Why You Should Attend an International Reading Association Convention

It is only five days until I leave for Chicago for the International Reading Association’s 55th annual convention. Although I am very excited about attending the convention, I am disappointed that it has been cut short by one day and that the Reading Research Conference is now included in the regular conference.

It saddens me that so few teachers attend this convention because it is such a great source of professional development presented by the leading reading researchers in the world. I wrote an article for the Orange County Reader’s Winter 2008 edition that illustrated why I love them so much. I am going to post it here in the hope that I will reach a wider audience and that more teachers will be encouraged to attend. Further, I hope it encourages principals to find funds to pay for their teacher’s attendance. Since writing the article, I also attended the 54th in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Before I share the article, I want to explain how I prepare for the convention. Perhaps it will help those of you who have never attended, but will in the future. There is always a session at the convention for those attending for the first time.

How do I plan for the International Reading Association Convention? When the program is officially released, I study it like crazy. In the old days, pre-convention programs, the size of a small phone book, were mailed to you. I read each session in the pre-program and circled the sessions that piqued my interest and then did some Internet research on the presenters and their work. I was always excited when I saw the names of researchers whose work I had read in the program. Unfortunately, there are often several sessions I want to attend that happen simultaneously. I put pertinent information into a spreadsheet in order to try to narrow down my choices. I took this spreadsheet with me to the convention where I received the official program. I studied it again each night to be sure I picked the ones I really wanted to attend. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but I think it has paid off well for me. I am always shocked that people show up and make their selections on the spur of the moment. The conventions only happen once a year and I am not always guaranteed to attend, so I really want to make the most of each one.

What did I include in my spreadsheet? I included the day of the week, time of the session, location, presenter names, title and session description, and type of session. At my first convention, I learned the hard way that if you don’t plan carefully, your sessions could be in locations so far apart that you are likely to miss them. Typically, most sessions are held at a convention center and others are held at surrounding hotels. Free transportation is provided. Even when sessions are in the convention center, they can still be miles apart. Session type is another thing to consider. There are general sessions, regular sessions, exhibitor sessions, research poster sessions, institutes, workshops, symposia, etc.

Today, pre-programs are not mailed to you. You access the pre-convention program online. If you are interested, you can find this year’s program here: IRA’s Online Program for the 55th Annual Convention. Even with the online program, I still create a spreadsheet of my IRA itinerary with the same pertinent information. I cut and paste the information of the sessions I want to attend. I also still do some Internet research on the presenters and their work. Once I receive my phone book size program at the registration booth, I also still study it nightly to be sure I have selected the session I really want to attend. This is important because there can be cancellations and additions to the program on a daily basis.

After planning the IRA convention, I normally plan some local sightseeing in a similar fashion. There are usually sessions between 8:00 am and 4:00 to 5:00 pm. I plan my sightseeing activities after these hours. My husband usually attends with me and sometimes we go early so that we can have a full day of sightseeing. Walking around the convention center all day and being intellectually stimulated is exhausting, so I take that into consideration as I plan. We love that the conventions are held in different cities each year. I have strengthened my geographical sense of the world and have seen many great places that I otherwise would not have seen. One of the most memorable events for me was going to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home in Atlanta, Georgia.

photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth home

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birth Home

Although I put in many hours of planning and they can be exhausting, the IRA conventions are often a highlight of my year. The highlights are getting even better now because I have been having in-depth conversations with the researchers whose work I greatly admire. In addition, I finally went to the Poetry Olio and Informal Storytelling events last year and they were fabulous! I am really looking forward to them this year.

If you have been to an International Reading Association convention, I hope you will share your experiences in the comments below. If you have not been to an IRA convention, have you attended your local or state reading association conferences? The convention I wrote the article about was being held in Atlanta, Georgia. Here it is:

Georgia on My Mind

It’s almost time for the International Reading Association’s (I.R.A.) annual convention. If Georgia is not currently on your mind, let me tell you why it should be.

I’ve been to three I.R.A. conventions so far: the 49th in Reno, the 51st in Chicago, and the 52nd in Toronto. Before attending my first one, I was in the master’s program in reading through California State University, Fullerton. In one of my courses that semester, we were studying Marilyn Jager Adams’ Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (1990). My professor found out that I would be at an all-day Institute with Dr. Adams and she challenged the class to come up with some questions for me to ask her.

I was petrified at the thought of approaching one of the most influential researchers in the field of reading. However, during a break in the Institute, I noticed that Dr. Adams was sitting all by herself. So, I gathered up some courage and approached her. Surprisingly, she was easy to talk with and seemed genuinely interested in my questions. I can’t tell you how elated I felt! Little old me chatting with Marilyn Jager Adams! Unbelievable!

