What Happens in Vegas?


The Cosmopolitan for ASCD CEL 2013By Sarah McKibben

When I heard that the ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership (CEL) in Las Vegas was sold out, I knew that I’d be in for a powerful learning experience. I descended on Las Vegas November 1, along with 1,783 administrators, teachers, and educators, to network, learn innovative ways to overcome barriers, and discover new strategies to improve leadership capacity.

In the opening general session, Eric Jensen drew on scientific research to show how the expectations we set can literally change our brains. He encouraged school leaders to set “gaudy goals”—goals so ridiculous that they are nearly impossible to achieve. When you set your goals that high, said Jensen, “you will fail above everyone else’s successes.” And failure is not only OK for principals and teachers, he said, it’s absolutely necessary.

Fired up, attendees headed to more than 90 sessions that were equally as engaging as the general session. In Grace Dearborn’s session, “When Consequences Don’t Work: Dealing with Difficult Students,” educators learned how to build positive connections with students through prevention and intervention. I sat next to an elementary school principal from Kansas who vowed to try out one of the strategies Dearborn introduced—the Two-by-Ten—on a 3rd grader as soon as he returned to school. Developed by researcher Raymond Wlodkowski, the concept is simple: Spend two minutes a day, 10 days in a row having a personal conversation with a challenging student about a topic that the student is interested in, and you can improve behavior by up to 85 percent, said Dearborn.

General Session at ASCD CELOther packed sessions, like Nancy Frey’s “Creating a Culture of Achievement,” struck a chord with educators trying to boost morale in their schools and districts. Frey uncovered the invisible factors that shape an organization and shared how her school’s five pillars attend to those unseen influences. A group of district administrators from Minneapolis were excited about test-driving some of the ideas that Frey shared, such as writing grit and recognition letters, sending out “secret shoppers” to evaluate the climate of a school’s front office, and placing “TLC” monitors in hallways.

Dearborn and Frey were just two of the presenters in a lineup that featured Thomas Guskey, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Doug Fisher, and Sue Brookhart, among others. The conference also held author talks, which gave educators the chance to meet ASCD authors and talk one-on-one about their work. Other notable speakers included researcher David Conley, who led the second general session where he outlined the four keys to student learning, and Robert Marzano, who explored solutions to creating accurate and fair evaluations during the sold-out keynote luncheon.

What struck me most about CEL, however, was the depth of learning and networking that took place outside of these formal learning experiences—in the hallways, at the tables, and in between sessions. Attendees not only willingly shared their schools’ successes and challenges, but they actively sought out the advice and experience of one another. Although opportunities like the networking breakfasts encouraged this kind of collaboration, it also emerged organically—and perhaps most powerfully—on its own.

With an electricity that could power the Vegas strip, CEL closed out on a high note. On Sunday morning, Salome Thomas-EL, a renowned principal from inner city Philadelphia, gave credence to the “immortality of influence” that an educator can have in the life of a student. Leading a group of high-poverty kids to the national chess championships, Thomas-EL proved that, with hope and grit (and the support of a mentor), every student—every student!—can achieve success.

Capped off with a standing ovation, a cadre of newly connected educators left Las Vegas ready to implement real and sustainable strategies in their schools. This time, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas—and that’s a good thing. To see more pictures from the conference, view the CEL Facebook album.

I can only imagine how ASCD’s Annual Conference in Los Angeles, March 15–17, will rival this experience.


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