In Moraga, state teachers summit fires up educators for new year
By Lou Fancher
Arriving July 27 at St. Mary’s College and on dozens of college and university campuses across California, the fourth annual “Better Together: California Teachers Summit” was the perfect springboard into the 2018-19 school year.
Instead of broadcasting discouraging headline news about problems in education, the yearly one-day summit offered free to all California pre-K through 12-grade teachers, administrators, assistants, librarians and others gave rousing testimony to the enduring vitality of the profession. Several hundred people gathered at St. Mary’s’ Moraga campus were but one link in a vast network that had educators throughout the state tapping into a live-streamed keynote address by Sir Ken Robinson.
Robinson, the author of books including “Finding Your Element” and “Out of Our Minds,” is widely known for his popular TED talk about encouraging creativity in the education system. Following Robinson’s presentation, TED-style breakout session “EdTalks” presented by teacher leaders focused on this year’s theme: “It’s Personal: Meeting the Needs of Every Student.”
The summit is a partnership of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, California State University and the New Teacher Center. But more than anything as vast as these systems, the day was devoted to individual interests as illustrated by white boards strewn with bright yellow Post-Its in St. Mary’s’ Soda Center.
Under a half-dozen headings — “Issues of Equity,” “Fostering Creativity and Curiosity,” “Integrating Technology” and more — educators posted hand-written discussion topics. Primary among them, technology training and how to implement its use without it being “just one more thing” in a teacher’s already heavy load.
Subjects often requested were methods for creating an inclusive classroom that addresses the needs of ESL (English as a Second Language) and bilingual students or special-needs students and curriculum that counters a teacher’s cultural or social bias or knowledge gap. This is one reason Sue Ellen Thomas, an EdCamp Facilitator and seventh-grade teacher at Orinda Intermediate School wasn’t surprised when white privilege was top-of-the-list during an EdTalks session.
“Our conversation began with teachers saying awareness of how white privilege has impacted and limited curriculum, especially the teaching of American history, should start early, in kindergarten,” Thomas said in an interview. “We talked about ways to include different cultures by bringing in dance, art, and other aspects of diverse populations.”
Resource sharing plays a major role in the summit format, and Allen said a teacher’s recommendation of educator Zaretta Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” was greeted with enthusiasm and e-sharing information online illustrated the day’s spirit. “This is an environment for growth. This is 12,000 teachers in California taking control of where we’re going. What a source of energy, knowledge, ideas.”
Vicki Zalewski has attended the teacher’s summit three times. As a statistics and advanced geometry teacher for 15 years at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, the St. Mary’s alumna said hearing from other districts is valuable.
“I’m in an all-high-school district, so hearing about math fear in lower-grade schools doesn’t happen during the school year. It’s crucial we establish that chain and work together to change the dynamic.”
Thrilling to Zalewski was this year’s theme of personalized curriculum as it relates to project-based learning, which happens to have been her dissertation topic.
“Project-based learning means information comes out of the brains of students. There’s a need to have students be excited about — instead of just doing — school.”
Zalewski said she’s always eager to talk at the summit with new or student teachers, often advising them on when to pursue a master’s degree, invest in a 401K or retirement plan, or reasons to select between urban, rural or suburban schools.
Summit attendee Nena Manuel, 22, served last year as a student teacher at Turner Elementary School in Antioch while studying at St. Mary’s to complete a master’s degree in education. With grandparents who were college professors, education was a pillar in her family’s culture.
“My grandmother made sure students knew they were more than just students: they were a person who could make a difference in the world.”
Holding that image as her model, she said allowing students to have agency and ownership in the classroom provides them with a principal role.
“They’re motivated by themselves, not just by the teacher, if we let them bring their knowledge to the table,” said Manuel.
Assuming a new position in 2018 as a literacy coach in the Moraga School District, attendee Teryl Miller said helping teachers to improve their craft will be her primary focus. She was grateful for Robinson’s keynote speech because it reminded her and others that teaching is all about building relationships.
“It’s teacher to student, teacher to teacher, helping each other learn,” she said. “You can get stuck in a classroom without opportunities to collaborate. Being vulnerable, asking for help — it’s hard.” At the summit, she said there is comfort. “Peers connect and share; maybe it’s about creating safety for a traumatized student and letting some curriculum go. Here, we connect and keep talking afterwards.”