Friday, August 31, 2007

Attending Closing the Gap like a Pro 2007

Welcome to My Point of View…..

WOW, look what time of year it is again. I know every one is gearing up for the school year 2007-2008 which also means that we are also anticipating the first conference of the season. Last year, I wrote “How to attend CTG like a Pro”. I have been asked by a few people to re-send out the information from last year. However, I am taking a leap of faith and stepping into the area of blogging to share this information. I am updating the information and adding a few helpful tools for people that are attending. So please be patient. This is going to be a long post.

Every year there are new people entering the field of assistive technology for personal reasons or because the job was thrust upon them. Closing the Gap is the first conference of the conference season for professional development for beginners, intermediate and advance AT specialist. Closing the Gap happens every year at the same time of year, same state, same hotel. This is very convenient for planning purposes. You can always anticipate when it will happen

Where: Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: Pre-conference: October 16-17th Conference: October 18-20th

No matter if you are a newbie or an old pro attending the conference, it is an exciting time. It happens at the time of year when you have to get your head into the game for training, implementing, evaluating and thinking of the students we are working with or will be working with. The conference is an awesome conference to attend and learn about the technology and how others have used a strategy or tool.

If you are attending the conference for the first time or you are a pro, it is or can be an overwhelming experience especially when you start to read the website ( for the list of workshop opportunities and exhibitors that will be attending.

The experience is a jumble of feelings. You feel excited (when you are approved to attend), panic (especially when you find out that the school hasn’t paid the bill to CTG or the hotel can’t find your reservation), anxiety (when you realize your bag was left in the last hall you were in which is on the other side of the hotel) and shear exhaustion (when you had to run from conference to conference hall). Just remember that you are not alone. You are in a community that is feeling the same thing as you are.

Every year, Closing the Gap offers some of the best presentations and presenters that you will ever have a chance to hear. You have access to presenters that are the experts in their field. They return to the conference every year so they can share their knowledge and experiences but also to learn from others. Closing the gap is about energizing your batteries for the school year. It is about motivating you to push further than you did the year before for the children and adults we serve.

There are 200 or so presentations in a 3 day period it is suggested that you develop a game plan. I personally find it is important to develop a plan because there is no way you are going to be able to attend all the workshops you want or need. Planning is the only way that you will be able to cover all your bases in just period of time. To be honest, if you don’t do some planning you are going to be running around the conference floor like you have just landed late for a connecting plane and you landed in Gate A and your connecting plane is in Gate F. No matter how much you rush and run, you will still miss the plane.

Devising the PLAN

I admit it, I like planning. I like details and crave order when I am going somewhere. There are people that are spontaneous and can function with great ease. I on the other plan like to see everything mapped out and organized. For me, it decreases the anxiety that I feel when I am spending someone else’s money. I want to make sure I that I use my time wisely, get everything that I need and want from the conference. I also want to make sure that I didn't overlook something. Just because I like to plan doesn't mean that I don't swerve from the plan. Best laid plans are doomed to fail.

Typically if you work for an agency or a school district you are going to be attending with at least 1 other co-worker. Although each of your may have your own interest (Voice Recognition) and needs there is a common thread that both need to cover for the cooperative group. I suggest that you devise a plan of attack that best supports your parents, teachers and your own needs. The first step is visiting the Closing the Gap website. Look at the name of the presentations and presenters. DO NOT shy away from names you don’t know. Sometimes they are the best presentations. After you have an idea of the presentations and exhibitors start to think about the students, staff and parents you need to support.

There are many ways that you can do it. For me, I found it helpful to use index cards one index card for each student that I am currently working with. The index card has the students name, school, and needs listed. Before the conference I will visit or call the staff, parents and student and ask questions that help me understand their concerns for the coming school year. Such as (standardized testing, alterative assessments, transition, life skills, etc).Not only does this help give me a purpose when selecting workshops, exhibitors but it also opens dialogue about the parent and professional fears, expectations and hopes for outcomes. The other benefit of having these conversations is that between the list servs and the conferences I can begin to brainstorm and problem solve some ideas. I make my index cards on the computer in MS Word. I try not to write unless I have too. I have more control in word then I do with handwriting. I can fit more on the card, color code, and create a table for organization. Below is the color coding I use for the index card system.

