conferences · professional development · Strengthening professional learning blog series

Tips for Getting the Most out of a Literacy Conference: Strengthening Professional Learning

I had my first-ever proposal accepted at a conference in 2007. As a result, I received a small stipend from my graduate program to attend the Whole Language Umbrella (WLU) Literacies for All Summer Institute. I packed professional clothes, my computer, and handouts– then headed off to Louisville, Kentucky. I didn’t know anyone at the conference, so I introduced myself and chatted with anyone who seemed friendly (which was pretty much everyone!).

WLU was the first of many out-of-town literacy conferences I have attended and/or presented at in the past 12 years. Therefore, I’ve learned a few things about attending and navigating conferences. When thinking about attending a professional conference, consider doing the following things before, during, and after each conference you attend.


Obtain funding, if possible.

Conferences are expensive. I’ve had a few subsidized for me through the years, but most of the time I’ve paid for them out of my own pocket. Ask your principal or PTA president if there’s funding available to offset some of the expenses for attending a conference. Many administrators are willing to allocate some funds for conference attendance if you are presenting and/or agree to turnkey the information you learned at the conference to your colleagues.

If your school cannot assist with the cost, then go online and submit a mini-grant proposal on DonorsChoose. There’s a special professional development category, which allows teachers to request funds to attend a conference.

Book a hotel room early.

Whether you’re staying at the conference hotel or using AirBNB, you’ll want to book your room early. The sooner you book a room, the better the chances are that you’ll be within walking distance of the convention center.

Download the conference app.

  1. Allow for advance planning.
  2. Keep you up-to-date about scheduling changes.
  3. Provide you with an opportunity to be social. (Many conference apps are connected to social media, which provides you with the opportunity to interact with other conference goers.)

Decide on sessions to attend ahead of time.Some conferences require attendees to sign up for sessions in advance, while others have sessions that are open. Since many rooms fill to capacity, it helps to have two alternate sessions you wish to attend picked out ahead of time. (It helps to select sessions in a nearby location so you can walk there quickly if your first choice is filled.)

Pack professional clothes, but dress comfortably.

It’s hard to make everyone happy when managing climate control for a room so dress in layers. Wear comfortable shoes, especially if the conference is being held at a large venue since you’ll likely be hoofing it between sessions.

Bring an extra bag FOR BOOKS.

If you’re reading this post, chances are you have a book addiction. Conferences are a fabulous place to pick up books for your classroom library or professional books to enhance your own learning. Most of the time publishers offer discounts to conference attendees. Rather than ship everything home in boxes, bring additional luggage so you can hand-carry everything home.

Prepare for the unexpected.

If you’re traveling from a city where there are flight delays and cancellations AND you think your checked bag may not make it on the same flight as you, then pack essential toiletries and one day’s worth of professional clothes in your carry-on bag. Arriving late at night in a new city means you won’t have the opportunity to shop for missing items if your luggage doesn’t make it.


Click on the image to enlarge.

Talk to people.

Conferences are a fabulous opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with educators. If you’re attending alone, then sit near someone in a meeting room rather than in the back row by yourself. Look for ways to start conversations with other attendees (e.g., set a goal of trying to meet one new person in each session you attend). Also, approach presenters at the end of the session to chat with them.

If you’re attending a conference with one or more people you know, then sit yourselves near someone who is sitting alone. Introduce yourselves. Strike up a conversation and you never know if it will lead to more insight or learning.

Socialize at mealtimes.

Plan to meet up with friends, co-workers, or people you just met during a meal. Embrace your nerdiness. Everyone attends a conference to learn so don’t feel self-conscious about bringing up new learning, reflections, wonderings, or questions. This can help you process your learning.

Bring snacks.

Time is often short at a conference. It helps to have snacks in your bag so you can eat what you’d like without having to stand on long concession lines. As someone who packs nut bars, I’ve learned to ask the people around me if they have a nut allergy before I open a bar in a room.

Take notes.

You’ll learn a lot in a short amount of time. Therefore, bring a lined notebook, tablet, or sketchbook so you can record notes in whatever format you like.

Be respectful of presenters.

As a conference-goer, I find it extremely hard to concentrate when other attendees are whispering while someone is presenting. I hate to say this, but it happens a lot. Please — give the presenters the same respect you demand of your students. Turn and talk with a partner any time the presenters ask you to do so, but then come back quickly and focus your attention on the presenter(s) when someone is speaking.

Enjoy local attractions.

If you’re in town for more than a day, try to squeeze in some sightseeing. If you don’t have time to go to a museum or a show, then look for a good local eatery that has excellent reviews on OpenTable, Trip Advisor, or Yelp.


Create a list of action items.

Prioritize your new learning. It’s tempting to want to try to implement everything you learned at a conference in the week’s following a conference. However, it helps to think about what will help your students the most and make that your first priority. Stagger the dates on which you’ll try out each new thing you learned so you are giving yourself the space to try each new thing and make it your own.

