A Little Context
In case you don't know what TELL Collab is, it is not a conference in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it is an "unconference" so all the things we expect at conferences are thrown out the window. I heard through the grapevine that there was a lot of apprehension about the Collab leading up to it because of the lack of structure. It didn't take long for participants to figure things out, though. Thomas Sauer opened Friday morning with a little background on TELL and then explained to us how our two days would be framed by raising the projector screen to reveal a makeshift table outlined in masking tape where participants would sort and post Post It notes labeled with suggested session topics. First we wrote ideas, then we posted them on the table. It only took a few minutes for the crowd to start shuffling and sorting Post Its into similar groups and suddenly there appeared distinct strands for learning. Just a few minutes later the crowd broke and headed to rooms with no projectors and no presenters. What in the world was going to happen? In a word, learning.
Sometimes Structure Gets in the Way
I learned some powerful lessons at the Collab, things I didn't expect. The first lesson I learned was that structure and pre-determined programming doesn't ensure learning happens, not in professional learning environments and not in the classroom. As I said before, few of the normal conventions of a conference were in place, but that didn't inspire chaos and confusion, rather it put first things first. In the session rooms, the room served as presenter and expert. The questions participants asked provided the framework of the session and the answers and insight offered by participants - pure gold. Even the notes taken were collaborative diamonds in the rough. As any good presenter knows, to really teach your audience you should model the practices you are suggesting in the content. This is a powerful takeaway from the Collab as language teachers from across the country now begin to reconsider their ideas of what structure is necessary in their own classrooms and ask themselves, "Who is in charge of the learning?" which is one of Thomas' favorite questions to ask.
The Power of Processing
What I think was the biggest takeaway of all for myself and for everyone at the Collab was less about the nuggets of wisdom gathered from others, but crystallizing our own knowledge by verbalizing what we think, what we have learned and experienced. We were compelled to put into words things that might have only been thoughts or even reflect upon things as language learners rather than teachers so that we might remember what is going on in our students' heads during instruction. For me, it was like giving life to ideas that were until that moment floating in the abstract. In fact, I picked sessions that I wasn't sure I had anything to say about and definitely didn't have confidence to present on in a more formal environment. This processing of my own knowledge was, and is, priceless. I found myself asking myself, "What do you know about this topic, really?" Then, I would use what other participants said to push that thinking further and deeper. This was super important for me because while I have long believed in teaching that builds students' proficiency, I have only been a practitioner for about three years. I believed, but had no idea was I was doing, so how in the world could I speak with any authority on the tenets of what we do? The format of the TELL Collab not only allowed me to build tighter connections to world language educators I highly respect and admire and learn from language educators who are a different stage of the journey or who have a different perspective, but it put me in a situation where I could gain a new level of confidence in my own knowledge and experience. The whole unstructured experience was a powerful reminder that if I need an opportunity to process what I know so that I can prove to myself what I know and can do, my students need that opportunity, too.
Get There If You Can
The TELL Collab is an experience you don't want to miss. It is an investment in yourself and your professional network. You will leave the event feeling like a kid on the last day of summer camp: empowered, inspired and yet sad to leave a mountaintop experience after meeting amazing people like I did. Shout outs to John Cadena (@cadenasensei), Paul Jennemann (@profepj3), Kara Parker and Megan Smith of The Creative Language Classroom (@CLC_Teachers) and so many more!
Next year's date has already been set and Austin is hosting again. Budget the money and time now. You won't be disappointed.
Thanks Thomas, Alyssa, Sharon, and COERLL for a wonderful weekend of learning and networking. I can't wait for next year. You've made a believer and supporter out of me!