ASCD Conference: Educating the Whole Child

Cameraman catches the action at ASCD

by Richard Campbell

The ASCD held their annual conference called “Empower 18” at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this past week, hosting thousands of educators from around the nation. Celebrating its seventy-fifth year, the organization has a multi-tiered mission to aid in the professional development of educators, promote curriculum development, healthy school environments, and advocate for educational equity. The sheer quantity and quality of the presenters, and the vast number of educational vendors, dominated the convention center for three days. Herein I hope to give you a snapshot to reveal the importance of this organization to the world of K-12 education.

From the cogent opening remarks of Dr. Tommy Chang, Superintendent of the Boston Schools, to the kind words of Dr. Jill Biden, from the inspirational tone of General Colin Powell, to the rapt emotions of educator evangelist Manny Scott; the level of excitement generated by the keynote speakers in the audience was something to behold. Dr. Chang interjected some humor into his opening remarks while thanking Dr. Biden and her husband Joe Biden, for hanging tough and supporting education. Chang quipped: “Please tell your husband he doesn’t have to act like a tough guy. Because we know he’s a tough guy.” Dr. Biden, who is an educator herself, said of her colleagues in her opening remarks: “Because of you… someone is a little kinder, because you showed him what that meant. Someone is a little braver because you showed her how. Thank you for lifting up the minds and hearts of our communities.”

The extent to which Americans truly believe that educators hard work is worthy, despite the how our society often trivializes their contributions, is starting to be realized again in the wake of recent national tragedies. Throughout the conference the universal horror at the obscene notion of teachers carrying guns into classrooms was recognized-but with a quiet, respectful tone that America has largely lost. These are the people who know how schools should operate, not special interest groups looking to score points in the media. The focus of this conference was on the whole child, on the tried and true values of education, and the latest developments in curriculum, technology, and culture.

Besides the genuinely inspirational aspect of the conference, there was a lot of content related and material displayed. The production values were off the charts with roving video cameras, interviews, demonstrations, book signings and casual group get togethers. The educators flowed smoothly through over 125 separate educational presentations in conference rooms around BCEC. On the main floor hundreds of educational vendors eagerly demonstrated their products and services, with everything from computer aided programs to traditional books, STEM lab products, databases and learning tools. The special activities planned for the educators were padded with copious amounts of really useful swag, free educational materials, and decent amenities. This was clearly a well planned and executed convention, designed to enrich and enliven the educators.

Beyond the dazzle of this exhibition was the civilized behavior and completely friendly manner of relations among the participants. School teachers, principals, planners, coaches, and employees at our K-12 schools must be one of the most under-appreciated groups of working citizens in this nation. They didn’t merely talk about their concern for their students, but embodied this concern throughout the conference. When the ASCD made their conference theme empowerment of the whole child, they brought together a series of sophisticated lectures and demonstrations that when taken together, reveal the complexity of the teacher’s jobs in creating an educational environment that reaches all children, regardless of their cultural backgrounds or learning abilities.

The “whole child” approach transcends teaching students their subject matters so they can achieve academic excellence, by attending to the student’s life issues. The tenets of the whole child approach include: teaching and learning, transformational leadership, global engagement, poverty and equity, and redefining student success. The approach places heavy emphasis upon the emotional development and cultural background of the child. It stresses the necessity of educators today to be informed and capable of dealing with a host of complex social issues, and the ability to truly empathize with their students. The individual workshops were often designed to give educators an opportunity to learn by performing activities, as well as through traditional presentations.

Anyone who has been following education in the past decade knows how popular STEM programs (Science Technology Engineering Math), have become, but I was glad to see this conference as a bit of a push back on the emphasis of STEM. This conference spoke directly to the core of learning, the development of the child to adulthood, and the very significant roles that educators play in transforming the lives of the children. In an age when public education is often treated in the press with cynical disinterest, the very real value of education to maintain peaceful and cultured lives cannot be underestimated. The “take away” from this kind of conference was definitely to see the fascinating complexity of the way lives touched by education. The relationships between educators and their students is expressed in the level of concern educators maintain in order to solve difficult problems and use education as a catalyst to transform the lives of others.

ASCD is the organization’s proper name which was originally called the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. For more information, see their website at: http://www.ascd.org/

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Jeanne Rooney is the Editor in Chief for South Boston Online.