories—and, more important, the counter-stories, the counternarratives—that we choose to share with students are instrumental in helping all our students be seen and heard, appreciated and understood. This is especially critical for students from communities whose stories are too often oversimplified, misrepresented, or rendered invisible in the dominant culture and mainstream media. Thus, centering and amplifying minoritized perspectives can help to foster community and the type of solidarity that counteracts and perhaps even prevents incidents of hate and bias in our schools.

    Steps to take

    I am heartened by the inclusion of more diverse voices in the curriculum, but the truth is that it’s not enough. Although schools may bring more “diverse” texts into the curriculum, these “contributions” and “ethnic additive” approaches, in the words of researcher James A. Banks, do little to actually change the system of power that marginalized those voices in the first place. After all, efforts to “diversify” the curriculum have been going on for decades, yet we know that inequities persist. Furthermore, “diverse” curricula can often mask systemic problems, including the fact that black, Latinx, and Indigenous students continue to be underrepresented in higher level academic courses while also disproportionately disciplined.

    To be clear, including more diverse voices in our curriculum is an important, necessary step. Our students deserve windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, to borrow language from scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, that represent the richness of their own lives and the lives of others. But our efforts cannot end there. We must interrogate not just what we teach but how and why.

    Some suggestions to think about:

    • Begin with the premise that public schools never intended to educate all children equally and look for the ways in which this holds true today. Likewise, the curriculum has never been neutral, but always ideological. In making decisions about what texts to include, look for the voices that are marginalized or missing and bring those voices into your text sets.
    • Consider the role that race and whiteness have played in your own socialization, particularly around your beliefs about schooling. How does your own racial socialization inform not only the types of texts you may value, but also the types of instructional choices you make?
    • Center the counternarratives. Although pairings of traditional canonical texts with voices of color offer rich possibilities for comparison, diverse texts can also stand on their own.
    • Include a diversity of voices within marginalized groups. To what extent are you perpetuating or challenging stereotypes based on your patterns of text selection?
    • Be mindful of the positionality of texts and the message this positionality sends. Are diverse voices centered in the curriculum as core and mentor texts, or are they optional? Does the entire class read The Great Gatsby while the books by authors of color are offered as summer reading, book clubs, or literature circles?
    • Know your purpose for adding or removing a text. Creating a more inclusive curriculum is not simply about replacing texts written by “dead, white males.” It is about addressing the racism, sexism, homophobia, and other problematic issues reflected in these texts—and choosing better.
    • Keep the issues facing people of color current. Racism is not a problem of the past, solved by the Civil Rights era, but a continuing problem today. Create text sets that show the complexities of these issues in both historical and contemporary contexts.
    • Resist colorblind readings of texts. If a text includes any form of bigotry, be sure to address and unpack this with students. Otherwise, students might see silence as tacit acceptance of these attitudes.
    • Understand that not all oppression is the same. Anti-black racism manifests itself differently than sexism, and drawing a false equivalence among them can cause more harm.
    • Learn and relearn the history of Indigenous people, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Because we often use literature to better understand people and time periods—and because our own understanding of history is often incomplete, if not inaccurate—bringing a more accurate understanding of history when we study a text is critical. Reading books like An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press) can be critical in this work.

    Disrupt the system

    It’s no doubt that equity work can feel overwhelming, especially as many of the problems in education are systemic. But as #DisruptTexts cofounder Kim Parker recently reminded me, people make up systems. And if we are people committed to equity, then we must understand our role in these systems and how we might disrupt them. So diversify the curriculum, yes— but let’s not stop there.

    Tricia Ebarvia is a high school English teacher, a Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project codirector, Heinemann Fellow, and #DisruptTexts cofounder—but above all, she is an advocate for literacy instruction rooted in equity and liberation.

    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

    Tricia Ebarvia will present a featured speaker session on Saturday, Oct. 12, 9:00 AM–10:00 AM. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

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    The ILA 2019 Conference: Know Before You Go

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Sep 04, 2019

    ila2019-registration
    The International Literacy Association 2019 Conference, which takes place October 10–13 in New Orleans, LA, is just around the corner. The event offers exciting opportunities to expand your professional learning networks, exchange insights and ideas, and get inspired.

    But conferences can also be intimidating and overwhelming—especially when there are hundreds of sessions from which to choose, and 1.1 million square feet of space to cover.

    To help you navigate #ILA19 with ease and ensure your conference experience is productive and rewarding, we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks from veteran conference-goers.  

