Conference helps educators "refocus on what's important"

Lexi Clair and Sharon Dawkins create a maze with a Q-BA-Maze Marble Building Sets during a breakout session called
Jake Shane 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 5, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Oct. 5, 2018 11:10 pm

QUINCY -- Like many 13-year-old boys, Jarred Heffner plays Fortnite every chance he gets.

Jarred doesn't hesitate talking about the game -- even with educators during a Friday breakout session at Quincy Conference.

"We want to get teachers educated on what Fortnite is so they can have a better understanding of what their kids are doing, maybe have a bonding experience," said Jarred, who is in eighth grade at Central Intermediate School in Washington, Ill. "The appeal of Fortnite is getting a win in the game, being able to play with your friends. It's very fun being able to look around, see what works, what doesn't work."

Illinois Computing Educators Executive Director Amber Heffner, Jarred's mom and co-presenter, said talking about the world's most popular videogame goes beyond providing a bonding opportunity.

"Gamifying a classroom is a really good way to engage learners," she said. "Esports is a huge thing right now. There are many high schools that now have esports teams, numerous colleges and universities. It's something we need to be aware of as educators that this opportunity for college scholarships is available for our students."

The breakout session started with a basic quiz on Fortnite with answers including it's a videogame developed by Epic Games that can be played on computers, mobile devices and game consoles that made $296 million in April.

Not a gamer herself, Heffner still understands the concept of Fortnite and its appeal -- lessons that translate into the classroom as teachers look for new ways to engage students and readjust their focus.

"Sometimes in the day-to-day you just get caught up in making it through the day, or the quarter or the curriculum," Quincy High School science teacher Dana Rigg said. "This gives you time to stop, refocus, take a breath and refocus on what's important."

More than 2,100 area educators turned out for the second day of the conference focused on helping to provide ways to learn, love and lead.

Keynote speaker Dave Burgess, author of "Teach Like a Pirate," encouraged educators to put passion -- for subject content, the teaching profession and their personal interests into the classroom as another way to offer what he calls "life-changing lessons" to students.

"I want my students to graduate knowing my curriculum and knowing me," he said.

In a rapid-fire speech filled with examples drawn from his own classroom, Burgess outlined how U.S. history -- or any subject -- can come to life.

"Sometimes it's not what you do but how you do it is important," he said.

Adding "hooks" to make students more eager to learn, using props, adding music and incorporating more "choice and voice" make a difference in engaging students. "Don't just teach a lesson. Have an experience," Burgess said.

And when someone years ago told Burgess it was easy for him because he's creative, he vehemently disagreed, pointing to his 17 years of work in the classroom. "It's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be worth it," he said.

Also worth it is making an effort to better understand people in poverty, the working poor and working-class students in the classroom.

Breakout speaker Taharee Jackson wants teachers to recognize inequity happening for people experiencing poverty and be as powerful as possible in their own sphere of influence.

"If they're a classroom teacher, I want them to know how to have better equitable practices in the classroom," she said. "I want them to know how to recognize where there is more opportunity to increase access and opportunity for people who are the working poor, working class and experiencing poverty."

Bluffs junior high language arts teacher Stephanie Upton said the conference brings area educators in touch with national speakers.

"It's a chance to talk with other teachers, kind of network and also learn new techniques to take into our classrooms, more up-to-date practices," she said.

"For me it's very inspirational to see all the area educators in one location trying to get better, to pick up a little nugget to help us educate young people," Southeastern Superintendent Todd Fox said. "We're in a crazy business, but also the best business we could possibly be in."