woman taking notes TESOL 2017

Going to an ESL (TESOL) conference is like going to a Lollapalooza for English Language Teachers. It is loud, garish, frenetic, fun, overwhelming and mind expanding. And that is just the foyer. Getting the list of presentations for us language geeks is like getting an old-school catalog of wonder. Who even knows what Polymorphic syntactic Activation Activities means?! Yet you know you want to go. It is a bit insane and crazy-making and so fun, and the afterhours get-togethers range from relaxed to outrageous to legendary. But, where do you start and how do you get the most out of your long days of instructive input? Several decades of negotiating many conferences have taught me a few things and here are my suggestions:

1. Read the catalog. Seriously.

I know, it is very long. It is crammed. There is a lot of superfluous information. However, this is the way to get your head around the whole big show. Start with the theme, how does it apply to what you want to learn? Look at the keynote and plenary speakers, who do you know and why? They are often ‘names’ in our field and worth seeing. Get out your highlighter or use an app or other tool if you are using the e-version of the catalog. Do one day at a time. Start by highlighting things you are most interested in with one color. Highlight presentations that would be a second choice with a different color. DON’T ‘book’ every hour! Give yourself breaks. (You can’t eat ALL of the desserts!) Chose a theme (Lexical approach? C.A.L.L.?) Focus is helpful. Fit in time to see endless seller’s booths and don’t miss the poster presentations, they offer a lot of information and are often overlooked.

2. Wear comfortable (but nice) shoes and clothes and be prepared.

Seriously, wear comfortable shoes. This is one of the biggest complaints because you will do a lot of walking. Think ‘marathon’ in terms of preparation. Also ‘Mental overload.’ Stay hydrated, cut the coffee later in the afternoon unless you want to vibrate through walls. Eat regularly. Carry snacks for when your blood sugar dips, and it will. Consider having eye drops, tissues, aspirin and throat lozenges. Also, carry cash, it is faster and some venders ask for it and others offer discounts. Wear comfortable but ‘nice’ clothes. Dressing up is sweet but, frankly, most of us don’t care. Avoid sweats, but slacks, relaxed shirts and a sweater or light jacket for the oddly chilly rooms. Think ‘tour bus or ‘airport’ and you’ll be in the groove. Take vitamins!

3. Have a clear strategy on finding every room or place, know the map!

You go to a great presentation! You have ten minutes to get to the next one on your list. Oh look, it is on the OTHER SIDE of the convention center conveniently filled with masses of people. Anyone who has had to change planes on opposite sides of the airport knows what comes next. And keep in mind that seats fill up in popular presentations so you arrive, tired, disheveled and…it is closed out. Solution: Get out the map and get to know it. Be aware that it may seem easy to get from point A to point B but the maps often don’t show all the partitions, stalls, closed doors etc. So, once you get there, before things get hopping, take the map you now know and walk about the whole venue, noting where traffic jams, revisions and blockages are. Consider seeing presentations near each other, even if they may be secondary choices sometimes. Remember, as you race about, you’ll meet people you’ll want to chat with. It can’t be helped. PACE YOURSELF. Did you get closed out of a popular session? Relax, go to a poster session or have a break. Avoid hyper-tension and frenetic weaving. Planning, knowing where things are and being relaxed about the process will serve you well.

4. Stop to eat, hydrate, rest, ruminate and chat! Don’t be shy.

Remember this; one reason you are here is to hang out with your peers and your friends and to make new friends. OK, some networking is involved as well. This is not just a scavenger hunt, it is a party. Ok, a nerdy linguistic party, but a party none the less. Breathe. Take time to really meet and greet, catch up, exchange FB info and so on. The greatest resource available here are the people. AND! Presenters are often really happy to chat with you afterwards, I love doing this when I present. These can be the richest conversations, but people are often zipping off to the next thing and there is Diane Larson Freeman just standing there ready to chat with YOU.