    Before you arrive:

    • Plan ahead. Use the ILA 2019 iPlanner now to get an overview of this year’s offerings and develop a game plan. You can even create personal entries, such as a coffee date with a colleague. The best part? You can sync your iPlanner schedule to the ILA 2019 app.
    • Download the conference app. The ILA 2019 app, slated to go live mid-September, puts your personalized schedule, conference floor plan, room locations, session and event descriptions, exhibitors list, and other pertinent information at your fingertips.
    • Get social.  Don’t wait until you arrive. If you don’t already, follow ILA on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to get real-time updates and connect with other attendees using the hashtag #ILA19.
    • Join the October #ILAchat. Get all the key information you need during our #ILAchat on Thursday, October 3. Conference speakers, veteran attendees, and ILA staff members will provide a sneak peek of what to expect from ILA 2019 as well as offering their take on how to maximize your conference experience.
    • Pack wisely.  Temperature in New Orleans is usually in the high 70s/low 80s in October but can be cooler at night—and we all know how chilly conference centers tend to be. Dress in layers, and when it comes to shoes, consider opting for comfort over style. (The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the sixth largest convention center in the United States!) Other must-have items include phone and device chargers (portable if possible), a reusable water bottle, and business cards.
    • Prepare to connect. There will be plenty of opportunities to network at the ILA 2019 Conference, including the First-Timers Event, Literacy Night at Mardi Gras World, and even during breaks between sessions. Bring your business cards to facilitate info swaps. Better yet, create a contact card for yourself in your phone and share via AirDrop or text message.

    Once you arrive on-site:

    • Visit Registration. Pick up your materials, including your name badge and badge holders, tickets, and a prestuffed tote bag with printed program book (if you’re taking a shuttle bus, it will drop you off near Registration). Registration is open 12:00 PM–6:00 PM on Wednesday, 7:00 AM–6:00 PM on Thursday, 7:00 AM–5:00 PM on Friday and Saturday, and 7:00 AM–11:00 AM on Sunday.
    • Check out the Welcome to ILA 2019 Event. Join us in the Exhibit Hall on Thursday, October 10, from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM to mix and mingle while exploring new products and learning the latest innovations and cutting-edge resources. Registration is filling up for this exclusive event, so reserve your spot soon.
    • Swing by the ILA Resource Lounge. The lounge is a space to network, connect with colleagues, and recharge while learning about all things ILA (including membership, journals, and ILA 2020 Conference).
    • Find the "Ask Me" guides. Look for these friendly folks wearing bright yellow shirts—they’ll be prepared to answer all your conference-related questions.
    • Grab a shuttle schedule. ILA will provide complimentary shuttle service between most official ILA 2019 Conference hotels and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center starting on Thursday, October 10 at 6:30 AM. Schedules will be available on-site and in the lobbies of hotels on the official scheduled route. Our official hotel list identifies which locations are on the shuttle route.
    • Explore the local literary scene. New Orleans is a vibrant city, known for its jazz music, Cajun food, architecture, and, yes—its rich literary scene.
    • Browse the Exhibit Hall. Kick off conference and get in the Mardi Gras spirit at our new Exhibit Hall preview and networking event on Thursday from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. With more than 100 exhibitors present, attendees can learn the latest innovations, catch a book signing by a favorite author, make valuable new connections, and more. Following the event, the hall will be open 9:30 AM–5:00 PM on Friday and 8:00 AM–3:00 PM on Saturday.

    See you in New Orleans!

    Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    ILA 2019: Behind the Scenes

    By Kelly Bothum
     | Aug 30, 2019
    ila2019-behind-the-scenesWhen attendees arrive in New Orleans, LA, for the International Literacy Association
    (ILA) 2019 Conference, they won’t have to worry about navigating the convention center, accessing Wi-Fi, looking for water refill stations, or even finding the nearest bathrooms.

    All of that—and much more—will have already been done by the ILA staff handling the behind-the-scenes logistics of a dynamic conference that draws 5,000 educators from around the globe each year. From constructing the conference Exhibit Hall and deciding on room placements for speakers, to helping with dietary needs and mapping out shuttle routes for attendees, ILA staffers work hard to make the conference the benchmark of educational professional development.

    Their attention to detail allows attendees to focus on what matters—listening to internationally renowned speakers, networking with fellow educators, and getting inspired by other literacy leaders.

    “This conference is meant to be a one-stop shop for anyone in the literacy realm,” says Becky Fetterolf, professional learning manager for ILA. “If you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, a reading specialist, or librarian, we want to make sure you can take something back to your school.”

