How Teachers Can Learn From One Another at Unconferences, Meet-ups and Edcamps

Edcamp STEAM 2014 (Flickr/Kevin Jarrett)

Technically, if one trusts the etymology, the best way for a teacher to confer with other educators would be an educator conference. Unfortunately, it’s often obligatory to passively listen to speeches and then “talk to someone next to you” about a prescribed topic. Meanwhile, the most enthusiastic listeners whisper to each other, or form mini-groups outside the conference walls, maybe even at a social gathering later that day. Even if it’s standard professional development at a school site, the richest conversations are usually right afterward or just outside. One administrator even told me, “We don’t ever make any important decisions until we’ve re-discussed them at a bar or coffee shop. That’s where the truth comes out.”

Generally speaking, unconferences offer as much expertise as a more conventional conference, but they’re cost-free, with no salespeople, and the participants propose the topics on the spot and drive the conversations.

Unconferences lack a formal hierarchy and the space is open for different people to be heard and appreciated regardless of where they came from. During the lunch break of the most recent unconference in my area, I asked several of the participants about their experiences in the morning. One district employee was smiling about how there were elementary and secondary teachers connecting and sharing: “Where else do you see this?” he asked. Another participant shared a scene from one of her sessions: “Someone said, ‘I’m just a para…,’ and we were like, ‘You’re never just an anything. We really wanted to hear her perspective.”

To be fair, the morning wasn’t perfect for everyone, and the spontaneous nature of unconferencing results in some unsatisfying conversations. The session on grant writing, for example, was a dud because everyone there wanted to learn how to write them and nobody knew where to start. One teacher went to a “STEM/STEAM” session but was disappointed that the discussion was so “general and theoretical,” while he was looking for something more specific and practical. In these cases, however, attendees are encouraged to use the “Rule of Two Feet” to get up and move on to a new session. The session on grant writing, for example, promptly disbanded and they each found new groups; the “STEM/STEAM” teacher left and went to a group on “buy-in” that he “absolutely loved.”

Because unconferences are unscripted by nature, it’s relatively easy to participate, or even start one of your own, at whatever size is best for you. Even if you send out a group email for people to meet at a coffee shop on a particular afternoon, you’re technically starting an unconference. If you’re looking for something more formal, the same kind of gathering can take place at a school site, ideally one with Wi-Fi and at least a few accessible classrooms. Or if you want go big, you can create a countywide event, complete with a website, advertising and a registration process. I’ve experienced all three types, and they all have their own strengths and deficiencies.

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For larger, more efficient unconferences, the Edcamp Foundation has a site full of resources and ideas for anybody who wants to organize their own “Edcamp,” which is simply a well-articulated version of an education unconference. Hadley Ferguson, the executive director of the foundation, told me that they trademarked “Edcamp” so that “it doesn’t get diluted,” but they are insistent that edcamps are free, shared, vendor-free and driven by participants. In fact, once you start a legitimate event, the Edcamp Foundation is willing to send you materials and funding to help with the organization, such as breakfast.

HOW TO DO A SMALL UNCONFERENCE

Someone once asked me: “So at your unconference, do you just skip the power points and go straight to the bar?” He was joking, but sometimes the answer is yes. In fact, the first unconference I ever attended was a “mini-unconference” called “BrewCUE,” an agenda-less gathering of educators promoted on Twitter (BrewCUE has roots in the California ed-tech organization CUE). In this particular case, about 20 teachers and administrators bought beers at the best bar in town and talked about approaches to restorative justice, classroom design and podcasts in the classroom. It was great; I’m not exactly sure why we don’t do this every Friday.

If you’re looking for more details, Karl Lindgren-Streicher has already written a great blog post about how to start a BrewCUE event, but I think I can sum it up here: Pick a time and a place; promote in emails and your favorite social media tool (possibly with the hashtag #BrewCUE); bring a co-organizer so that you don’t have to sit alone; make a little sign (using a paper plate is fine); and consider buying the first round. If you don’t want to promote drinking, coffee shops and similar places work just as well. Worst-case scenario, you have a good hour of chatting with your chosen co-organizer. As always, you’re free to move around, stay late or leave early.

Candice Grossi, an elementary school principal in Lompoc, California, says that she organizes an unconference at a school site with just about 10 teachers once a month. She said she loves watching people from across the district talk with each other and share “so many resources.” Since these events have such a small number of participants, Grossi admits that she has seen a group struggle because “the conversation is extremely free-flow, or nobody talks because they don’t know each other.” She told me that it works best when the participants “have a way of gathering their thoughts beforehand,” and she recommended the use of a facilitator — somebody who doesn’t dominate the conversation or act as an expert, but keeps the discussion moving along the tracks.

HOW TO DO A MEDIUM-SIZE UNCONFERENCE

The second unconference I attended was considerably more structured. It was at an elementary school, and a healthy brunch was provided. On a whiteboard at the front of the room, there was a grid of time slots and room numbers, but the spaces for topics were all blank, ready to be filled by the participants themselves. In fact, with the exception of the people who brought the breakfast and the whiteboard, everyone there was “just” a participant — there were no speakers, coaches, designated experts or even facilitators.

For the first hour, I attended a session on student blogging. About six of us talked about student privacy, student engagement and inspiring project ideas. One teacher shared a few examples of great student blogs from around the country; I shared a couple of blog posts from teachers who had learned lessons the hard way. Near the end of the hour, someone tried to thank whoever started this session, but nobody took credit. Turns out, whoever wrote “student blogging” on the whiteboard ended up going to a different session -- a rare move, but one that’s totally acceptable. In the second session, we talked about homework: how much is too much; how to make it meaningful; the parent perspective; and what happens when some kids get more practice than others. That was it; it was a delightful morning. And then some of us still met up for lunch afterward.

