By Linda Donaghue
WHITINGHAM- On a steamy weekend in mid-July, over 1,100 students, teachers, administrators and staff gathered in Orlando, FL, at the Shingle Creek Resort, a massive, Spanish-style hotel and event destination. They were there to participate in the Josten’s Renaissance Conference.
I was part of the Twin Valley High School contingent, along with principal Bob Morse, vice-principal Vicky Lynde, guidance counselor Denise Piffard, middle school principal Keith Lyman, school board member Phil Taylor, teachers Terri Lathe, Christy Abraham, and students Dal Nesbith, Eli Park, Jordan LaBonte, Christine Reilly, and graduate Elizabeth Aekus.
Some of us (all right, me) had really no clue what this was going to be about, although I should have, being aware of the activities Bob Morse brought to the building from his previous tenure at Keene High School. I have to admit being a bit suspicious of Josten’s sponsorship as they are first a business, and was this splashy “Up With People”-style extravaganza going to be a vehicle to sell themselves? Yes and no.
Yes, this was Josten’s show and they did it up big and they did it up well. It can’t be a simple task to plan two-and-a-half days of programming, feeding, watering, and entertaining 1,100 people, half of them teenagers with enough raw energy to power your average metropolis.
Anyone who has been to a professional development conference, whether public or private sector, knows that the key to success is the quality of the presenter and the presentation. You will forget the meals, you will forget the hotel rooms, you’ll even forget the grueling airport-hopping and seven hours in transit. What you will remember is the speaker who is passionate about the subject; who has fresh, usable ideas; who uses humor to engage the audience; who keeps you awake and interested.
For the most part, we were impressed. The students were really impressed with the opening session that had no speeches but instead a rock concert by a group called Parachute. The kids were star-struck. The adults were asking each other: who’s Parachute? Still, an impressive start to a conference aimed at reshaping school culture to focus on student welfare and success.
Renaissance has been Josten’s nonprofit venture for over 20 years. It is designed to be a student-run operation that promotes and recognizes student achievement, primarily academic, but in other areas of student life as well, such as performing arts and athletics. Renaissance leadership groups develop activities to welcome, foster, and encourage kids in the community of school. For example, on ninth-grade orientation day at Twin Valley last September, faculty lined both sides of a red carpet and applauded the stunned new students on the first day of school. There are many other small and not so small ways to celebrate kids and their mentors, both teachers and staff. That appears to be the general theme: Establish relationships, demonstrate a true interest in the child’s life and future, and that child will respond.
This was my first Josten’s conference and my first year observing Renaissance in action. I am no expert but I liked what I heard. As presenter Todd Whitaker told us, “You need to love what you do in education or go do something else because kids will know.” And it was hard not to like a great venue, solid presentations, and certainly not least, they threw in Epcot. So all 1,100 of us were bused to the Disney Park, given gift cards for dinner, and four hours to wander the rides and mini-countries.
The banquet and awards ceremony was attended by Medal of Honor recipients Cols Jack Jacobs and Hal Fritz, who assisted with honoring Renaissance coordinators and Hall of Famers. While it may seem much more appropriate to honor these military heroes, they themselves made the connections to adults who are committed to protect and even save kids.
Our students were no less impressed than we were and already making plans for the coming school year.
If one chooses to spend a sultry weekend in humid, often rain-soaked central Florida, the reason should be something special. For us, Renaissance is something special: an unabashed celebration of each child and the village of educators who love first, then teach.
Lyman said of the experience, “I am so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend such quality time with our awesome students and staff! I leave with great enthusiasm and knowledge to share with our school. It is my hope we can expand the Renaissance program in our schools so everyone can benefit from the ideas and positivity that we have gained.”
School board member Phil Taylor commented, “Essentially what Renaissance is all about is creating a climate within the school that brings passion to learning and the learning environment. It’s about making a school the place where kids want to be. I think if you create a passionate environment that passion takes root in our students’ desire to learn, create, and strive for excellence.”