    By the time attendees head into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans this fall—October 10–13, to be exact—ILA staff will already not only have been on-site for several days, ensuring finishing touches are perfect, but also be deeply entrenched in the planning for the 2020 conference and beyond.

    “It’s like creating a strategic plan every year,” says Valerie Sumner, ILA’s director of meetings and events. “We look at the conference through the eyes of those who are attending. We focus on what you see when you arrive at the airport, when you get to the hotel, when you look at the app to see the speakers. All those little pieces are strategically discussed and planned so that it all comes together. It seems like it naturally happened, and that’s the goal.”

    Bringing the vision to life

    The ILA conference lasts four days, bookended by Institute Day and Children’s Literature Day, but the prep work starts long before the first speaker takes the podium.

    ILA teams begin mapping out the logistical pieces of the conference puzzle more than a year in advance. ILA carefully considers a range of criteria when selecting a city and securing agreements for a convention center to host the conference (often solidified anywhere from three to five years in advance). A typical convention center will have 30 to 40 rooms of varying sizes that can handle the 300 sessions that take place over the four-day span.

    High on the list of conference must-haves is a city with good access to an airport and flight options. It also needs about 2,500 hotel rooms for the estimated 5,000 attendees and exhibitors. Walkability is tricky. The city needs to be accessible on foot, but hotels and conference sessions should be in relative proximity or be on a shuttle route to keep attendees from growing tired.

    Once a city is selected, Sumner says, the meetings and events team is dispatched to the host city to prepare for the marketing, professional development, and other critical needs of the conference. Even while latestage conference planning is going on in New Orleans, several teams from ILA will already have been visiting Columbus, OH, the site of the ILA 2020 Conference.

    Michele Jester, program implementation manager for ILA, was part of the team from ILA that visited local education and library officials earlier this year to learn more about Columbus’s educational and literacy environment. The team also helped to identify opportunities for interaction, partnership, and sponsorship.

    “It’s about getting people in the city excited about us coming,” Jester says.

    Crafting the theme

    The theme of this year’s conference is “Creating a Culture of Literacy.” Fetterolf says programming began more than a year ago with brainstorming about potential keynote speakers and presenters who embody the theme. The process includes soliciting abstracts a year in advance from people who hope to present. Approximately 800 proposals are received, but only about one third are accepted due to a combination of space availability and the desire to craft a manageable conference experience that offers something for everyone without being overwhelming.

    Over the course of four days, the conference will include hundreds of sessions, featuring speakers with different topics and formats and in front of audiences of varying sizes. The General Session is the largest, and that’s where the biggest names—and audiences—can be found. This year, the lineup features Chelsea Clinton, Pedro Noguera, Renée Watson, and Hamish Brewer. Previous years have seen Octavia Spencer, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kwame Alexander, and LeVar Burton.

    In addition to one-hour speaking sessions, there are smaller, two-hour, roundtable-style workshops where attendees can experience a more hands-on approach. Poster sessions round out the offerings, allowing people to individually present their own research in literacy in an informal, conversation-friendly format.

    Given the number of presenters needed, the ILA team has more than their share of work just selecting speakers. It’s a tricky process that sounds a bit like a fantasy football draft, only featuring literacy superstars instead of athletes.

    To help simplify the process, each year, Lara Deloza, ILA senior communications manager, and the team create their own classification system using sticky notes, index cards, and spreadsheets, color-coding potential speakers on the basis of a number of factors including topic, availability, and diversity of background, thought, profession, and location.

    “It’s really a numbers game,” Deloza says. “It’s a math equation.” Availability during the conference matters, but it’s just one factor to consider. A mix of voices—authors, researchers, and scholars—is also sought. Diversity is a major driver, Deloza adds, but the goal is to recognize diversity in ways beyond race, age, gender, and ethnicity to include experience and educational background, among other considerations.

    A final criterion for consideration, for presenters other than General Session and featured speakers, is peer review. At least three people are asked to score each prospective speaker on a scale of 1 to 10. The higher the overall peer score, the better that person’s chances of being asked to present. “If you get a 30, you’re going to get on the program,” Fetterolf says.

    Unlike some conferences, most speakers aren’t compensated by ILA for their participation. The majority of General Session speakers, for example, come courtesy of a publishing company—such as Clinton for this year.

