Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Power of Edcamp

In mid-October was the inaugural Edcamp Tuscaloosa. This edcamp was different for me because I joined Andrew Maxey and Laren Hammonds as a founder. I believe that this type of professional learning puts us, as educators, in touch with our most powerful another.

Although I could probably write an entire series of posts on why I believe that edcamps serve a vital role in today's educational landscape, I want to share with you the story that I saw unfold with one of our participants. In this post, we'll call her Miranda. Miranda is a veteran teacher who works incredibly hard with each of her students. Her students show tremendous growth in extremely short time periods because she is a master of individualized instruction. However, for all of her strengths and desire to grow professionally, she remains behind her classroom doors. She has so much to offer, but rarely connects with educators other than the few teachers on her same hallway. Miranda hears about professional learning events after-the-fact and wants the opportunity to ask questions, learn from others and grow in her practice. However, without support or encouragement from her administration (or from many of her peers) compounded by the intimidation she feels for embarking on something new on her own, Miranda remains somewhat isolated.

Enter Edcamp. Miranda hears about Edcamp Tuscaloosa and learns that it is an unconference. This format peaks her interest. She mentions it to some friends who are teachers in other schools and they all decided to try out this "new form of professional development." As time nears, she reads the emails being sent out from Edcamp Tuscaloosa, and she begins to reflect on her practice and what she truly wants to learn. She comes equipped with questions and a burning desire to find answers and get the most out of that experience.

Edcamp Tuscaloosa arrives and she approaches it with a gusto that was contagious. There was not one person in attendance that didn't know Miranda by the end of the day. She initiated conversations with every person that she met. When it came time to put a topic on the session board, Miranda was one of the first to add her topic of interest; she wanted both to share her ideas and learn from others who could offer her insights. She not only left with the validation that what she was doing with her students was valuable, but also with an assortment of new strategies and tools. Miranda created connections with other educators; they planned future collaborations. When Miranda left at the end of Edcamp Tuscaloosa, her last question was, "Can we do this again in the Spring?"

Miranda returned to school that following Monday a new teacher; one who was revitalized and highly motivated to improve not only her practice for the good of her students, but also impact the practice of the teachers in her building. Edcamp provided her the opportunity to do what she was hindered from doing previously. It removed the barriers and intimidation she had been struggling with previously. It gave her a voice and means to grow into an even better teacher. That's the power of an Edcamp. It empowers teachers and ultimately it positively impacts student learning.

There are Miranda's all around us. That's why edcamps are in demand. I can't wait for the next edcamp...and to find out how Miranda is doing. I'm confident it will be phenomenal.

Are formal conferences still relevant? Thoughts from AMLE

With the prevalence and accessibility of professional learning through Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, webinars, Edcamps and a myriad of other digital options, one can't help but wonder if there is a place for formal professional learning events and conferences. Is there a need to make a financial commitment and take time out of the classroom to attend (inter)national conferences? Can't you gain access to much of the content and access to professionals from the comfort of your home with little to no cost?

I've just returned from AMLE's Annual Conference (Association for Middle Level Education). As a middle school teacher, I love that there is an organization that is out there for the "middle child" who often is excluded from other professional learning events, in spite of having very unique needs. But, the questions are still lingering; is there a need for these professional learning events? I respond with a resounding "YES!"

Although I take advantage of informal learning opportunities regularly, those connections are somewhat two-dimensional. Yes, you can gain information and resources. You can even build a relationship with fellow educators from around the world. However, what you lack is the energy, enthusiasm, and passion that can only be delivered (and felt) when you are physically present. As a participant, you gain that third dimension that moves someone from a resource, to a colleague and a friend.

Where else but at a formal learning event, like AMLE, do you have access to not only learn from, but also have deep conversations with individuals like Rick Wormeli, Dave Burgess, Kim Campbell, Ruth Culham, and Katherine McKnight all in one place? Where else can build upon many of your PLN connections from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram? How do you find that new voice or new connection that can help you sharpen your own teaching practice if you do not have the dedicated time and space for teachers to meet and network that a conference provides? Where else are you able to lend your voice and expertise to those who may be searching for you?

AMLE provided all of this, plus so much more. Some of the best learning that I gleaned over the last few days were the informal conversation that blossomed at tables waiting for a session to begin, in the hallway between sessions,  standing in line waiting to get a meal, or at the end of an opening session. I was able to get answers to burning questions that I had. I solidified and built deeper relationships and collaborative partnerships with members of my PLN. I am leaving on fire with a passion to reach my learners in new and exciting ways. Without events like AMLE, that learning would never have happened. I can't wait to get back to my learners tomorrow, and I'm counting down the days until AMLE 2015.

Thank you, AMLE, for giving me the opportunity to grow and be with my middle level peeps. It was a blast!

(P.S. The last AMLE I attended was in 2012. I have seen some remarkable changes since then. If you haven't attended lately, I would highly recommend that you take another look and make plans to attend next year. If you have never attended, it is well worth your time and financial investment. I have attended many opening sessions over the years, and AMLE's was hands-down the best one I've ever experienced.)