To Spark a Fire

For the past three years, University School of Milwaukee’s Summer Spark innovation symposium has been the top destination for teachers who want to learn new ideas, collaborate with others, and better impact their students. Chuck Taft, 8th grade American Studies history teacher, history department chair, and Summer Spark chair, shares how the event has helped further establish USM as an educational leader.

“You really hit it out of the park!”

When keynote speaker Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a Pirate,” said that at the end of the first day of the inaugural Summer Spark, we knew we had a great thing going. In three short years, Summer Spark at USM has become a highly regarded destination for educators and administrators interested in kicking off summer with innovative professional development. The two-day symposium on innovative education, a key component of our strategic plan, brings together educators from across Wisconsin, the country, and the world. Summer Spark’s success has helped establish USM as an educational thought leader in Milwaukee and beyond.

Main 2016 keynote speaker Geroge Couros

As we began to develop Summer Spark nearly four years ago, we took some of the best ideas from other conferences and smashed them up to create ours. We bring in nationally known keynote speakers and exciting featured speakers with cutting-edge educational ideas, such as gamification, brain-based learning, innovative assessment, and teaching with graphic novels. Our breakout sessions are presented by USM faculty and other educators from across the country, and hands-on workshops offer active and collaborative learning amongst attendees. We also include two “unconference” sessions, where participants pitch their own ideas to discuss and share. Finally, we integrate as much fun, socialization, and interaction amongst the participants as we can. An awesome raffle of innovative and tech-oriented teacher tools doesn’t hurt either!


Kristin Kochheiser @mrskochheiser: Best summer experience so far was attending #USMSpark. Feeling excited to try new engaging strategies! Beyond that… poolside! #sstlap


What has Summer Spark done for the most important people involved—our students? Simple. They are experiencing more innovative teaching methods, utilizing engaging technology platforms, and in some cases, working with students from across the United States and the world. I have heard multiple comments from USM teachers who are integrating ideas from Summer Spark, such as using Google slides to collaborate on an algebra problem, building representations of global culture out of LEGOs, and making changes in assessment practices to offer more authentic feedback to students. “Sparkers” from outside USM share many similar examples on social media as well.


Brit Francis @united008: I am so honored to be connecting with so many fantastic educators because of #USMSpark. Let the learning and collaboration continue!


A hallmark of Summer Spark is its appeal to a wide audience. While some sessions may be geared toward a certain level of learner, presentations overwhelmingly target a broad base of educators from all disciplines and grade levels. High school instructors learn next to preprimary teachers, college professors chat with middle school teachers to improve their craft, and public, parochial, and independent school educators open up a dialogue of what works best in engaging and teaching kids of all ages.

One of the best benefits of Summer Spark has been the professional connections developed among the participants. These connections last well beyond the two days on campus. Relationships have been fostered amount the attendees and continue through social media and other professional conferences. Educators collaborate and share beyond the conference, and also look forward to seeing each other the next year. It’s amazing how Twitter has increased our ability to communicate (or using the Summer Spark term, “connectate”).


Jessica Walker @jwalkerscience: I was #inspired at #USMSpark to do my #inquiryproject for my #mastersdegree on #honeybees


I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the support that has made this symposium what it is. Summer Spark would not be possible without the very generous support from the Board of Trustees, USM’s “Think Big” professional development funding, and the administration and faculty in all three divisions. With everyone pulling in the same direction, and working toward the same goals, it has been a tremendous success.

What does the future of Summer Spark hold? Hopefully more offerings for innovative professional development and an even greater presence for USM as an incredible institution of learning. We will continue to enhance our two-day conference, and would like to have smaller targeted professional development experiences during the summer and school year. Our driving force is bringing great educators together to enhance our ability to succeed in our ultimate charge—educating the students who are our future!

By the Numbers

Since the beginning in 2015, Summer Spark has seen…

  • 744 attendees
  • 5 countries represented
  • 266 sessions
  • 202 schools represented

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