  • Yellow: Access
  • Purple: Communication
  • Blue: Vision
  • Green: Writing
  • Pink: Reading

A second method that is helpful is breaking things down into categories for the exhibitor hall or workshops. I love check list. I have uploaded my divide and conquer worksheet that you use.

Technology that is currently in place. Are there any presentations that will help you implement these tools in a more consistent way or maybe even begin using this tool that has been collecting dust?

Train the trainer: We are often in charge of training teachers and parents. These sessions give helpful tips to others.

Data: Yes, that is the four letter word that we all hate to hear. But it is becoming more important by the day.

AAC implementation: It is an area that so much information and training is being offered especially around writing, reading and communication beyond choice making.

Reading: How technology can support reading for all and showing how TTS can be used for more than auditory comprehension.

Math: Is there any presentations or exhibitors that are going to talk about math. We think that mechanical writing has gone to the wayside but wow have you looked for math solutions.

Science and History: Every child that is part of an inclusion setting happens to be placed in these two subjects yet we have so little AT that supports these areas.

Access: There is always something new and exciting. There are some great workshops on two switch scanning and alterative access methods.

Now you don’t have to have a game plan. You can flutter around like a butterfly looking for its next meal but honestly to get the most out of this conference or any other large conference the inside secret is: planning. With all the excellent workshops that are happening you can’t be in all the workshops and exhibitors you want to see, there is no way it is going to happen in the 24 hours. So devise that plan, conspire with co-workers or friends that you have made on the list serv to cover as many of the workshops as possible. A network is an excellent source of information. It also gives you a reason to head to the bar (shhh) at the end of the long day.

How to make it a great conference experience

Comfortable clothing and shoes. You are going to be sitting and walking around so be comfortable.

Bring a sweater for the rooms. It is hit or miss, either you will be cold or hot.

LOTION: The air in the hotel is very dry. The hotel lotion smells nice but it really doesn't help with moisturising your skin.

The hotel does not have free Internet access. There is free WIFI in the lobby it is often very congested. The cost of Internet access is $4.95 per hour or $9.95 for 24 hour period. It still amazes me that hotels charge for Internet access at 3-4 star hotels. But you can stay at the Days Inn and get FREE wifi.

Understand your need. What is your area(s) that you want to gain knowledge about and enrich your professional life? What are the obstacles that you are facing at work? Who is that one student that you have tried everything and still can’t get meaningful access? All these questions and concerns can be addressed within the workshops.

Turn off the CELL PHONES or at least put it on silent mode. We are all important to someone but there is nothing worse than a cell phone going off while a person is presenting. It ruins the flow of the presentation and it distracts from the other members of the audience.(Sorry pet peeve)

Give yourself permission to have some breathing room. There are workshops that are running from 8:00am to 4:00 PM. Remember to take care of your body. Keep hydrated and nourish your body while nourishing your brain. Trust me; your body will thank you.

Bring snacks with you. The hotel often has apples near the front desk. In the past some of the exhibitors have hosted afternoon snack (Chocolate).

Although there are water stations around the conference area, consider bringing a water bottle with a lid with you. The water bottle can be filled with ice in the AM and your water is cold all day long. When you are in a packed conference room and you are stuck in middle, it is often difficult to climb over people to get to the water jug. There is also that little issue of electronics. Nothing says Pop, crackle, fizzle like liquid on electronics.

Give yourself some decompression time to digest what you have learned or seen throughout the day. A nice brisk walk in the Minnesota air is always helpful to make you come to your senses.

Know that there are some popular workshops and presenters these presentations get very crowded. Get there early if you can. Sit right up front (the presenters do not bite). Fill the room. Have a BACK – UP to your presentations. There are times that it can be standing room only. There are some rooms that you feel like you are on the New York Subway in the height of rush hour. Freebies and handouts – we all love the free things.

If a presenter is offering a freebie be considerate - take only one, if they have extra I am sure they will let you take a second on (they don’t want to have to carry it home it was enough to get it to the conference). However, if the presentation is packed the people in the back of the room often leave empty handed. If the presenter is organized which many are, CTG post handouts on the website after the conference! It is important to remember is that the presenters pay for all materials that are being shared. The cost of a handout can vary greatly. Many of the presenters will tell you that you can burn your own copy of a CD or photocopy a handout, or even email them and they will send you the file.

