This weekend I saw reality bend to an individual. This is not hyperbole, embellishment, or exaggeration. The idea was sparked years ago through multiple conversations, arguments, debates, and dissension around people’s hatred of icebreakers. The smoke came first. Wisping through the air like an engine on fire in the distance of a traffic jam. The smoke arrived in the form of disbelief that teachers honestly didn’t enjoy human interaction with each other. With each exchange, I could see the idea being formed through the wavy lines of the increasing heat. “How can I create human interactions that aren’t poorly created, that have a purpose, and don’t seem like forced vulnerability?” When the inevitable inferno started sucking in vast amounts of oxygen to keep itself alive and the flames rose the idea was fully formed. Dr. Valeria Brown stated aloud that her dream was to create a conference around human connection.
You may be reading this and saying that there are lots of conferences every day across the nation what is so reality-bending about that? The incredible part of what I saw this weekend was not that there was an education conference; it was the precision and vision that was created first in her mind and then willed into existence.
This conference was going to be Val’s dream of what professional development could be. A day where joy would hold hands with vulnerability. A eutopia of learning where humanity would be the theme and love would be the decorations.
Val told us exactly what she wanted. Her idea was less the road less taken and more the road that was never created. The destination was clear as the North Star and the path was as clear as the ocean on a moonless night. There was no funding, no place for it to be held, and no guarantee that anyone would show up.
She secured the funding with the help of the very people who she has helped over the years through a Go Fund Me as well as other donations. Dr. Kate Spence stepped in and was able to provide us with a space at Fairleigh Dickinson University that had everything you could possibly imagine. The moon glistened off the ocean waves. The path was lit.
You will read below exactly what made the Education Conference for Human Connection the best conference that has ever been created before or will possibly exist again.
The doors to the Monninger opened and on the registration table sat the typical litany of pins, name tags, sign-in sheets, and wifi directions. The music filled the air with a chill vibe. There were no signs that this was going to be the conference of all conferences. You were directed upstairs and you see a free breakfast buffet that has eggs, potatoes, fruit, coffee, danishes, and muffins. Educators usually aren’t treated like this!
Breakfast ends and the beats of drums start to echo out of the ohrangerie. Yes, the ohrangerie. A former orange citrus greenhouse that is now a beautiful room with statues, a piano, a pool table, and floor-to-ceiling windows. The drumming was coming from a group called Drum Cafe. This was not the ordinary keynote you would have expected.
Each person was given their own drum that was hand-made in Africa. We were led through a variety of activities that created the very feeling of community that Val had imagined. We played solo, split in half, and used call and response all while finding joy together. The closest description I can give to the experience is the feeling you get at the end of an intimate concert that exceeded your expectations. You feel closer to the people you went with. You shared in something special and you all knew it. Our hearts were open and vulnerability was achieved. Any illusion that this was going to just be another conference quickly disappeared.
After the drums, Scott Bayer (@Lyricalswordz) was up. Now Scott did not know he was going to be running a session directly after a group that has over 45,000 performances in 80 countries. No pressure Scott! Much like Lamont Butler from SDSU, Scott was cold blooded and stepped up with the perfect activity. Around the room were 11 different quotes from books, songs, and poems. Our job was to discuss with our partners or groups how the quote made us feel in our hearts, heads, and guts.
With quotes coming from Clint Smith, Octavia Butler, and Lauryn Hill this was bound to poke at your feeling like an annoying younger sibling in the car on a road trip. The drums helped us become a community and become vulnerable. Scott’s activity allowed us to enter that vulnerability with each other. This conference was shaping up to be something special!
After Scott’s session, we broke up and you could choose Art as Activism & Healing with Lizzie Fortin (@lizziefortin) & Tiferet Ani (@tmalkaa) or Creating Classroom Community with Theresa Bunner (@RdngTeach).
I ended up going to Theresa’s session. The session was great. What made it even better was the people that were there. My first partner for the activity was Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia). We were given one minute to ask all about the things that we don’t know about our partner. The partner was then given two minutes to answer anything they were comfortable answering or talk about anything they wanted. This was a nice twist on an old idea. I knew a decent amount about Tricia already so I was able to ask some more delving questions. I walked away with a better understanding of who she is a mom as well as an educator.
My next partner was a fantastic human named Chandra. We did a cool activity with legos. We were sitting back to back and each had the same bag of legos. My legos were already completed into a creation. Chandra’s bag had the legos broken down. Our job was for me to communicate to Chandra how to replicate the creature. I wasn’t allowed to use numbers or colors. We were able to pass the test without me messing us up too badly. Again the activity was fun and the people made it better.
After the session, it was lunchtime. Yep, another free male catered with healthy choices and low sodium. This was shaping up to be special!
The next session was a full group session that was virtually run by Cherilyn Barrett called Connecting with Deaf Students. In the session, we learned about various tools that help our deaf students as well as different modifications we could make. Once again Val is thinking about marginalized groups that are underrepresented in education.
Following this session, we split up again. Tricia Evarvia and Chandra Singh were offering a dope session called Community Inside and Outside the Classroom. I really wanted to see and support this session and I couldn’t ignore that Ralph Pantozzi (@mathillustrated) had a session called Meet, Play, Move. I wanted to move it move it!
Ralph’s session was super fun! Once again the people made the session. Val, Scott, Kate, Nolan and everyone else I am forgetting to name came together to dig deeper into the meaning of play and how it shows up around us.
It was time for the final session of the day. I was psyched! Epic Theatre Ensemble was here. “Epic’s artists challenge the institutional status quo by making theatre radically accessible, engaging thousands of students and first-time audiences in the transformative process of telling their own stories and learning to deeply empathize with those of others.”
Four young powerful women mesmerized us with their dialogue and ability to tap into the emotion of racially charged subjects. One of their pieces consisted of performing excerpts of interviews they did with teachers, admin, and superintendents. They also wrote and performed responses to those interviews.
Once the performance was over the four young women sat for a Q and A. It was inspiring to hear how much passion they had for social justice. Their awareness of self and ability to tap into the anger and pain being caused in schools right now hit hard. This was the perfect way to end the sessions.
After Epic finished dinner was ready to go. Another fantastic meal with healthy options and dietary restriction friendly.
The biggest unknown of the night was up next. Val trusted my judgment and we booked DJ Reggie. Dr. Brown had no idea who he was or what he was about. I assured her that this man brings the heat! Reggie shows up and gets started. While he is djing a tornado watch goes into effect! Reggie had us dancing salsa, doing the gritty, and making up line dances. Every person danced! We danced through a tornado!!
The best part of the night happened next. While Reggie was djing the FAU vs. SDSU basketball game was on behind him. Once he finished there were about five minutes left in the game and we turned up the volume. Everyone was rooting for FAU. Lamont Butler stole that joy from us. (along with the two horrible calls from the ref down the stretch) When his shot went in the whole party jumped out of their chairs. It was an epic moment. (call back!)
Sunday morning came quicker than expected. Once again a catered breakfast awaited. Val did the final debrief and I ran a couple of activities that focused on joy and community.
With the conference summary done, I would like to go back to my earlier statement, “This weekend I saw reality bend to an individual.” Dr. Valeria Brown created a community called Clear the Air. She then envisioned a conference that would change the way we saw conferences. AND she set a bar for herself that Dick Fosbury himself would have had a hard time getting over. Dr. Brown managed to find the funding, gather her people, get the perfect performers, trust in her people they would show up for her, and show that it is possible to have an educator conference that fosters human connection.