This year I have had the incredible fortune to take a lead role on planning 3 separate PD experiences. Two were un-conference style conferences for the roughly 900 teachers in the Simi Valley Unified School District where I work. We called these CoreConnections, and were able to use some of our state supplied Common Core funding to put on. The other was #edcampVC, the first ever edcamp in Ventura County, California. Edcamps are free and supported through the generous donations of local businesses and mostly tech companies.
I should begin by saying that I love and have no limit of respect for both of the teams that I worked with to make these events happen. My Core Connections team of @snodgrass_j @docmess99 @bradtorti & @justjulie44 is an incredible group of teachers who believed in what at first mention is a half baked idea. To have a full day training where the only presenters are the teachers within our district, who volunteer to present for 2 one hour sessions. Oh, and we are going to ask them to present without compensation of any kind because we believe that they are just that awesome and because it is the right thing to do!
My edcampVC team of @coffeenancy @ajay460 @rhochy06 @jaygreenlinger @teachingalina @vollmert805 & @ginger_shea is an equally incredible group of educators who believe in the vision and goals of the un-conference and worked tirelessly to make it happen. We met together once or twice and did all of the rest of our planning through a Google+ Community, Google Hangouts and Twitter. It was an incredibly empowering and freeing medium for planning (until the end, when we wondered, “Is it all done, is it ready?). And in the end the event was great. I can honestly and confidently say that all of these events were wildly successful.
EdcampVC was so incredibly powerful mostly because of the participants that came ready to be active learners. To participate by presenting, or sharing or discussing. Teachers, admins and other educational professionals came together to create something wonderful. They demonstrated an obvious passion for educating kids, a desire to learn about new tools and new pedagogy to make learning relevant to today’s learners. In short is was a microcosm of classroom leadership! There was no complaining that I am here on a Saturday, simply the opposite, “This is such a needed experience.”, “If only we could share this with more teachers.”, “We need every teacher in our district to come to something like this.” These are only a few of the many comments that I received from participants at the end of the day. Edcamp is an incredible movement that I don’t see slowing down in the very near future. It is small, and intimate, and filled with enough passion to send a rocket to Mars, and beyond. It is a place where you can meet a bonafide superstar of the education world like @lindayollis and realize that they are mere mortals that want to learn new things that you have to share too! It is a place where you will learn new things, you will learn that PD is more powerful when you meet the people that make up your PLN, but perhaps the most valuable thing about edcamp to me is that there is an unspoken prerequisite that all edcampers come with, an open mind, and a willingness to learn!
If you have attended an edcamp, either a physical edcamp near you or on online edcamp like #edcampHOME or #edcampUSA you may have realized that these events are put on by regular folks, and that there are some bumps in the road during the event. BUT, and yes I mean BUT, I have never heard a disparaging remark about the actual day, or the learning. My first edcamp presentation happened at #edcampPS (Palm Springs) in the fall of 2013, and by all reasonable accounts could be viewed as a dismal failure. Including me there were 5 people in the room, and we really fumbled our way through the hour. But at the end, people learned something, and were thankful for my efforts! And I would guess that many other edcampers that have presented have had similar experiences. People that attend edcamps look at their brains as half-full, and that they are there to get more juice. They understand that learning is organic and messy, and that failure is really another tool for learning, and this is what makes edcamp so powerful! NOT that it is free, NOT that you meet incredible people, NOT that you are learning things that are incredibly powerful for your students, although these are incredible benefits. The true power of edcamp is that you are changing your mind into a tool that will be open to the possibilities that there is always something that we can learn to better educate students! Core Connections was a very different beast. In the fall of the 2013/2014 school year I had the pleasure to be part of a team of teachers on special assignment that was very concerned with Professional Development. We sat down and discussed PD as it exists within the confines of schools, and school districts, and we all decided that for the most part PD should stand for “Pain Device”, because that is really what school PD has been for a long time. So we talked about what we can do to change things. We decided that in our situation there are 3 main things that must change for school supplied PD to become something that is seens as positive and valuable.
- There must be teacher choice. Choice says to teachers, “You are a professional, and as such we are letting you decide what you need to learn about and take back to your students.”
- There must be a significant amount of things to choose from to make number one viable. So we decided that there is a LOT of talent in our district that is never recognized as such. And we continued thinking, “maybe if we ask they will be willing to step up and be a part of something new and different?”
- We must get all levels of teachers K-12 together in one place, and allow them to talk with each other, and learn together. There is power in knowing what others are doing, especially if it may play a role in the students I may get down the road.
So, with these three guiding principles we set out to get speakers and create an event that would serve our teachers. We asked teachers to come along and try something different, and they did. We treated them like professionals and they (almost universally) responded with “Thank You.” We got everyone together and secondary was amazed at what elementary was doing, and vice versa. It was an incredible experience. Teachers that were apprehensive or simply terrified to present the first time realized that they could do it, and were empowered as the professionals that they are. Others realized that they could present too, and volunteered to do so on our second date.
BUT, for some, District PD is still just that, District PD. It has such a stigma, and some are not willing to give even something completely new a chance. And this has been the challenge of Core Connections. While there is choice, and we value their participation as participants or presenters, and tell them over and over that this happens because of them, it is still a mandatory PD day. You have to be there or you get in “trouble” with your administrator. The motivation for the great multitude is extrinsic! And this is not nearly as powerful a motivator as an intrinsic attitude of, “I am here because I want to be here.” This is the challenge that must be met, “How do we make something that is mandatory for all, excellent enough that we begin to change the brains of 1000 teachers. PD can be a good thing, and you will learn something if you come willing to learn.
This audience is looking for things that are a problem, and make no bones about telling anyone what the problem is. But as organizers of such events we need to listen keenly to these comments and vet them for the kernel of truth within them, even if this means listening beyond the actual words. We can always do a better job and provide a better experience, and we should. At the end of this season of planning both an edcamp and two behemoth beasts called Core Connections I know two things, both of which are totally subjective.
- I love edcamp, and edcampers! This is where teachers of the year come from, this is where they thrive and share and learn new things, and are free to be the obvious rebels they are. And edcamp is so incredibly vital to education for children all over the world. It will make us all better!
- I think the Core Connections model of District supplied PD is more important than edcamp!
WHAT? How can you say that? Edcamp is like Porsche, or Ferrari, or some other “thing” that does not hope to be the biggest, but is preoccupied with being the very best. Even though edcamp is a grass roots movement, the quality of people and the simplicity of the experience is “Incredible.” It is that good!
BUT, these are generally not the educators that need great PD, they will 9 times out of 10 make it for themselves, and then share it as far and wide as they can. It is that teacher that comes to school to do what they can, and gets so involved with the day to day that they don’t even know what else is out there that need this style of eye-opening PD. They need to know that they are valued, and valuable and are doing great work, but that there is something more, that they can do, and should do. And when it comes from a colleague it is empowering, and transformative. So yes, while I love edcamp, District PD can generally reach more people, and do more good for students, if we will simply be honest with ourselves. And as an added bonus, these types of District PD will help to grow the edcamp movement too.