Be patient and generous with the presenters. It is not easy getting in front of a group of your peers and sharing information. There is bound to be a technical clique or misplaced item. Just roll with it. Offer constructive feedback and don’t fault a presenter for technology issues or an off beat moment (we have all had issues that we wish never happened). The feedback presenters get helps them improve their skills as well as new ideas for presentations.

Be considerate of the presenter’s time. Often the workshops run back to back and the presenters need to pack up and move out. Most presenters have a few minutes for questions and autographs. But if you want a lengthy explanation or conversation ask if you can talk to them after they packed up, can you meet with them later (before the bar) or email them your question.

The elevators at the end of the day especially when the exhibitor hall closes are a utter nightmare. Everyone rushes to the elevators. There are three that hundreds of people are trying to cram into. I have a few suggestions:

  • DO NOT try to take the stairs the fire doors do not open when you are going up. So you might make it to the 5th floor to have to turn around and come back down the 5 flights. After the first time, I haven’t tried it again, so this may have changed.
  • Go down stairs and chill at the Navigator for about 20-30 minutes. It will be well worth the wait. You won’t be crammed into an overcrowded elevator and you won't be stressed that you have to wait so long for an elevator.

Surviving the Exhibitor Hall

The Exhibitor hall is the AT fantasy land. This is like the Willie Wonka Factory, at every turn there is something more exciting to look at and try. There are 3 large rooms and 3-4 suites with a handful of Exhibitors. The entrance room is a small room as soon as you come through the security station (Mayer-Johnson as soon as you walk in). Then the main hall is the big names that we all know and love (Able Net, Don Johnston, and SoftTouch). This is also the hall that you will find me at the JudyLynn software booth. The hall opens up Wed night and is open all day Thursday through Saturday. Please remember that some of the Exhibitors might have moved from their well known location to new locations so get that map out.

Survival Plan

Make time for the Exhibitors. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Hearing about a product or seeing it in a workshop isn’t the same as having a demo and trying it out for you. The exhibitors get excited to show off their new products. They also like to make new friends and catch up with old friends.

DO NOT forget your name badge. If you are not wearing it, you will not be able to enter the Exhibitor hall.

Although the exhibitor hall is wonderful at all times, the best time is in the morning. Typically everyone is in workshops. But if you want some quality time with the exhibitors, it is a wonderful time to visit. It is also helpful if you bring coffee or tea to them. (Just joking, I prefer water).

Look at the map and names of the Exhibitors on the website. Check the company websites or catalogs. Because you should …….

Make a list and check it twice of the exhibitors. I suggest three columns. First column need to spend some time with the exhibitor (need to try something, trouble shoot, ask questions), want to see what is new, and third I have to see what is new but let me at least get a catalog.

Wednesday is preview night in the hall. This is your practice run. Get a feel for the rooms and make sure you highlight in your book where your favorite Exhibitors are.

Remember there are several Exhibitors that have show times where they are doing small to medium presentations, they have drawings but you need to be there to win. So if you want to spend time in the vending hall plan for the show times. Typically the shows last about 30 minutes and are a wealth of information.

When you are in the exhibitor hall – don’t be afraid to make eye contact with the exhibitors. We may smile, say hi, but we will not kidnap you and hold you hostage.

Now catalogs. I personally have a love hate relationship with catalogs. I like to have them so I can take a catalog is because when I am in the quiet of my room, I can flip through the catalog flag it and then return to the exhibitor hall to ask questions or get specific information on what I flagged. But I hate bringing them all home. They add so much weight to my luggage. The key is to bring a small carry on suitcase that you can use as checked luggage on the way home. I have also been known to mail the catalogs home cost varies $25 while over weight luggage is $50 and up. Remember the smaller companies when in the vending hall. Many are doing great things that often get overlooked for the bigger exhibitors. But these smaller companies will surprise you.

Bring cash – credit cards – PO’s -checks or deed to home (JUST KIDDING). Many of the Exhibitors in the hall have great deals for the conference. If your employer allows you to purchase things, it is a great time to get more for your buck.

