Last year’s maiden voyage of the DMPS Summit on School Climate and Culture included 1,200 passengers. The encore edition that opened this morning at the Iowa Events Center drew nearly 2,000, more than 700 of them from outside districts (compared to 120 last year).

The conference that’s grown quickly from a primarily local one into already a regional must-attend vehicle for professional development is designed to help educators engage on scales ranging from peer collaboration to direct contact with leading experts.

“As of a few minutes ago, we are sold out,” said Des Moines Public Schools Director of School Climate Transformation Jake Troja, the event coordinator of SSCC II, during his welcoming remarks. “People are here from 16 states and we even have one international registrant from Jamaica.”

The opening keynote speaker also added an international accent to the event. Sir Ken Robinson grew up in Liverpool, England.

An internationally recognized authority in creativity and innovation in education and business, Robinson is one of the world’s leading public speakers. Videos of his talks to the prestigious TED Conference are the most viewed in the history of the organization and have been viewed by an estimated 300 million people in over 150 countries. Robinson works with governments in Europe, Asia and the US, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and leading cultural organizations. His latest book is Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.

But before Robinson took the stage, Troja introduced Tiana Warner. A 2017 graduate of East High and a member of the team that recently represented DMPS at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in San Francisco, Tiana woke up the crowd with a spoken-word piece entitled Fairytale Democracy. The audience she handed off to the keynoter was at full attention.

Robinson took it from there, living up to his billing as a “gobsmacker,” which was how DMPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Edmundson-Colby described him by way of introduction.

Titled The Learning Revolution, Robinson’s presentation ran the gamut from LOL-humorous to deadly serious, the latter of course being the dominant tone, given the context and purpose of all the goings-on.

Born in 1950, Robinson contracted polio at the age of four and consequently diverted into special education.

“I never met anybody who doesn’t have special needs,” he said. “The task for educators is not only to help children discover the world around them, but the world within them as well.”

He suggested that part of the trick to that is making school climates more like the outside world instead of deliberately different.

“All children learn exuberantly before we start educating them,” he said. “A lot of what we do in schools is by habit and not by mandate.”

Governments, he advised, should not be about “command and control” with regard to education, but “climate control.”

Coincidentally, a fellow Liverpoolian and knight of the realm preceded Robinson as a visitor to Des Moines this summer. Sir Paul McCartney performed a concert across the street at Wells Fargo Arena last month.

Robinson’s talk included references to both McCartney and another Beatle, George Harrison. Sir Ken interviewed Sir Paul in the course of research for one of his books and asked him about his schoolboy days back in their shared hometown.

“The music teacher that first he, and a few years later, George, both had didn’t recognize any sort of potential in either one of them,” Robinson said. “That’s a bit of an oversight, don’t you think? To have two Beatles in your music class and not detect anything remarkable about either of them…”

Following Robinson’s keynote opener, the day continued with dozens of breakout sessions and workshops, covering topics ranging from dealing with student trauma to teaching LGBTQ students to building parent engagement to eradicating racism from the classroom. The attendees came together at the end of day one for a closing keynote from Dr. G Reyes, an educator and activist from California. His address – titled Get Woke, Get Lit, Get Dangerous – looked at how Hollywood would have people think that students of color have dangerous minds that need to be saved. As a counter to these tropes, Reyes questioned how educators can perform a kind of dangerous work that challenges mainstream ideologies, norms, behaviors, attitudes, practices, and systems that dominant groups attempt to protect at all costs.

School districts are ecosystems that should present the conditions where the incredible diversity of human talent can flourish, according to Robinson. But the conditions don’t always happen naturally and the talent isn’t always self-evident. So administrators have to create them and teachers have to dig for it.

That’s what the rest of a rapidly emerging event is all about.

For details on the Summit, visit the SSCC web site.

Photos of the 2017 Summit on School Climate and Culture

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