Cats, Minecraft, and Stimulating Professional Development- A recap of my first EdCamp experience!

I attended my first EdCamp on Saturday. It was, in a word, inspiring. Brought me back to my days running the DECal program at UC Berkeley, where students take ownership of their education and facilitate their own accredited group study classes. DECal sparked my passion for alternative education models, and I was glad to see those values mirrored at EdCamp. I was encouraged to attend this “unconference for educators” by my new colleagues at Remind, where I’m beginning a new role supporting the community of teachers who use Remind to communicate with students and parents. I was also happy to see a few of my Harker coworkers in attendance as well.

EdCamp San Jose (#EdcampSJ) was held at Union Middle School. Principal Todd Feinberg was kind enough to open up his beautiful campus to us. When I arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect besides the general format of an unconference- participants come up with their own agenda at the beginning of the event. The first person I met at the event was Danielle Sigmon. Danielle is an awesome lady who works at Edutopia. Besides a shared interest in improving K-12 education, we quickly discovered another shared interest- cats! After going through the formal ritual known as “showing each other our cat photos,” I felt like this conference was starting out on the right foot.

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photo by Craig Yen

As expected, the morning began with participants writing on a board either what they wanted to learn or what topics they were willing to facilitate a discussion about. The board filled up quickly! Then the EdCamp organizers compiled the lists and put together the day’s schedule, which revolved around three sessions of discussion groups- everyone could attend whichever sessions they were interested in. It was awesome to see the broad spectrum of topics that the participants brought to the table.

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photo by Elana Leoni

The first session I attended was on using Twitter and Voxer. I was so glad that people were interested in this topic and that someone had volunteered to lead this session! In my new role at Remind, I’ll be using social media to connect with educators, so I’m working on better understanding how these tools are used in and out of the classroom. I am not exactly an early adopter of new technology, so I tend to only join new platforms when it feels like most other people I know are using them. I have learned that there are strong educator communities on both Twitter and Voxer. (For those of you like me who hadn’t heard of Voxer before, it’s a voice-based platform where groups can chat with one another like a “walkie talkie.” It’s pretty fun and easy to use!) Thank you Craig Yen for leading this session! By the end of it, I had downloaded Voxer, created an account, joined a group, and had already participated in discussion! It was awesome to enter a session not knowing anything about a tool like Voxer, and to leave feeling comfortable using it.

The second session I attended was on using Minecraft in the classroom. My colleague from Harker, Diane Main, was facilitating this session, and she is awesome, so I knew it would be a good one. I had seen parts of the Minecraft documentary before, so at least I didn’t come to the session with the embarrassing notion that Minecraft was Minesweeper (woops… glad I cleared that up before the conference). I was only basically familiar with Minecraft — I knew it was a very popular game and that the founder is Swedish and did not set out to create a multi billion dollar company– he was just an avid gamer who happened to create a cult following. I knew from Diane that Minecraft was also used in classrooms, and I really enjoyed going to her session and hearing from many different teachers how passionate they and their students are about it. The primary theme I heard was that Minecraft is an incredibly creative tool– students can create their own worlds in the game. There is a version of the game called MinecraftEdu which is quite popular in schools. Diane showed some examples of student work using Minecraft- it was very cool to see how she integrated learning tools throughout the game, such as at one point stopping at a treasure chest and answering questions in written form. I came away from the session with a renewed interest in Minecraft- I’d love to watch the whole documentary and also read the book Diane recommended- Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game that Changed Everything. If anyone wants to watch the movie or do a book club with me, let me know!

There was a lunch break between the second and third sessions, which was a great opportunity to better get to know some of the teachers and organizations in attendance. I loved talking with an elementary school teacher who drove to the event all the way from Tuolumne County (2 and a half hours away!) and also some of the founders at Kodable, which is a computer programming curriculum for elementary school students. Great people!

I session-hopped during the third session, starting out in the GeniusHour session and finishing in the Creative Writing session. I hadn’t heard of GeniusHour before but now I love the concept. It’s also known as 20% time- similar to how some Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on a project of personal interest to them- some teachers encourage their students to pursue personal interests during the schoolday. Teachers Angela Der Ramos and Kathy Nichols facilitated the session, and I really appreciate the creative ways they support students in becoming self directed learners. I might have to check out this book that a teacher recommended- The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google’s formula for future-ready innovation.

I could have stayed in that session but I was curious about what was happening in the Creative Writing session. I’m so glad I went to it for my very last session of the day! Facilitator Elana Leoni had asked everyone in the room to spend 20 minutes free writing, and I joined the session just as they were beginning to share what they wrote with the group. It’s hard to describe what it felt like in that last session- I had casually joined the group late, but was quickly drawn in, humbled and touched by the level of raw and personal emotion that the participants shared. The power of writing– especially creative, reflective writing– clearly touched not only those who shared their words but also those of us who listened. Out of respect for the personal nature of the stories, I will not share them here, but I definitely left with tangible insight into the value of creative writing curriculum and the #writeon movement.

As I walked back to the gym at the end of the last session, I was honestly sad that the EdCamp was coming to an end. And as someone who can think of a lot of things to do besides wake up early and attend a work event on a Saturday, that’s saying a lot. I truly enjoyed all the sessions I attended, appreciated the company of all the educators and educator advocates in attendance, and felt stimulated by what I learned. Throughout the day, I heard many teachers comment on how useless their district-mandated professional development was, in comparison to the self-generated, volunteer-run professional development they were experiencing here. That messages resonates with me, as I move forward with helping teachers feel supported, empowered, and part of a community that understands them. I look forward to harnessing the ethos of EdCamp in my work.

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