Annual educators conference added sessions on GLBT issues, bullying and achievement gap.
Turning out 10,000-strong for the annual fall conference sponsored by Education Minnesota, state teachers took advantage of a chance to network and receive training that has in some cases fallen victim to district budget cuts.
There were workshops on new teaching methods such as using music and singing to help students learn math and language skills, and sessions on perennial problems such as the persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color.
In her morning address, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius noted that Minnesota, although highly ranked in student achievement overall, has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. "We can no longer leave children of color behind," Cassellius said.
There were also new topics this year.
For the first time, issues involving gay and lesbian students had a prominent place on the agenda, with training sessions about bullying and discussions of other subjects affecting GLBT students.
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, said the decision to add such sessions this year was deliberate. The state teachers union tries to offer training on timely and relevant topics, he said, and "unfortunately bullying has become an epidemic across the country."
Interest in the new issues on the agenda was evident at one roundtable session, as about 80 people gathered to talk about the state of Minnesota schools and GLBT youth. The Minnesota School OUTreach Coalition led small-group discussions on classroom behavior, GLBT staff issues, school climates, gay straight alliances, and early childhood education/elementary issues.
A broad look at bullying presented by Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, filled the main ballroom. Roberts presented simple strategies for teachers to use in their classrooms to address bully behavior.
Earlier, Dooher noted some of the additional challenges in today's efforts to combat bullying. In another era, bullying took place mostly in hallways and lunchrooms, he said. Today, cellphones and social networks play a role, especially in amplifying bullying.
"We want to provide a safe environment for kids to learn," he said, "and no matter who you are, you can feel safe about going to school."
A first-time attendee at the conference, which is still widely known as MEA, an acronym for one of the groups absorbed in a 1997 merger, was Emily Gilmore, an education major at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She came to the conference with classmates as part of preparation for student teaching next semester. She said she liked the sessions that covered areas her college curriculum didn't have time to address in depth, such as teaching across cultures and transgender issues in the classroom.
Gilmore said she wants to be a literature teacher in a rural school like the one she came from and wants to create a curriculum that integrates materials from other cultures.
Gilmore said she appreciated the diversity of teachers at the conference, from different backgrounds and at different levels of their careers, and "knowing we don't all have to be the same to be good teachers."
Mikaela Haertl and Maggie McMahon, elementary education students at St. Catherine University, said they felt welcomed by teachers at the conference.
Both said it was encouraging to see other out GLBT teachers during the discussion of staff issues.
McMahon said attending the roundtable for GLBT issues was a top priority for her. "It's nice to be welcome, feel part of the community," she said.
Emma Carew Grovum • 612-673-4154 Twitter: @CarewGrovum