Edcamps: Teacher Learning Becomes A Grassroots Movement

Edcamps: Teacher Learning Becomes a Grassroots Movement

Jennifer Lara, a professor of education, attended a recent professional development session with a query: "How can we encourage everyone in schools – students, teachers, leaders, and parents – to adopt a coaching mindset?" Unfortunately, there were no consultants or researchers present to provide an answer at this Edcamp, a teacher-driven professional development model. However, the 15 teachers who gathered from Anne Arundel County were eager to share their thoughts.

One teacher suggested that schools should foster a "culture of courage" where both students and teachers feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. Another teacher, Kate Hoens, chair of the mathematics department at Glen Burnie High School, added that if it is acceptable to not know the answer, students and teachers will be more inclined to ask deeper questions. Tiffany Callaghan, an English teacher at Old Mill Middle School North, agreed and emphasized the need to provide students with opportunities to discover their strengths.

For 40 minutes, ideas and insights were exchanged among the participants. Almost everyone had something valuable to contribute – their experiences, observations, and theories. Lara expressed her satisfaction by saying, "I not only obtained what I was seeking, but I received more than that."

Interestingly, at Edcamps, teachers have the power to set the agenda for their own professional learning. The subjects and approach of a meeting are determined by the participants themselves. In this case, Lara decided to initiate a session on coaching because it was one of the 15 topics suggested by the 100 educators in attendance.

Edcamps are not like traditional professional conferences. They are low-budget and free to attend, which makes it difficult to predict the number of participants. Instead of a pre-set agenda, there is a big sheet of paper where anyone can attach a sticky note with an idea for discussion. The organizers discourage formal presentations and PowerPoints, and attendees are encouraged to find another session if they are not satisfied with their current one. Unlike conferences, sponsors are not allowed to promote their products at Edcamps.

The concept of Edcamps originated from a group of Philadelphia teachers who were inspired by popular tech meet-ups called BarCamps. They wanted to provide teachers with more control over their professional growth. The first Edcamp took place at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 2010, initially expecting few attendees. However, 75 teachers showed up, and the event gained momentum with the help of live-tweeting and social media outreach.

Since then, over 1,000 Edcamps have been organized across the U.S. and internationally, ranging from smaller gatherings of 25 to larger events with 600 participants. However, the quality of an Edcamp is not determined by its size; it depends on the commitment of the attendees to share their knowledge and learn from others.

The increasing popularity of Edcamps demonstrates the widespread need for this type of professional development among teachers. As Hadley Ferguson, a history teacher and one of the organizers of the first Edcamp, stated, "When you tell teachers that this gives you time and space to create and grow together, it is very rare that they don’t embrace that opportunity."

Recognizing the value of Edcamps, last year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Edcamp Foundation a $2 million grant to promote the model. This grant will be used to organize hundreds of Edcamps, with an average cost of $300 per event. Additionally, the foundation will provide grants of up to $1,000 to teachers who want to implement ideas they gained from Edcamp into their schools.

These grants have supported various meaningful projects, such as creating a Titanic-themed Edcamp experience for middle schoolers, covering substitute costs for a teacher to observe how a colleague uses an educational app, and setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot for students who lack access to the internet at home.

Hadley Ferguson believes that the open-ended format of Edcamps acknowledges teachers as professionals who are passionate about improving their practice, rather than individuals who need to be fixed during a professional development day. In this way, Edcamps have become a grassroots movement for professional development in education.

In light of a survey conducted by the Gates Foundation in 2014, it is not surprising that the current state of professional development for teachers is lacking. The survey revealed that although teachers have a strong desire to enhance their teaching practices in order to better assist their students, many of the available professional development opportunities are perceived as "irrelevant, ineffective, and disconnected from their primary goal of helping students learn."

Interestingly, only 29 percent of teachers reported being "highly satisfied" with the learning opportunities that were available to them.

On the other hand, Edcamp has gained popularity partly due to the enthusiastic responses shared by attending teachers on social media. At the Anne Arundel Edcamp, for example, over 200 tweets were posted praising the event as a "fantastic experience" full of "innovative ideas and passionate colleagues."

The diversity of interests among the attending teachers was evident, ranging from discussions on how to effectively integrate different subjects in an International Baccalaureate program to utilizing movement in the classroom to enhance focus and cognitive abilities. Traditional professional development programs simply do not possess the adaptability and expertise to cater to teachers’ interests in this manner. This flexibility can only be achieved when teachers take the initiative themselves.

Empowering teachers is a key goal in the eyes of Anne Arundel’s Deputy Superintendent, Maureen McMahon. She believes that Edcamps enable teachers to construct the learning communities of the future. She states, "This revitalizes education, allowing teachers to lead with their own ideas that originate from the classroom."

This sentiment holds true even in more specialized Edcamps, such as the one that took place in March in Morristown, New Jersey, which focused primarily on assistive technologies for students with disabilities.

Margaux Urciuoli, a teacher at a private school who specializes in educating children with multiple disabilities, emphasizes the necessity of staying up to date with technological advancements in order to provide her students with the best possible education. "I need to constantly be aware of what is current in the field," she explains.

Christina Lami, a social studies teacher at Sparta High School, expresses her dissatisfaction with traditional professional learning experiences, where teachers are often subjected to lectures by higher-ranking individuals. Instead, Lami prefers learning from "teachers in the trenches with you, because they understand what you’re going through."

The Edcamp Foundation is currently in the process of conducting a formal evaluation of the model to accurately measure its effectiveness. However, anecdotal evidence already suggests that Edcamps are successful in one aspect: they empower teachers and help them become more effective in their profession.

Jennifer Lara, a teacher, believes that the coaching session she participated in reinforced the importance of giving teachers a voice in their own professional development. "They don’t just want one-time workshops on random topics," she asserts.

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  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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