EdCamp: Do It Yourself Professional Development

The unconference is targeted, personalized professional development at its best.

By: Brian Cook


It's three o'clock in the afternoon on a contractually required professional development meeting day and teachers are beginning to shuffle into a session offered by their school district. The presenter is passionate about a new instructional approach using some form of cutting-edge technology. Some attendees are genuinely interested, but a larger number wish they were out on the golf course.

After teachers sign the attendance sheet and settle into their seats, the presenter displays strategies to approach different learners with her newly acquired technology tool. Over the next 90 minutes, she shares how she integrates it into her classroom routines and assures everyone they could do the same.

Near the end of the session, many in attendance are checking their phones, eager to head off to their evening activities. At the conclusion, the teachers stand, thank the presenter for a job well done, and hurry out, feeling no more educated than they did two hours earlier.

Sound familiar? The scenario unfolds too often in too many school districts across the nation. Despite the research that tells us students and adults learn in different ways and often more effectively with hands-on activities, teachers find themselves sitting through one-size-fits all professional learning workshops.

Continually feeding an educator's desire for professional learning is fundamental to promoting student achievement and growing a teacher's instructional capacity. A new model of professional learning is needed—and that new model is the unconference—EdCamp.

Shift in Thinking

Over 200 educators informally collaborated and offered their expertise during the inaugural Ed Camp Maryland unconference in Baltimore. This is the final schedule board created and self-organized by the participants.
Unlike professional learning conferences or school district-required professional development, the EdCamp model is designed to meet the specific needs of the educators in attendance. Traditional conferences offer a set schedule with specific topics and presenters. The EdCamp model is the opposite. Without a predetermined list of sessions, topics are determined collaboratively on the day of the event—by the participants themselves.

Consequently, educators having conversations with one another around their own chosen topics dominate EdCamps. This unique model allows every participant's voice and expertise to be part of the conversation. Everyone is actively participating in a tailor-made peer learning, sharing expertise and growing their own instructional craft.

Built on the principle of connecting educators and participatory learning, EdCamps strive to bring educators together to share their interests and passions on topics that matter to them. Therefore, participants could lead a session about their level of expertise or sit back and learn in areas where they seek knowledge. Together, participants are collaboratively growing their knowledge base with others who are working actively in the trenches with students.

How It Works

Upon entering EdCamp, participants locate the scheduling board and place an index card, sticky note, or some other tag under a topic about which they wish to present or learn more. Sessions may vary from conversations about specific education topics to sharing successful instructional strategies.

Technology continues to be a major component of learning and it was no different at Ed Camp Philly. Here is one participant learning to make a joystick our of wires, coins, and a banana. The popular technology tool is known as a Makey Makey.
Then, participants grab a coffee, introduce themselves to someone new, and get the wireless password. Technology is usually a major part of EdCamp; having a personal device is a huge benefit. Participants may want to explore some of the tools being shared or interact with the presentations or the presenters. More often than not, participants want to jot down notes and follow other educators on some form of social media to keep the collaboration going after the conference ends.

When the schedule board closes, a finalized schedule is dispersed among the attendees—visually and electronically. As sessions get underway, attendees are encouraged to seek out and actively participate in discussions. If they determine a session they select will not be useful, they move to another session. It's an understood EdCamp rule that participants are there to learn, and if learning is not happening, they are encouraged to move to a session that better fits their needs.

Creating and tinkering to educators at Ed Camp STEAM located in North Brunswick, New Jersey. This educator is tinkering with a new piece of technology.
Many EdCamps include a Smack Down Session. This is a 60-second opportunity when all EdCamp attendees are gathered together, at lunch, for example, for each person to share one unique tool or activity that has been successful in his or her own classroom.

Prior to stepping up to the microphone, the participant shares the website of the tool or activity to be presented with a tech person who is sitting at the main computer. The tech projects the information on the screen as the presenter takes the microphone. The tech keeps a running list of all items shared in a document or in the cloud, and makes it available to everyone during the conference.

One of the most exciting things about EdCamps is that there is no registration fee! There are some administrative costs for the planning team (office supplies, venue, wireless connections, etc.). Those costs are not passed on to the attendees, which does mean that the conferences may not offer the bells and whistles of traditional conferences. Having said that, the focus stays on educators learning. Many EdCamps do offer free lunch and door prizes.

Become a Connected Educator

Connected educators love learning, are hungry to fill their own learning needs, and scrounge and hunt for wisdom from other educators regardless of the time or place. They recognize the best teachers are those who have faced and overcome similar challenges.

If you are one of those educators who constantly checks the time on your phone at professional development sessions and feel frustrated with the one-size-fits all approach, I encourage you to attend one of the EdCamps that are popping up around the United States. Find out more at the EdCamp Foundation Wikispace: edcamp.wikispaces.com.


Brian Cook, a language arts teacher with Worcester County Public Schools in Maryland, is on the organization team for EdCamp Maryland, a free education "unconference" sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education's Professional Learning branch.
briancookeducator@gmail.com
@drbriancook

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2016.

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