I proudly serve on the Programming Advisory Board for SXSW EDU and got to be a part of the selection process for the 2019 line up. It was exciting reading through the proposals that landed in my review pool and I’m so excited to see how the lineup came together. I’ve been attending SXSW EDU since the inaugural event in 2011, and from the start could tell this was not your typical education conference. The event has grown and evolved over time and in true SXSW fashion turned into a can’t miss learning event. Here are some themes that stood out to me and I hope it helps you understand what makes it so valuable for educational leaders.
New people, new ideas
For ed folks used to hearing from the same people about the same issues, SXSW offers fresh takes from unexpected voices. You’ll find the diversity of speakers’ ideas, backgrounds, and experience both exciting and challenging. Come with an open mind – you won’t agree with everything you hear. But I would argue that’s a good thing when you’re building your leadership muscles. Hearing from diverse voices will give you the opportunity to question your own assumptions and maybe even change your perspective.
Session Pick: Why Technology is Not Transforming Teaching (Kevin Bushweller, Ed Week Executive Editor for Market Brief)
- Description: Interactive talk that examines why teachers are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning. Research shows a handful of “early adopters” embrace innovative uses of new technology, while their colleagues make incremental or no changes to what they already do. Why is this the case? And what steps should schools take to fix it?
- My take: Following the race to get tech in schools, Bushweller calls out the need to do better and offers tools and strategies to get there. There is no blame here, only support and ideas for disrupting the status quo.
Focus on equity
This conference is not afraid to tackle equity, to admit we’re falling short and to explore ways that we can serve ALL students better. No one disagrees that each child, regardless of background, should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. But what does that look like in practice? How do we know when we have achieved it? The conference has dedicated more than 15 sessions and 35 speakers to the topic of equity and will explore a host of creative solutions, from stronger math instruction to strategies for mental health support.
Session Pick: Improving Equity Through Unbiased Data
- Description: In a world increasingly focused on data and measurement but skeptical of standardized testing, how do you fairly measure student success? How can we make data-driven decisions without perpetuating bias or inequity? What role should students’ statistics play in determining their eligibility for opportunities? Hear from leaders in the education and data worlds on how they’re approaching this complicated issue in search of a more equitable world.
- My take: Our lives are data-driven, but if the data we are using perpetuate the problem, we will never reach a solution. I’m skeptical that unbiased data exist and am curious to learn if there are fair ways to measure success for students. Sessions on equity are often about our mindset and bias, but this one is offering technical solutions.
Building student agency
We need schools that go beyond the fundamentals and inspire kids to apply their knowledge and talents to help make the world a better place. Students don’t have to wait to be ‘leaders of the future’. They can be leaders right now, and educators should help create the conditions for that to happen.
- Description: How can educators and caregivers promote the changes they want to see in the world? Marley will offer strategies for building-up joyful young readers and community activists, ultimately promoting a more just and equitable world. Marley will show that embracing equity, using diverse readings in the classroom and encouraging courageous conversations can increase literacy, make learning more fun and create sustainable change.
- My take: I want to hear more from Marley about how she was inspired by an issue that concerned her and she took some simple steps to make a difference. I want to understand what made this possible so we can make it possible for more kids.
Spotlight on creativity
The four Rs aren’t all there is to life, both in school and beyond. Educators know that, and it’s why they fight fiercely for music, art and theater programs. I love that this conference offers sessions and learning experiences that highlight skills so needed and valued in society.
Session Pick: Moth StorySLAM
- Description: This open-mic storytelling competition is open to anyone with a true, personal five-minute story to share on the night’s theme of transformation. SXSW EDU attendees are invited to put their name in the hat to tell a story, or just enjoy the show.
Session Pick: The Moth in the Classroom
- Description: Personal storytelling can play a key role in classrooms—connecting students to content, centering student voice, and developing essential skills. But how do we create the conditions for great storytelling? We will lead a lively, on-our-feet workshop for educators to brainstorm and craft their own true, personal stories, as well as reflect together on classroom strategies. Leave with concrete ideas for your classroom, and a new confidence in your story!
Session Pick: 24-Hour Playwriting Challenge
- Description: The title says it all: you will write a play in a day. In this hands-on session designed for folks who have never written a play, we’ll use theater to craft powerful narratives. You’ll start with ideas about social justice/education; learn story structures; go through a scaffolded process to write your script; work with professional actors to develop characters; practice giving/receiving feedback; and prepare for a performance of your play by the company of actors.
- My take: These kinds of activities put us right back in the learner’s seat. Test them out, flex your creativity muscle and see what they inspire you to bring back for your staff and students. We are all perpetual learners and putting ourselves in the hot seat for a day is a fun challenge.
No fear of tough topics
Educators are not afraid of difficult conversations. They’re part of daily life in schools. Fortunately, SXSW is not afraid to host them either. Mental health, equity, social justice – these topics are deep and complex, but we owe it to ourselves to dig in and learn more.
Session Pick: Comedy & Poetry: Tools for Unpacking Mental Health
- Description: Our group specializes in using slam poetry and stand-up comedy to teach leadership and diversity skills. We’ll be instructing how to use these two art forms to create engaging content and connect with students on a level that helps empower them to be more open and understanding of their peers. Audience members will leave with a better understanding of other walks of life, and how vulnerability can create leaders that others naturally gravitate towards.
- My take: It can be tough to keep up with kids these days – what they are struggling with, what sparks them or resonate with them. Sessions like these offer tools for reaching students in new and unique ways.
Guest blog post courtesy of
Program Director, The Holdsworth Center
SXSW EDU photo courtesy of Cruz Mendez.