This particular event was relatively humble, and so the organization was just as simple. For a gathering like this, you’ll need one big main room with a whiteboard, on which you draw up a grid for the time slots and locations for each session. You’ll also need several classrooms for the sessions, Wi-Fi access, and available restrooms. At this particular event, there were just two hourlong time slots and four classrooms for about 30 educators, and it worked out great (there were six teachers in the student-blogging session, and over 15 in the homework session). As everyone meets in the main room, thank them for coming, and invite them to use sticky notes (which you provide) or markers to suggest session topics on the whiteboard. Ideally, the participants will fill up the spots on their own, but organizers may need to make executive decisions if there are any blank spaces or competing ideas. When the board is finalized, encourage the attendees to take a photo of the grid with their phones for their reference, and then set them free.

HOW TO DO A LARGE UNCONFERENCE

My third unconference was, again, entirely different from my previous experiences: It was hosted by a local state university, with more than 200 participating educators, and the Edcamp (it was an official Edcamp) was embedded within the “Better Together’s California Teachers Summit,” a teacher-led network of conferences across 38 different college campus. In what could be equally described as a moment of weakness and a rush of idealistic giddiness, I had volunteered to be the “specialist,” the organizer who oversees the whole process. Though I felt calmed by my good experiences at the first two, I still felt nervous about the size of the event and a little unnerved about paradoxically organizing an event that should drive itself. The day before the “summit,” I found myself both preparing — and not preparing — a professional development experience that I would be both directing and not directing, overseeing a team of facilitators who were instructed to not really facilitate.

Fortunately, Better Together did almost all the difficult organizational work. They reserved the Education Building at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, set up the website and registration process, provided an app for the participants, hired a caterer and set up a series of shared documents, including an up-to-the-minute schedule of the day’s sessions.

With the help of a team of volunteer facilitators, my job was to greet all 200 attendees as they arrived in the morning, quickly explain the essence of an Edcamp and then provide sticky notes for them to vote on one or more session topics. My team had four different “parking lots” — huge sheets of white paper — available for the attendees to place their sticky notes. Then, as they all enjoyed the keynote speech for the Better Together conference, my team scrambled to cluster the most popular topics from the parking lots and put them on the master schedule, which we ultimately shared with the participants as a Google doc. For this event, we had three 45-minute sessions scheduled with 12 rooms available. The topics ranged from rather niche (“environment-based pedagogy”), basic (“technology in the elementary classroom”), unique (“bridging generational gaps”) or fun (“Newbie teachers!”).

After the schedule was created, I assigned a facilitator for each room. Ideally, they had some expertise on the subject, but it wasn’t really necessary. Their job was primarily to get the discussion started and keep everyone generally on topic. For each session, there was also a shared doc for the facilitator (and ideally the participants) to share notes and links to resources for the group’s future reference, or for anybody who wanted to attend but couldn’t make it.  

The day of the event, I just walked around, dropping in on interesting and inspiring conversations happening in almost every room. Even at lunch, I could hear the continuation of earlier discussions. I wanted to interview one group, but they were too involved in their conversation on migrant education to be interrupted. Another teacher told me she hoped that her own district would start hosting similar events.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS (AND SOLUTIONS)

What if a “spontaneous group” is spontaneously awful? Sometimes a group will be dominated by an unstoppable mansplainer, or way too big, or way too small, or it veers in a direction that doesn’t interest you. There is one solution to all of these problems and others like them: Get up and leave. The Edcamp Foundation puts the Rule of Two Feet near the top of their list of tenets. Find a session that meets your needs. If there are only two of you in the session, you may have just met your best friend; if not, it’s very easy to say something like, “I was hoping for a bigger session; I think I’m going to move on.” In all these cases, it also helps to have an official facilitator in the room to help restrain people from dominating a discussion or taking it away from the topic.

What if you’re an introvert or are concerned about participants who may be on the introverted side of the spectrum? Won’t this be inherently awful for them? Since up to half of all teachers could consider themselves introverts, this is a topic I take very seriously. And yes, I’ve seen some unconferences promote “active participation” from everyone, which could dissuade an introvert from attending. Just like a regular classroom, however, there are different ways of participating; for one, every group could use somebody to take notes and gather resources on a shared document, or tweet the things the best things they heard with a relevant hashtag. Also, I don’t subscribe to the premise that everyone has to “actively participate” — quiet listeners should feel comfortable quietly listening.

What if the attendees feel like they got ripped off by your event? This is virtually impossible, since these events are free. If somebody is charging money to sit and watch specific speeches and presentations, then it makes sense to be anxious about the quality of the product. But at an unconference, if organizers are responsible for anything, it’s free food, facilitators and facilities.

And as I walked through the rooms at Cal Poly, I felt the same special type of pride a teacher feels when they aren’t really needed anymore—when their students are self-driven, working hard in their own engaged groups. The “Newbie Teachers!” session was equal parts first-year teachers and well-meaning veteran teachers, and they were all telling stories and laughing. The next group had disbanded and moved on, and I shrugged. The “classroom design” session had, on their own, split into three different groups based on grade level, and they were enraptured by the examples they were showing each other on computer screens and sketches on paper.

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After the last session, I met with the facilitators, all of whom shared my happy relief at a surprisingly easy event that was interesting and inspiring to so many educators. Then we shared our favorite photos and takeaways on social media. And finally, we started organizing our next impromptu unconference — for later that afternoon (#BrewCUE).

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