We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!
Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.
The ALP Conference concluded on February 17. 2023, and now the stories start coming in. A team of twenty-seven—including eight educators from Tucson—were a storytelling team in Tucson. For the next few months, this newsletter will share the stories of those folks.
“So there I was….because every good story has to start with ‘so there I was…’ ” - Ruth Hellams
So there I was: The end of the first full day at the 2023 ALP Conference at the beautiful Loews Ventana Canyon resort in Tucson, Arizona. It had been a long, beautiful day of getting to know Tucson, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified School Districts, and the amazing work of so many wonderful organizations and school districts across the country. It was a great day—but I was exhausted. And frankly, a little lost. I was still trying to figure out just what this “ALP Conference” really was.
I’d come to ALP with very little context. I knew the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) was an organization created to develop and promote the use of formative assessment practices in K-12 schools. That alone was enough to get me excited enough to volunteer with the organization and fly halfway across the country to attend the conference. But that enthusiasm was put in check on day one.
At a conference of roughly 300, I knew one person. And I am an introvert. So getting to know the other 299 after 10 straight hours of instruction, reflection, and identity work required a certain amount of gumption that I just didn’t think I was going to be able to muster.
I grabbed my dinner at 6:30 and sat at my “crew table,” a brilliant conference mechanic that I’d never experienced before. Our “crew” of roughly 8-10 folks sat at a shared table and reflected together throughout the conference; those crew conversations went on to be a highlight of the conference for me. Only problem was, on night one, only one crew member briefly joined me for dinner, then left me to my own devices. Immediately, I was back in 7th grade: “Do I sit here and eat dinner alone?” “Should I join another table?” “Would that be weird?” “Should I head back to my room?” “Wouldn’t that be a mistake? Aren’t you here to meet people?”. The joys of introversion.
It was about 7:15. I thought, distinctly: “Maybe I’ll just call it.” And, a little less distinctly, but certainly still there, “maybe this conference was a mistake.” Candidly, I felt a little lonely, which is particularly hard when you’re sitting in a room with hundreds of people.
But then I thought: You know what? What the heck am I feeling sorry for myself about? I’m in a beautiful resort full of people passionate about a cause that, until recently, I didn’t even know other people were passionate about….and, oh by the way, I have three free drink tickets in my pocket. So instead of calling it a night, I said screw it. I grabbed a beer, not knowing where I was going to drink it or who I was going to drink it with. I headed back into the convention hall having no idea where I was headed. I saw two people I’d briefly talked to during a session that day and thought, “You know what…that’s gonna have to be enough.”
It was apparent immediately that Ruth Hellams and Carissa Duran might just have been the two best people in the room to have chosen to sit by.
They asked me about my work, about professional issues both were facing, about how the day went, about who I’d spoken with and what we’d spoken about. They took a genuine interest in who I was and what I cared about. Carissa and Ruth had that special trait that is highly prized by an introvert like myself: They were easy to talk to.
Our group of three quickly became a group of six. We migrated to the bar, circled our chairs, ordered drinks. Our group of six became a group of eight. Stories started to flow….and flow…and flow….until we had a veritable river of narrative flowing within and around our group: Snake pits. Ill-fated sailing trips across the Atlantic. Exquisite Mexican cuisine. Cremating pets. Lime wedges stolen from Warren Buffett, and, oh my, other stories that just can’t leave the table.
I had just met these people, yet they were sharing candid, vulnerable stories about their childhoods, their families, and their experiences.
It was, without a doubt, the best conversation with (relative) strangers that I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of.
And it made clear that the “What is ALP?” question that had been running through my head all day was misguided. The more pertinent question was “WHO is ALP?"
I won’t pretend that our 2-hour conversation with eight of nearly 300 people at the 2023 ALP conference is in any way fully representative of who ALP is. But as Chucho Ruiz Vai Sevoi, our powerful keynote speaker the night before put it:
“It’s not the truth. But it’s a truth, and it’s an important one.”
Ruth Hellams, Carissa Duran, Gary Chapin, Emma Chapin, Alec Barron, Shannon King, and Justin Wells showed me that ALP is a group of welcoming, genuine, passionate, interesting, hard-working, eccentric, intelligent, progressive, creative, and joyful humans and educators. Their passion to support students, and the schools that shape said students, is a clear outgrowth of the widely varied and interesting lives they’ve lived. It’s my genuine hope that, in the work the eight of us at that table will go on to do, we will inspire and empower students to go through life inspired to create their own versions of the amazing stories heard that night.
I awkwardly attempted to capture at least a trace of this conversation with a photo. Eight glasses were left empty by night’s end, but my introverted heart was left full, no longer worried about fitting in and certain that the ALP community is a place where an introvert like myself, or anyone with a passion for education and an open mind, is both welcomed and celebrated. If you’re an educator that hasn't experienced an ALP conference, I can’t recommend it enough.
About the Storyteller
Adam Sparks is a former social studies and English teacher from Nebraska. He holds a master's degree in Learning Design and Technology from Stanford where his work focused on using peer feedback to improve formative assessment practices. He is a co-creator of Short Answer, a new K-12 formative assessment tool.