As the week went on, I realized that the presenters often stood around by themselves (looking bored) waiting for their session to start. I learned that this time was the perfect opportunity to ask my most pressing questions to the researchers who would soon speak. So, at my first convention, I also posed questions to: Ken Goodman, Patricia Cunningham, Irene Fountas, and Gay Su Pinnell.

During the next two I.R.A. conventions, I also chatted with several very important researchers: Elfrieda Hiebert, P. David Pearson, Nell Duke, Tim Rasinski, S. Jay Samuels, Catherine Snow, Frank Smith, Usha Goswami, John Guthrie, Andrew Biemiller, Taffy Raphael, and others.

In addition, I’ve had the great opportunity to hear the thoughts and reflections of: Marie Clay, Regie Routman, Richard C. Anderson, Richard Allington, Michael Pressley, Isabelle Beck, Margaret McKeown, Cris Tovani, Richard Gentry, Michael Graves, Edward Fry, and others. Now when I run across their names in the books and articles I read, I can put a face with their words. Very powerful!

I’ve also heard inspirational and memorable speeches by: Henry Winkler, Jonathan Kozol, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Debra Winger, Dawn Anna, and Sharon Robinson.

A great thing about going to the convention is talking with “regular” people who are passionate about teaching reading. It is interesting to learn what is being done in other parts of the world.

You can obtain autographs of very famous writers. My favorite author experience is giggling with Bruce Lansky and Robert Pottle in Toronto. (See www.gigglepoetry.com). We sang some of their poems in the middle of the exhibition area. What a treat!

In the exhibition area, the amount of available reading products is unbelievable. You could spend the entire week there. When you listen to publisher presentations, they give you good things and often, you have the chance to enter drawings for classroom kits, laptop computers, etc. (I won a $200 iPod in Chicago.)

What do I learn from these conventions? I learn about new research; new ideas for the classroom; concept clarification; great websites; additional resources; and new products among other things. It is intellectually stimulating and completely invigorating, I tell you! So, is Georgia on your mind now? I hope so!

Note: If you have taken the time to read this, would you please take a second to click on the stars below to rate this post on a scale of 1 to 10? Thanks a bunch–I always appreciate feedback. In addition, if you like a comment, I encourage you to click on the “Like” button so the “Sort by” drop-down menu will be useful. Thanks again and happy TWRCing! :)

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  • http://beginningreadinghelp.blogspot.com/ Michelle Breum

    It sounds exciting. I'm definately thinking about next year. Does it usually happen in April? It would be fun to meet you and hang out a little if I go to next year's conference.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    It really is exciting and I look forward to them every year. Someday I hope to make it to the World Congress of Reading which happens once every two years. This year it is in New Zealand in July. The IRA conventions usually take place during the first week of May and seems to coincide with standardized testing time in California. I would definitely love to meet up with you at the next one. :D (It's in Florida.)

  • http://twitter.com/#!/heyleeann LeeAnn

    I would so love to go. It would be a great opportunity to meet you as well! Unfortunately, coming so closely on the heels of MRA makes it very difficult. Hopefully your post can get more people interested.

    I know that many administrators would love to be able to send teachers to good conferences. Often, their hands are tied not necessarily because there is no money, but often because professional development money has to be earmarked when a budget is submitted. I know that in Michigan, the powers at the state level that approve school budgets often frown upon spending money on one-shot conferences. It really is a shame, especially in districts that have literacy or instructional coaches who can gain new ideas and strategies from such conferences that they can then pass on to teachers in their building.

    Anyway, you have a great time and tweet and blog the good stuff for us!

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    You know I would love to meet you in person! Someday. Someday. I really enjoyed all the tweets coming from the Michigan Reading Association. I almost felt like I was there. Unfortunately, I do not have Internet access on my phone, so I will not be sending out live tweets. :( Yes, we need to get more educators to go to IRA conventions… and to join Twitter, too! :)

    I know that schools receiving Title I money can use it to send their teachers to conferences. I wonder how many chose to do so. I also wonder why districts frown upon spending money on one-shot conferences as you say. I wonder if there is research showing they are less effective than other professional development. Hmmm…. Another reason I think school districts often do not pay to send their teachers to IRA conventions is because they are leery of sending them out of state. I agree, it is especially sad that schools do not pay for literacy and instructional coaches to attend.

    Thanks for the well wishes. I am not sure what I will do with my blog while I am away. I'm still TWRCing on that. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, LeeAnn! :D