Denali. Because its Truth is undeniable.
First, the normal disclaimers.I write this in my own voice and represent only myself; I do not speak for my district, my school, my employers, etc., etc. Second, I do not work for, nor really with, Flocabulary, though that latter statement will be soon rectified for the reasons stated henceforth. Third, my attempt to truly capture the moments detailed below will surely fall short of my intentions, for art is art and inspiration is inspiration, and the after-recollection necessarily fails to adequately recreate either. Onward.

People keep asking me about ISTE 2018, and, all apologies to every speaker that I saw and expo booth that I visited, only one thing ever comes out of my mouth. I speak — nay, I preach — about the magic of Flocabulary’s event at Reggie’s.

Why? Because the mission, the authentic heart, of this company was on full display, and I challenge any other company in the education space to battle it. Instead of spending dollars on booth space and hawking for attention, Flocabulary threw a three-hour concert that spoke loudly to the issues largely missing from much of the conference rooms: youth voice, racism, immigrant struggle, gender politics, sexism, violence, inequality, and injustice. In language that was real, authentic, uncensored, and unashamed, those in attendance were challenged by our community, our colleagues, and our children to leave behind tools and upgrades and newness and ideals to face, for a few moments, our present reality. It was surprising and shocking, and I still haven’t recovered.

Out of the three hours, maybe 30 minutes were spent on Flocabulary itself. Three of their artists, hot and talented musicians with their own careers, showed up and performed a track each from the site. That’s it. No commercials, no sales pitch, no discussion of pricing, no free codes, no marketing. Legit artists, who gave of their time and talent to showcase tracks on which they had already given of their time and talent. Selfless from all angles. Blimes, Fat Tony, Sammus the Rapper, thank you.

And then, the true mission of the night hit with a mind-bending pace that would not be be hidden nor silenced. Some members of Young Chicago Authors, led by Kevin Coval, hit the stage, and spoke Truth to the room full of educators with passion, fury, and insatiable talent. The first young man, Jaylen Kobayashi, spoke words about the daily struggle of neighborhood terrorism, the reality of school violence, and then, in our faces, confidently proclaimed “F-ck your funding”.

Excuse me?

As the grounded part of me rose up wanting to defend talks about budget, what students “need”, and how we generously provide it to them, the part of me made vulnerable at that moment realized he had a point. And his point was sharp. And his point was even perhaps deadly. Because his world, our students’ world, is deadly. And then I realized this night was about me being a student, not a customer nor even ISTE-attendee. Flocabulary set the stage for others to teach, and for that we should all be grateful and attentive.

He spoke his reality and there is no turning back from that voice. See a piece here:

A flooring-part-two followed, as Patricia Frazier, the National Youth Poet Laureate, graced the stage and tore it down. Again, Truth from our youth. Have we been listening? Like really listened authentically to what their experiences are, their passions are, their voices are? I heard from presenters, I heard from vendors, but no one spoke to me about student-need like the students. Take the time to watch below (rewind to the beginning, if you have the extra minutes):

Two phenomenal duos, Huey Gang and Mother Nature hit the stage, both performing with passion and positivity. They rapped of love, acceptance, peace, and light, speaking to the very youth who are battling the opposite. These are not teachers by trade or moniker, but instead they are teachers in reality. They are not paid to teach, they are made to teach. Guiding youth by example, meeting them in their own reality, and providing words along a path toward a better future, we need them. Stars who are super, not so-called superstars.

The juxtaposition of I’m-here to I’ve-been-there (both groups are alumni of the YCA program) was brilliant, as we watched a family reunion of sorts, one where every generation gets to speak. And every generation listens.

Oh, it’s not over yet.

Pause: I am not writing this free-thought post as a challenge, as a judgement, nor as a movement. Instead, I write this because I am inspired. I’m inspired by our youth, who bravely bare their voice through poetry to a roomful of tired conference attendees. I’m inspired by a company who used its dollars to offer up a stage for our youth to bravely bare. I’m inspired by those who attended who, like me, cannot stop referencing that night. And I’m inspired by the monologues, which create dialogues, around education-topics that aren’t in the limelight, though certainly they should be.

