My #VSTE18 Top 5

This is a guest post by Summer Johnson, @scholarcation.


Anybody else still recovering from VSTE? My mind is racing from all the amazing things I learned in just 3 days. I came back home and right away started organizing all the resources I gained and putting the new things I learned into action. It’s hard to narrow down the best moments from the conference but here are my top five in no particular order.

One of the best sessions I attended at VSTE18 was led by two awesome tech coaches from Hanover County, Laura Cooper and Stacie Taylor. A quick scroll through #E4DVSTE and it’s obvious that their message on design and the engaging power of infographics inspired many VSTE attendees. Laura and Stacie gave us a quick crash course on the neuroscience behind infographics and the basic elements of design before setting us up for success with a magical template in google draw. Like many of you, I have been a serious google enthusiast for years and have loved the way that GSuite for Education has elevated creativity, workflow and collaboration in classrooms. However, google draw always remained my most underutilized tool! Maybe use it to label a map? Add thought bubbles on top of famous pieces of art? I had no idea where to begin. I don’t consider myself a very artistic person. I had resolved to think that I’d just never be one of those cool infographic makers, sketch noters or designers. Being the innovative tech coaches they are though, Laura and Stacie reminded me that it’s not about the tool; it’s about the possibilities! They modeled effective use of color, fonts, contrast and size. I had the support I needed, gained a ton of confidence and that’s what it’s all about. So, maybe I can design?  


My other favorite session at the conference dealt with podcasting and was lead by two educators from Henrico County, Amanda Kinsler and Brice Fitts. I’m just going to go ahead and say something that is generally very unpopular in ed tech circles: I don’t really listen to podcasts. I mean, I love NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, This American Life and I binged on Serial like almost everyone else I know but I’m usually just a “music in the background” kind of person. It’s only recently that I’ve started to add different podcasts to my playlist. But just like with infographics, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to expand my thinking and this session absolutely did that for me. It started with an overview of a project they worked on where students chose the most useful elements to bring with them on a mission to a new planet and created podcasts to explain their thinking. Great idea, right? Again, it’s not about the tool, it’s about the possibilities! The session got even better when Amanda and Brice turned on their microphone and started podcasting right there in 3A. Now we were collaborating! Attendees shared their vision for using podcasts with students and some of their personal favorites to listen to. Amanda completely blew my mind with the podcast she hosts in her building where she talks to teachers about their instruction and builds in opportunities to plug herself as a tech coach. Such an amazing idea when teachers might not realize that tech coaches aren’t there to fix your printer, we’re here to transform teaching and learning. Go check out their podcast The Talk of Tuckahoe!

Can we just talk about trivia night for a minute?? Such a raucous night filled with 80s lyrics, christmas movies, education history and competition so fierce I nearly lost my beer when my teammate pounded her fists on the table during a heated argument over prime numbers. What is there not to love about a bunch of geeky educators living their best life? Team Awkward Turtles forever – that was crazy fun and definitely a highlight.

I had been looking forward to the digital equity session with Sarah Thomas for a while leading up to the VSTE conference. As a tech coach at a 1:1 school in Fairfax County, I often reflect on the importance of access to devices and the internet. I have come to realize that equality is not enough to ensure equity. Students must also have equitable access to advanced academic programs, culturally relevant instruction, STEM enrichment, and out of school supports just to name a few. Sarah facilitated this session in ways that fostered great conversation around these issues with her first agenda item; rearrange the chairs into clusters. I don’t think anyone believed it was feasible at first. We had all come to know these rigid interlocked rows of chairs well. But we went for it and some great collaboration followed. Those clusters of chairs really symbolized the heart of what makes VSTE such a powerful 3 days – the connections you make. Connections with other like-minded people who are as passionate as you about technology and education. So props to Sarah for mixing things up, that took some courage.

Speaking of courage, no list of highlights would be complete without Jennifer Orr’s Sunday keynote, Courage to Make Waves. Jennifer’s message was full of thought provoking reflections and important reminders. She reminded us to have the courage to take care of ourselves and know when to say no. She challenged the golden rule when she said not to assume that everyone wants to be treated in the same way you do. She even challenged the notion that a keynote speaker can’t be “just a teacher.” One message started to sink deeper into my mind as the day went on in a really personal and inspiring way. Jennifer talked about the importance of reaching all students and that we must recognize systemic oppression and our own privilege. She even identified her own privilege as a cisgender person and that’s what really struck me. This was the first time I had heard a cisgender person speak about their cisgender privilege in such a mainstream way. I remember a time not very long ago, the word cisgender was “fringe.” It was only used in the progressive and queer circles I associated with. When I would define it for other educators who weren’t familiar with that word, I was often dismissed: “It’s not like I hate transgender people but that’s just being too much.” For Ms. Orr to say that to a group of educators in Virginia – a place with a wide range of political identities – is a big deal. There were people listening to this message that come from school buildings that have had transgender bathroom and pronoun debates. So to hear cisgender privilege talked about at a venue like VSTE really makes me believe that there is a growth of consciousness happening. That as educators, our commitment to change, progress and lifelong learning is pretty awesome. I’m here for it and I can’t wait until next year.

One thought on “My #VSTE18 Top 5

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. You took the challenge to write and did so in a powerful voice that we definitely need to hear from more often.

    Jen Orr showed us what courage looks like and provided a model for how we can consider privilege in open, honest ways.

    I walked into Sarah’s session a bit late and was happy to see chairs being rearranged. They can be put back together pretty quickly. The circles helped connect us with a smaller group, and I had the opportunity to sit next to one of my graduate students who teachers in the underserved county where I live. I took my own challenge and wrote about the experience:


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