    Room to grow—or a no-show

    Fetterolf says one of the most frequent questions attendees and speakers ask regards the size of the room that is assigned to a speaker. Room assignments can vary from small spaces for under 100 people to larger areas that can accommodate 600 people for featured speaker sessions. It takes a bit of prediction—and sometimes luck—to determine the best size room for a speaker, Sumner says. Considerations include professional interest in the topic and the speaker’s own past crowd draw.

    There have been times where a speaker’s popularity has meant a fully packed room with people standing outside the door and additional people allowed in only when someone else leaves, per the restrictions of the local fire marshal. Conversely, there also have been times when a speaker was expected to be a big draw but attendance was lower than expected.

    “We do collect data of room attendance. We do data crunching,” Jester says. “We guess as best as we can.”

    Ready for long days—and anything else

    During the four-day conference stretch, it’s not unusual for staff to literally be on their feet for 14 or more hours each day. Thanks to the popularity of fitness trackers among ILA staff, we know that works out to about 25,000 steps a day each day of the conference, on average. (The unofficial daily record is 31,000 steps for one weary-footed staffer.)

    Veteran conference staff know there is little downtime during these days, but they like the opportunity to interact with attendees. ILA staff are not hard to find. All staff attend conference events in their signature Meyer lemon yellow conference shirts and gold name badges.

    “You’re hands-on the whole weekend,” Jester says. “We’re the first ones to get there and the last ones to leave.”

    Like any good team, they can hustle on the fly. When bad weather caused a power loss at the ILA 2017 Conference in Orlando, FL, the staff continued registering attendees by hand. They quickly reconfigured meeting spaces in San Antonio, TX, in 2013 when conference organizers discovered they were missing two previously scheduled rooms. Security and safety plans previously put in place meant there was a protocol when a pregnant woman became overheated and fainted during one of the sessions.

    “You just have to be ready for anything,” Jester says.

    Many of the last-minute challenges come from helping attendees locate missing cell phones, purses, or personal items. As much as the staff tries to anticipate attendee needs, there can be a few surprises, like realizing that conference-goers are walking in a different direction in the convention center than organizers expected.

    “As you are there walking around, you see it’s not what we thought,” says Amy Taylor, meetings and events coordinator, of the conference center layout and signage. “Then you need to go ahead and make that adjustment on-site.”

    The preponderance of women in education often means a quick reconfiguring of bathrooms to accommodate the disparity. This year, that also includes greater accessibility to gender neutral bathrooms.

    A personalized experience

    Over the years, the ILA conference has changed to better represent the needs of its attendees. Jester says gone is the one-size-fits-all approach, replaced by a more personalized experience that’s built upon the goal of connecting and enriching the experience of those attending the conference.

    Sumner says a good example is the conference program, which used to be a cumbersome, 400-page book that weighed attendees down. About four years ago, ILA switched to a mobile app that provides a continuous update of the day’s events. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has helped cut down on printing expenses.

    The program is still available in a smaller printed form—only about half the number of pages—but most users opt for the app, Sumner says. Even the most well-planned events usually have a hiccup or two, and the ILA conference is no exception. Fetterolf says attendees sometimes get frustrated by the room sizes, issues with lighting, or unexpected programmatic changes.

    But it’s their passion for education that overshadows any issues that may arise during the conference. ILA staff witness firsthand how attendees feel so strongly about the work they do. That perspective helps when trying to smooth over any logistical problems.

    “They’re really invested,” says Wes Ford, ILA digital communications associate. “It makes sense they get so passionate about it.”

    For example, at last year’s Equity in Education program during the ILA 2018 Conference in Austin, TX, Ford says one attendee wept in appreciation for the panel on LGBTQ equity in the educational space.

    “He said, ‘Thank you for making me feel seen,’” Ford says, adding that the educator often saw work being done to ensure students felt seen, but he never felt seen as a teacher. That man’s reaction, Ford says, validated the work done by the team during the conference.

    “It matters to us. We don’t want them to feel like we are ignoring them. We are as passionate about their education as they are.”

    Witness it for yourself

    At the time of publication, there are just 13 weeks until ILA 2019. That’s about 90 days until showtime. And yet, the behind-the-scenes work doesn’t end when the conference begins. You wouldn’t know it—and that’s by design. Part of the job is making sure you get not only a seamless conference experience but also a sense of how valued you are for the work you do every day.

    “This is the one time of year when we get face-to-face time with our members,” Deloza says. “It reminds us of why we do what we do and why it matters. It’s all for them.”

    Kelly Bothum is a former newspaper reporter who now works as a communications specialist for the University of Delaware.

    This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of 
    Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
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