Open-mic was next, and this was not your average Don’t-Stop-Believing karaoke. These were real teachers, real administrators, real original rap, flowing about Growth Mindset, Self-Improvement, and Passion. And if that sounds corny, feast your eyes on John (again, rewind):

John, who spoke truth as a current administrator who is responsible for shaping the lives of our current youth, was a master.

Then, Toney Jackson. A teacher who shouts from the rooftops his passion for teaching. A teacher speaking to teachers about his authentic dedication and fervor for teaching. A voice we all need to hear. And that I don’t hear enough. When he dropped “We don’t do this to be rich, we do this to enrich,” I dropped. There are no words, except his own. Use the link in @techamys tweet below to view and be inspired; I know it’s an extra click, but I urge you to experience it:

I don’t mean to offend with this next statement, but I heard a lot of “I used to be a teacher…” or “When I was in the classroom…” from ISTE presenters and vendor-booths alike. I get it; we all get it. But hearing from active, in-the-trenches, I-have-students teachers was refreshing and so very inspiring. Their voices should be our voices. (I also “used to be” in the classroom, so I own that.)

As if, as if, this wasn’t the most amazing pack of talent at any event I have seen in a long, long time, the night finished up with Blimes, Fat Tony, and Sammus the Rapper performing some original, lit, powerful songs of their own. I’m not 100% sure on copyright, so I won’t post links to those performances here, but please seek them out. They are worth your support. Each of them have given of themselves to reach out to our youth, Blimes proclaiming that HipHop saved her life as a student. You won’t find a better testimonial for giving back. You won’t find better hearts than those who are choosing to give back.

And if you have ever had a student with a name that isn’t familiar to your heritage, “Spell It Out” by Sammus the Rapper (by birth, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) will change your tune about how you approach that student from now on. Her plea to “Say My Name” truly hits home. Again, do yourself that favor to go find it.

I know there are artists who I have left out, and to those I truly apologize. Flocabulary’s own Ike Ramos was himself reluctant to hit the stage (though he killed it) because, in the spirit of the night, it wasn’t about Flocabulary. And that was the point. The night was about the voices Flocabulary wanted us to hear, and I can’t put too fine a point on how inspiring that is.

So, what exactly is my point? Why I am driven to write and compile this post late at night when I should be in the haze of sleep? Because inspiration doesn’t rest, and it doesn’t come often enough. Because the education community needs to understand what happened that night. Because the EdTech space needs to understand what happened that night. Because I need to understand what happened that night.

On one hand, this post is to deeply thank a company who showed up and showed out, who put its money where its heart it, who understands the power of its voice comes from the power of others’ voices. On another hand, it’s simply to document an event that I never want to stray too far from in my memory.

This is not a challenge to other companies to try and emulate because they can’t. This is not a challenge to teachers to listen or write or perform or support because that’s not my place. But given the opportunity, I bet it could be your place.

This is a challenge to myself to recognize that with all of the glitz and distraction and self-congratulation and now-you-can-annotate and here-is-a-sticker and raffles and marketing slogans, I experienced a moment where talent, passion, authenticity, and uncensored Truth was the flashy new thing. The take-away was not lanyard, but instead it was a yardstick for self-measure. The follow-up has not been a when-can-you-meet phone call, but instead it has been a looping did-you-see-that wakeup call.

And I’m in. I’ve even begun writing my own Flocabulary-inspired rap about Computational Thinking. And it’s pretty terrible so far. But it’s my voice. And I need to hear it.

I’m out. I’m tired. Thank you for coming. Thank you for reading. Thank you to Flocabulary for setting the stage, and thank you to the artists, both professional and amateur, for taking it. Thank you.

And if you ask me about ISTE18, I’d love to tell you my authentic, life-changing, reality-resetting experience there. But I’ll let you go first. Because I am going to drop the mic. And I won’t stop talking.

Peace, Love, Light, Shanti, and Love for the ‘Go,
 — Matt

PS — Y’all in the education space, we have a lot to talk about.