Reconnect with people you met.

Whether you traveled alone or with colleagues, reconnect with people who also attended the conference. You can do this via email or social media. Setting up a time to talk on the phone or Skype is a great way to extend the learning you did during the conference.

Reach out to presenters.

Many presenters share their contact information — email addresses or social media handles — in an effort to keep the conversation going after the conference. Reach out to a presenter whose session resonated with you. Let him/her know if you plan to implement something you gleaned from their presentation in your classroom. Better yet, if you tried it out, then let them know how it went! Presenters love to know when something they shared resonated with people so reach out and let presenters know about the impact they made on you as an educator.

Turnkey your ideas to your colleagues.

Look for a way to share your learning at a grade level meeting, with your professional learning community, or at a faculty meeting. Not only will revisiting your notes help you solidify your understanding of the things you learned, but you’ll provide your colleagues with the opportunity to increase their knowledge base too. (Plus, if your school doesn’t already have a culture of sharing information after conferences, you’ll be doing your part to create a more colleagial atmosphere.)


Attending a variety of conferences — local, state, and national — each year has helped me grow as an educator. While it can seem daunting to pack up, travel to a new place, and mingle with people you don’t know, attending conferences can help you grow as an educator. It’s worth the time and monetary investment you will make if you make the most out of your conference time.

Please share your expertise:

  • What are your favorite conferences to attend and why?
  • Share a tip (or two) that will help others make the most out of their time at the next conference they attend.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Welcome to Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, May 5th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, May 6th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.   From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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33 thoughts on “Tips for Getting the Most out of a Literacy Conference: Strengthening Professional Learning

  1. The suggestions for AFTER the conference are the reminders I really needed. It’s hard coming back from a weekend conference and jumping right back into work, but scheduling time to continue the conversations makes a big difference in what you retain from the whirlwind of the conference days. Great suggestion!


    1. I’d like to publicly thank Betsy Hubbard for pushing me to create the “after” section of this post. (We workshop all of our blog series posts and it was something she felt was missing from this post when I originally wrote it.) Glad it was helpful!


  2. I attended ISTE for the first time last summer. Your advice is spot on for preparing ahead of time, especially for a very large conference. Prepare ahead by choosing the sessions, have back-up choices, and if a session is full, you may still get in the day of if others do not show.


    1. It’s a great conference! I’ve only been to ILA once and I was seven months pregnant with my son so I didn’t get as much out of it since I was quite uncomfortable when sitting (or standing).


  3. Thanks so much for all of these tips. I’m hoping to attend NCTE this year, and I’ll certainly come back to this post before I do!


  4. Thank you for this blog. It has great information, especially the ideas on what to bring and planning before the conference.


  5. I’m hoping to attend NCTE for the first time this fall also! I’m so excited! One tip I’ve found helpful is to have a separate page of notes called “Books Mentioned.” I find so many presenters mention both professional and kid lit books and it helps to keep a list of them all together so I can explore them when I get back to school.


  6. Administrators may argue that it’s a lot of money, but there is nothing like connecting in person with colleagues from around the country. That in itself is a reason for attending.


  7. I have never attended a large conference, but I think I would get hooked once I started! I do find the Heinemann one-day workshops that they offer yearly in Maine a tremendous help – typically in December. I also find it helpful to find the Twitter hashtags the larger conferences are using and follow them. Even though I’m not getting the full learning from the conference, there are still lots of tips and quotes to gain information from.


  8. NCTE and CCIRA are my favorites – both are great quality for the cost and CCIRA allows you to choose the sessions in advance so you know who you will see (if you are taking books for author signing!).

    A. Know the cost of an extra bag of books for your airline. Sometimes shipping is cheaper and less hassle at the airport.
    B. Go to sessions. Don’t spend all your time in the concessions area. All that glitters is not GOLD!
    C. Balance learning with meeting folks from Twitter of FB book groups and FUN!
    D. If you want to present, start with local and state organizations. Build your experience!


  9. I have attended the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference 3 times and absolutely love it! I wish I could attend every year! It’s so important to attend conferences if you get the opportunity to because I think it can help with teacher burnout. I always feel refreshed and ready to try new things after attending conferences.


    1. Kelsey Corter informed me about that. Back in the day (when I used DonorsChoose a lot), I don’t think this kind of proposal existed. I was thrilled to learn that it’s possible to write a proposal to fund conference attendance.


  10. I also get so much out of attending conferences, but had never thought about using Donors Choose to try to help with the cost! What a terrific idea! I also really liked the helpful tips to get the most from a conference. Many of these I already do, but there were a few that I hadn’t thought about, so this was helpful!


  11. This is a unique topic for a blog post, yet information is comprehensive/ thorough. I like the Donors Choose idea for funding, and must try that!


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