by Amy Smith
LitCon2021 is in the books, but we are still riding a wave of excitement about our first virtual conference. Within hours of the opening general session, I began to receive texts and emails from colleagues across the country. Our participants were not only satisfied, but they were also exhilarated by LitCon! Their enthusiasm persisted, and grew, throughout the week. Thus, I decided to curate participant comments to help our conference committee and the RRCNA staff understand why this experience was so universally impactful. A few themes emerged from their feedback:
THE KEYNOTES: Not only were Cornelius Minor, Jeff Williams, and Gerry Brooks exceptional in their own right, but they all did something that is quite rare, and necessary, especially right now. They humanized teaching and teachers in a way that made us feel seen, heard, and understood. We’ve all been to great PD sessions that challenged us to work harder, strive for excellence, and learn new things. Rarely, if ever, does a speaker also say, “And never forget, you’re a human being with needs that matter. Take care of yourself. Have grace with your human limitations, and stop apologizing for them.” We needed to hear that long before now, but especially after the year we’ve had. Whether it was Cornelius’ guidance about our need for restorative rest, Gerry’s reminder that seeing the world through other people’s lenses is essential to building empathy, sympathy, and understanding, or Jeff’s reassurance that the weeks we spent frantically organizing drawers and closets was simply a way of coping with Covid trauma, our keynotes spoke directly to us as human beings. Thank you, Cornelius, Jeff, and Gerry for saying the quiet parts out loud.
ACCESS, ACCESS, ACCESS: The extended, personalized access to on-demand sessions was among the most popular aspects of LitCon. Participants gave many reasons for this, but the most pervasive were: the on-demand format gave us an opportunity to view more sessions; we were able to view sessions at times that fit our schedules; and, the ability to pause, rewind, rewatch and process information at an individual pace fostered robust learning. Also popular was the ability to view sessions from wherever you were (home, office, volleyball tournament, etc…). Teacher Leader, Jeff Williams, coined this the “sage in my space” effect, in which experts we’ve long admired met us where we were, for the first time. Moreover, many people, myself included, relished the opportunity to watch sessions while wearing comfy clothes, eating a favorite snack, and snuggling our household pets. Although I don’t know the convention center policy on pets or snacks, I am making a plug for sweatpants as an acceptable dress whenever we return to Columbus. Who’s with me on this?
SHORTER SESSIONS…SAME EXCEPTIONAL CONTENT: One of the biggest changes we made at LitCon was to shorten the length of concurrent sessions. We made the decision based upon guidance from teachers about the difficulty of sustaining their attention virtually. The abbreviated sessions were an unequivocal hit! Our participants were highly satisfied with their learning and also suggested that the brevity made the content more targeted, succinct, and easier to digest. Furthermore, the shorter segments gave participants time to enjoy more sessions than they normally could. This is a huge win for our attendees, and we are so grateful to the teachers who urged us to make this change. At the same time, paring down content into shorter (and virtual) sessions placed new burdens on our speakers. Presenting a session on any topic is a challenge that requires both knowledge and finesse. Doing it in 45 minutes, and virtually, requires serious deliberateness and dexterity! Thank you to all of our incredible speakers who not only made it work but made LitCon a remarkable, unforgettable learning experience.
MORE INTERACTION: The engagement components (both extended engagement and Q and A segments following the keynotes) were resoundingly lauded by participants. It’s not lost on us that even when you’re in the room with speakers, there is still an element of passivity. The opportunity to engage with speakers, via submitting questions to a moderator or by speaking directly to them, was a new feature that participants loved and appreciated. Several people remarked that these opportunities made them feel like they were part of the conversation and had a more active role in the sessions. It is also important to note how grateful we are for our exceptional volunteers who moderated our live sessions. Their facilitation supported our speakers and enriched the experiences of our participants.
COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Despite the distance between us, we were still together, united by this shared experience. Both the #k8litcon Twitter feed and the copious text messages between people in our community showed us the feasibility of connecting with each other, regardless of platform or proximity. More importantly, the messages illustrated how much connection MATTERS, how much we need it. Connection feeds our spirit and empowers us to do what is often solitary work. It reminds us that we have a vast network of like-minded people doing this work “with” us. I was moved to tears by a text from Reading Recovery teacher, Ashely Cornelison, who explained that this year had worn her out, spun her in circles, and depleted her spirit…. and how LitCon rejuvenated her. Ashley noted, “Gerry Brooks reminded all of us that this is just a season and it will end. LitCon reminded me I’m never alone and how blessed I am to be part of an amazing, connected community.” Ditto, Ashley.
I am incredibly grateful to be part of this community and to have had the privilege of working with our conference committee, speakers, moderators, and RRCNA staff to create a conference unlike any other in the midst of a year unlike any other. LitCon was a challenge that taught us so much about what else is possible. As we look toward the future, we must continue our positive momentum. As Cornelius Minor said, our goal is “not to get back to normal, it’s to get back to better!” So, in the spirit of moving forward and striving for better, we want to hear from you. Please consider submitting your own blog post about LitCon. Perhaps you’d like to reflect upon a session you loved, a feature you want us to consider for future conferences or your overall experience. Please note: photos of snacks, pets, and comfy clothes are optional but welcome! We care about your opinion and learning. So, if you have an idea you’d like to share, please reach out to Carissa Hershey or visit the RRCNA website.
On behalf of all of us at RRCNA, thank you for making LitCon an unforgettable conference. See you at LitCon2022!
Dr. Amy Smith is a Reading Recovery teacher leader in Richmond, KY. She currently serves as RRCNA President has served as chair of the Advocacy Committee.