Uncommon Value of the Unconference

Screenshot_5_5_13_7_19_AMAs I get older and more crotchety, I find myself walking out of more and more professional development sessions.  I’ve written in the past about the limited value that I place on traditional conferences, but it also happens in school- and district-based PD classes.  I usually just take an extended “bathroom break”, and hang out in the hallway/lobby with my iPad or laptop, seeking out better alternatives.

The reasons that I tune out are varied.  Sometimes, it’s because the PD seems aimed at those with much less experience (tech and otherwise) than I have.  Sometimes, it’s because the instructor is ignoring their own advice and using didactic and demeaning teaching methods to push content into my head.  But, often, I tune out simply because I have no interest in what is being taught.

In most cases, my favorite part of any professional development event is not the sessions themselves but the spaces between them.  These are the times and locations that my most meaningful education takes place.  I choose who to interact with and what to discuss, and I have an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a small group of my peers to explore their perspectives and share my ideas.

This is the heart of the “unconference” model that began with EdCamp Philly some years ago.  At EdCamp events, no one prepares slide decks and there is no conference program.  The attendees arrive in the morning with ideas and questions, and the schedule for the day is born from the collaborative efforts of all who attend.  The sessions are conversations that take on their own life as those in the room explore the various strands that emerge.  It’s both exciting and a bit scary, but always rewarding.

The North Carolina version of EdCamp was born in May 2012 and that iteration had some flaws.  But, this year it really took off and felt like one of the most powerful social learning experiences of my career.  Ironically, one of the best sessions was entitled “What makes PD suck?”, in which we discussed all of the same arguments that keep me from enjoying traditional professional development opportunities, as we contrasted what it often is and what we wish it could be.  How meta is a discussion during a great PD experience about why other experiences stink?  And how awesome!

I want to thank everyone who helped make this year’s EdCampNC a truly transformative experience for me, including @plugusin, @kellyhines, @thomasson_engl, @mrhgaddis, @bethanyvsmith, @PCSTech, @mjsamberg, @twilliamson15, @katiehey, @mj_maher, and others who haven’t braved the Twitter yet.  I look forward to seeing you all next year for more learning that truly engages me.


edcampNC: That first step’s a doozy

I’ve been on a bit of a professional development diet lately.  I’ve missed out on the chance to attend (or present at) several recent conferences and I haven’t been as active in the PD scene at my school.  This has left me craving some rich learning experiences.

Back in February when news broke that Bethany Smith and friends would be putting on an edcamp event in Raleigh, I signed up immediately.  The combination of networking opportunities and the “unconference” format–not to mention the free price tag–made this an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I had heard about EdCamp Philly and others, and I was eager to experience this alternative to typical professional meetings.  Plus, it was practically in my backyard.

On the morning of this event, I will admit that I had second thoughts.  I had just returned from a two-day field trip with my eighth grade students and I was feeling the developing symptoms of a head cold.  Nonetheless, I medicated myself and caffeinated myself and ventured out into the unknown.  I didn’t really know who would be there, but I knew it would be a powerful learning experience.  It did not disappoint.

Here are my five biggest take-aways:

1. The Idea Board: Who would have guessed that such a simple board covered with colored sheets of paper could be so disruptive to the traditional conference format?  You show up, you put a question or topic on the board, and then you discuss which ones stay and which must go.  I posted “Grading Practices that meet the needs of parents, teachers, and students” and was amazed at the conversations that followed at the idea board (hours before the session ever started).

2. It’s Everyone’s Job to Advertise edcamp:  I didn’t talk about this event with very many of my friends and colleagues.  This was largely because I felt that it wouldn’t appeal to them.  I thought that promoting it would make me out to be some sort of fanatic.  I mean, who gets together with other educators to talk about teaching on a Saturday.  This was a big mistake.

The turnout for this first event was a little low.  Over two hundred tickets were reserved, yet only 70 or so people actually attended.  While I enjoyed the cozy atmosphere, I think that more voices would have improved the experience for everyone.  Next year, I’m considering a sandwich board:


3. Smackdown is da bomb!  I’ve been to a wide array of resource sharing events, but nothing can compare to the rush of getting up in front of dozens of people that include district leaders, administrators, app developers, and fellow teachers and taking ninety seconds to explain why an app/site/tool is so awesome.  It’s a little hard to explain, but that one event alone will keep me coming back to edcamp in the future.

4. Unconference has its drawbacks: At one point, I found myself in a room full of inexperienced teachers.  I was attempting to foster a conversation without “presenting” what I knew or leading the discussion, but it became difficult for me to avoid taking over.  I wanted desperately for some of the others to see the error of their ways, but I tried to stay low-key and not dominate the conversation.  As a result, I left unsatisfied in a way that I don’t think would have happened at a traditional conference session, despite the increased interaction of this format.

5. Unconference can be a powerful tool: Some of the same qualities that frustrated me about the “unconference” model in one session, made other sessions SO enjoyable.  When creative minds tackle simple questions and brainstorm wild solutions, everyone wins.  Even for those teachers who may have felt like they didn’t have much to offer, or who came expecting to be passive information “absorbers”, there were moments of realization in which each of us felt valued and appreciated for what we bring to American education.

6. BONUS: The word “dongle” is funny no matter how old you are.

What did you take away from edcampNC?  Planning to come next year?



photo #1 credit: Stéfan via photo pin cc, photo #2 credit: law_keven via photo pin cc