At times, the exhibitor hall gets really crowded. It can be like the mall at holiday time all of a sudden you are swept up by the crowd. If you are with a group of people, have a meeting spot. It can be a booth, the registration area, the bar (shhh). But this way you don’t get frustrated when you are swept away in the tide of people.

Things to Bring

Warning --- this is a my moment of insane organization and the need to be prepared for anything.

Labels with your contact information when make the many visits to the Exhibitor hall so much easier. It beats writing your name 100 times a day. One the label have the below information.

  • Name
  • Address
  • Email Address
Business cards for the contacts you meet. The amount will vary but typically 100 will do you just fine unless you are super friendly. If you don’t have business cards, get friendly with your MS Word and Avery business cards. You can also get 250 free cards from (Order ASAP).

Highlight marker – I typically bring 2 colors. One color for my first choice workshop and the second for my backup workshop.

A felt tip pen – they rarely run out of ink, you can take notes while moving, and take very little effort to write. If you forget a pen don't stress ..... this is a conference.... you can get your pen supply for the year.

A backpack or large canvas bag to toss over your shoulder to collect all the goodies that are given out. Now, if you have something on wheels, be friendly to others keep them close and out of the aisles. It is always best to remember that it should fit under a standard chair.

A small handbag just for the essentials (credit card- cash). The small bag is great because you are not lugging two large bags around that weight a ton. You are also less likely to loss or leave behind.

A camera is good item to bring but if your cell phone has this option one less thing to pack. Please remember if you are going to take pictures of presenter’s displays, ask for permission. Also make sure that you stay in the same area that the presenter is in. The change over of the rooms from presenter to presenter is a killer.

An expandable file. This is just anal me. When I get back to the hotel room I sort presentation hand outs with my notes, special offer flyers and so forth. A clipboard or a hard surface to lean on. You will not have a writing surface in most of the presentations and you may not be lucky to get a seat.

Clipboards are lightweight, easy to manage. I like the clipboard cases with folders. OK again – anal me. But this way all my handouts are inside the clipboard nice and neat less risk of me spilling or losing the item.

Post it notes or flags – helps you keep track of important information to share or look later with your co-workers. Ex. When a presenter shows a piece of software or suggest a booth to visit, flag it, this way it is easy to spot. Again anal me.

Again this is just me and avoiding over weight luggage – sometimes it is easier to UPS the catalogs and items you purchase than lug them back. I especially like mailing the software this way. It doesn’t get lost or broken in my luggage. I think the most I have spent is $25 to UPS materials home. Overweight luggage can cost you as little as $50 and up.

Bring a lanyard to stick your name badge on. Nothing is more annoying that losing your badge, ruining a piece of clothing or not knowing where to put the badge. CTG personnel check the name tag at the EXHIBITOR DOOR. No name tag, no entrance to the wonderland.
When traveling – make a copy of your credit cards back and front. This way if you misplace your credit card or it gets stolen, you can make a phone call to the company or companies.

Where to Eat

In the Hotel

  • Nine Mile Grill (KAFFESTUGA RESTAURANT): Is the main restaurant in the hotel. The prices are a tad on the high end and the food is good. If you are planning to eat before the conference get down there early. It starts getting busy around 7:30.
  • Plaza Java: Great for good coffee and light breakfast items. The line gets long but moves.
  • Navigator's Lounge: Bar food and it is actually really good. Great for a late night snack.

Food Court:

The hotel has a light continental breakfast and sandwiches for lunch it is located near the Lounge and pool. The prices are reasonable and the food is good. Recommend getting there early also. The food goes well.

Outside the Hotel within Walking Distance
  • Burger King this is outside (door near the Plaza Java)
  • TGI Friday’s (out the back doors near Concierge Services)
  • D Q Grill & Chill
  • Embers America Pannekoeken (door near the Plaza Java)
  • Eddington's (Soup and Salad) (door near the Plaza Java)
  • Chili's Grill & Bar (directions)
  • Cheetah Pizza
  • Subway Sandwiches & Salads (door near the Plaza Java)
  • Caribou Coffee (door near the Plaza Java) (WIFI Available)

Need to take Taxi or Car (all less then a mile)

  • Billabong Aussie Grill & Pub
  • Tony Roma's
  • Olive Garden Italian Restaurant
  • Restaurants at the Mall of America (directory of stores and food)