5. Choose wisely.

I know this seems silly, but as you choose presentations, think about all the aspects of your choices. First of all, know that many presentations are really (and I mean this nicely) ‘infomercials’ for a new book, curriculum, software, web-based-whatever and so on. Most all the publishers offer such presentations and it takes a bit of detective work to spot them. Now, look at the first one you’ve picked and ask yourself: Will this presentation stretch me at all? Will it give me new, applicable, useful information? Is the Presentation abstract and summery well written? Vague? Clear? Look at the presenter’s bio. Are they well-known in their field? Where and what do they teach? Considering how many presentations there are, you want as much gold as possible, right? Vet well and as you socialize, listen…

6. Listen to and be part of the buzz!

The buzz is everything at these conferences. It is shocking to say, but teachers love to gossip. Who knew? But it is often illuminating and intelligent gossip. Which presenters are known to be good? What are the ‘new things’ everyone is talking about? At the last TESOL I went to it was MALL, Mobile Assisted Language Learning and there were a dozen presentations on it. What will it be this year? Staying up in our field means keeping your ears open to what is in vogue, and it is interesting stuff! And you are part of this buzz-world! Tell your friends at the conference when you’ve seen a great presentation or have read the author’s work or have heard of a really innovative presentation or poster display. Be flexible; be ready to change your schedule to hit a new and exciting choice. This is the fun stuff!

7. In presentations, be civil and don’t fear taking photos, asking questions or leaving.

Ok, you’re in! You have a seat. The show starts! Here are a few dos and don’ts as an audience. Please do all of us a favor and avoid the following: Shuffling through your papers, the catalog, your pocket book and so on. Have cough drops for those hacking fits, if you can’t stop sneezing, coughing, chatting with your neighbor, please take it outside of the room for a time. Socialize before and after, not during. CELL PHONES OFF. And, really, check your texts/FB/email before or after the presentation. You are here to listen, FB will wait 45 minutes and as a presenter I can tell you, it is rude. I am talking to YOU, not the top of your head. And don’t talk to me about the myth of multitasking… PLEASE ask questions when the presenter asks for them, BUT keep in mind the cardinal rules. Keep them short, clear and applicable to that session. Actually listen to the answer. Don’t argue with the answer. I mean, really?! Know that your question and its answer is PART of the presentation, so make it useful for everyone, not just you. Taking photos with your IPhone or Galaxy is fine nowadays, with the FLASH OFF please. However, ask yourself. Will the photo of the screen come out? Will I really look at it later? Wouldn’t it be better to listen and cognate? Often PowerPoints are offered online after the presentation, find out before you fill up your phone. But what if the presentation is not what you want? Maybe it is sales gimmick or just different than you thought it would be? Leave. It’s OK, really. Quietly gather your things and depart. It is a normal part of the scene.

8. Have a clear eating, drinking, networking partying strategy.

It’s who you know, as you know. And you are rubbing shoulders with the top dogs of our profession. Have some fun, have a few drinks with your cohorts and new people you meet. Make friends, make professional contacts, schmooze and socialize. You finally have a crowd where grammar jokes are appreciated! Don’t retreat to your hotel room! If you pace yourself during the day slip out for a nap in your room in the late afternoon, you’ll be ready to socialize later. It is worth it, trust me. You also get to know your co-workers in a whole new, relaxed way.

9. Present next year!

The first time I presented, I was pushed into it by my employer and mentor (Thanks Nan!) and I felt absurdly incompetent to present anything before so many smarter, better educated people. Then I did it, had a blast after freaking out and realized something important. We all have something to share and this is how we grow and learn by learning from each other. No one knows everything, and you know and are enthused about SOMETHING that others aren’t, but they might be if you share it. I did one presentation at TESOL on using tabloids to teach ESL. I thought it was a bit silly but it was accepted and I had over 200 people there. Who knew? Everyone is looking for new stuff, pragmatic or theoretical, and you are a unique and dedicated teacher (right?) and have something to contribute. Do it. Start by looking at the overall theme, summaries and abstracts for the presentations at the convention you are going to now. Note how they are crafted, how what was accepted fits the themes and how it offers something a bit different from the other presentations. Write up one or two proposals and follow the guidelines EXACTLY. Have your director and peers review your proposals and are open to constructive criticism. Edit ruthlessly, and then apply. You’ll get rejected sometimes, so what? Read the rejection letter and see what you can improve. Repeat. You’ll get in soon, and then I have a whole other list of suggestions for presenting to throw at you! Remember, smaller, local conventions like WAESOL in my area or JALT in Japan and more likely to accept your proposals, so stat there before going for TESOL. Have fun and spread a bit of knowledge then get people to buy you drinks afterwards!

Happy Conferencing!

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M.A. History (Cross-Cultural Studies), Western Washington University; TESOL Certificate, The School of Teaching ESL. Denny is a teacher educator at S-TESL and delivers most of the 4-Week Intensives each year. Denny has taught ESL at ELS Language Center in Seattle and in Japan at Sundai Junior College. He worked at American Cultural Exchange in Seattle as Center Director and as Director of Marketing.