Wanna Present at a Conference? Answer Three Questions in Your Proposal

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Conferences, especially when we get back to in-person, are exciting spaces. You’ll meet hundreds, even thousands of people who are passionate about the same things you are. 

When teachers get together at a conference such as the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, or any number of other teacher conferences, the energy is palpable. You can literally hear and often feel (on a stairwell handrail, for example) the buzz of engaged activity. 

At any time at a large conference there are dozens of activities to choose from, including:

  • presentations on new ways to teach or assess students, 
  • opportunities to meet famous authors one-on-one, 
  • gatheringers of hundreds of conference goers as they hear from famous speakers in plenary sessions, and 
  • a chance to have coffee or a meal or drinks with new colleagues from across the country.

I often leave conferences with a unique balance of exhaustion and ambition, all of which is remarkably fun and professionally energizing. From no other event, am I so inspired to be the best teacher I can be. 

The best conference experience, however, is when you also have an opportunity to present your own work, whether it be a new text you’ve tried teaching, or a new way to engage students in literacy, or a chance to creative colleagues together whom you just know other teachers would learn a great deal from in a collaborative panel.

The first step to presenting is getting your proposal accepted. Proposals are usually short, up to 500 words (often less), and to be accepted they must be concise, engaging (after all this is a sample of what you can bring to the table), and they must confirm for the proposal reviewers that your session is worth a coveted slot on the conference program. 

To have the best chance of being accepted, you’ll want to make sure that your proposal answers the following three questions.

Three Questions Your Proposal Must Answer

Reviewers want to accept your proposal with confidence that the attendees will find your presentation valuable. Here’s some information you’ll really want to include.

  1. What Will You Actually Present? Really.

Some proposals make promises rather than give specific information. For example, a proposer might say, “I will discuss several important new texts and explain how teachers can approach them in a way that students will enjoy and that will meet state standards.”

Well that’s a great idea, if the texts are really good and if your approach is good and unusual in some way. But how do the presenters know that what you will present will be any good? They don’t. Unless you give specific examples. 

In the proposal above, naming the texts would help, but so would giving some information about the approach you will take. The writer would be better served naming the texts and saying something like, “I will present [book title], and I will share worksheets I have used with my students that use reader response strategies combined with culturally responsive techniques suggested by Geneva Gay in her 2018 book, Culturally Responsive Teaching.” 

More specificity helps to ensure that the reviewers will BELIEVE YOU when you say that what you are presenting will be thoughtful and useful to teachers in your audience. When you make a promise without specificity, you are asking the reviewers to simply take your word for it. Most won’t. (Note: I have been a proposal reviewer for many conferences over the past 25 years.)

  1. Who Are You to Present This Work?

It’s nothing against you, but your proposal reviewers don’t know anything about you. Who are you? What is your experience? And, why should they trust you to give a useful, ethical, professional presentation? Just being a teacher is not enough.

How long have you been teaching? What level is your presentation aimed at? Do you have any special experience or relevance to the proposal? 

If you are presenting information on antiracist teaching, how do we know that you aren’t a 20-year veteran white teacher who has always worked in an all-white district, and you are going to present a bad version of some work you adapted from a poorly presented PD seminar you attended? How do we know that you won’t present something racist that you mistakenly think is ok, like suggesting a slave auction, or asking students to pretend to think like a nazi, or some other horrifically ill-advised lesson? We don’t know what you’ll present, unless you tell us more about who you are and why you are someone who has genuinely valuable knowledge to share. So make sure you tell reviewers that in your proposal.

If you are going to present something about grammar, which is quite a controversial topic, make sure you state why you would have something to say that is useful, and not just the same-old, some-old blather about making grammar lessons fun–even though they don’t actually serve any education purpose (unless your students are planning to become professional linguists).

In other words, convince the reviewers that you are experienced, knowledgeable, and that you have something unique to share. It doesn’t have to be perfect or Earth-shattering in its importance. But it should be worth the time you’ll take from busy teachers.

  1. Are You Familiar with Other Approaches to the Work You Are Presenting, Or Might You Just Repeat What Everyone Else Already Knows? 

Proposal reviewers will also look to see if you know about the field’s national conversation on the topic you are proposing. Have you looked at a few recent journal articles on the topic, whether or not you agree with them? Do you understand what the major controversies are regarding the authors you want to talk about? Do you know that not everyone loves rubrics, and your audience will know that if you don’t know that, they’ll dismiss your advice about them? Are you planning to talk about something that you don’t really know all that much about?

These are the kinds of questions that proposal reviewers will have as they read yours. To be successful, you want to assure the readers that you know what you are talking about. You can do this by briefly mentioning nationally-known figures who have raised points about the topic. Or, you can present a counterargument to presentations you’ve seen in the past.

However you do it, you must ensure that your reviewers will see you as someone who is aware enough of a field-wide conversation on the topic that they will trust you to give a knowledgeable session at the conference. 

The Joy of Acceptance

Virtually every conference acceptance begins with the word Congratulations!  Is it most apt because it is not easy to have a proposal accepted. When you are accepted, your peers are telling you that you have something valuable to contribute and they want to give you one of their precious time slots for you to share it. That’s a tremendous compliment.

Make it easy for proposal reviewers to see the true quality of your proposal by including answers to the three questions above. If you do that, you’ll help your reviewers help you to earn a space on the program. Good luck! 

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