In five years the big state or national convention may well be gone, a memory of a distant time. It has nothing to do with the incredible people who volunteer for or serve these organizations. It will have to do with time, speed, need, culture, and money.
I have had four conferences cancel speaking engagements this year. The reason: attendance. Districts don't have the money to send people. Publishers have no money to offer for sponsorships. A year ago a publisher I know threw a dinner for hundreds that cost 60,000 dollars; this year they are not sure they have one thousand dollars to help sponsor one of their authors who is a lead speaker at a state conference.
It's not just money, though. It's time–out of class, away from home, preparing for subs, getting caught up. Districts having no subs. So districts are increasingly pooling their resources and putting on local conferences. Salt Lake City, in conjunction with neighboring districts, puts on a great local conference every year for a week, inviting major professional authors to speak every day. Indiana does the same thing in several places. They get to ask these major speakers to focus on what they need in their schools. It's local. It's cheap. It's effective because it builds on what they are doing. It builds community: teachers are happy to go: they get paid to learn, to talk with colleagues, and can go home to be with their families at the end of the day.
What will happen if there are no more state or national conventions? They will be local, as the one in Utah. They will be hosted by regional groups like the San Diego Promising Practices conference, a local conference that draws major speakers each year. Or they will be replaced by the 24/7 environment of all-day learning available through read•write•think, webinars, or professional networks like the English Companion Ning, all of which amount to ongoing conferences with new workshops always being announced.
Because people find if more difficult or less necessary to go to the convention, the convention will have to come to them. Such learning should be a way of life, anyway, a part of one's professional culture, not an annual event they have to pay for out of their own pocket. The California Reading Association used to bring together over ten thousand teachers; this year they had about 650.
Those offering a sense of community, such as National Writing Project summer institutes, will thrive because they offer local experiences and solutions which teachers can afford to pursue.
Don't get me wrong: I don't want to see professional conventions disappear. But that's what I see happening. Those agencies and organizations who reinvent themselves will win, will be important, will exist; those who don't, who wait for a return to the days of wealth and sponsors will have a Kodak Moment, which in this case means realizing they waited too long and by the time they realized things had changed it was too late. And publishers, of course, will be left to wonder how to get an audience; so they will offer to help with these local and regional conferences, which those districts will welcome due to their own financial constraints.
In the meantime, if you can't afford to get to your state convention or don't want to wait till the next national convention, get together with members of your department to start a study group based on a professional book or visit the English Companion Ning where your colleagues are always hanging out, the door is always open, the sessions are always happening, and the ideas will always help you tomorrow.
What do you think?