3 Ways Back to Basics Made #EdcampNJ Great

Monday, November 21, 20164:35 PM

Looking back, I think #EdcampNJ 2013 was when I first began to understand the power of passionate, connected educators. It was one of my first edcamps and I remember being overwhelmed by the hundreds of people in the room, the massive session board, and buzz of excitement. It was before I had really begun attending conferences regularly, and I had never presented at an edcamp before. I even remember being inspired to look for more conferences in my area, which led to me finding and eventually co-organizing #edcampMville and co-creating #TheEduCal.

And this weekend, I attended my third #EdcampNJ. This event has grown a lot, and so have I. I’ve attended too many edcamps to count in the past three years and presented at so many of them. I’ve had opportunities to connect with and learn from passionate educators in the tri-state area of NY, NJ, and CT, and all around the world.

And Saturday’s fifth annual #EdcampNJ was one of the best of them all.

A completely full parking lot at 8 AM, over 800 educators registered for the event, and having around 60 sessions to fill on the board should have overwhelmed anyone. But I’m thankful to the awesome organizing team for all of their hard work and planning. Most of all, I’m thankful for how #EdcampNJ refocused its mission on the edcamp model with a back to basics approach. Here are some of the reasons why this was one of my favorite edcamp and learning experiences yet:

3 Ways Back to Basics Made #EdcampNJ Great

1. Embraced its Size

It’s 8:30 AM on Saturday and there are 400 excited educators who won’t shut up. We’re all passionate about our work and enjoying the opportunity to connect and have some breakfast. Instead of wasting the time and energy on long speeches, drawn out prizes, and quieting crowds, I loved how the team let the learning and the participants drive the day. They embraced their huge numbers by never asking people to quiet down and proving so much space and so many learning opportunities so we never had to stop.

For example, besides a five minute introduction to the day, there were no major announcements, speeches, or moments of focus on one individual. It was about all of us. Prizes were given out to start the day and at half time instead of in a long raffle procession. And while I love the smackdown or demo slam atmosphere, it would have been tough (and maybe unnecessary) to refocus on it at the end of the day. Instead, we got to finish our learning and leave on a high note. Surrounded by hundreds of like-minded educators, there was never a lull in the learning of conversation.

2. The Schedule

#EdcampNJ made some valuable changes to the traditional schedule board process. Instead of filling up all of the sessions at the start of the day, we only filled the first two time slots. Two blocks of 40-minutes were dedicated to learning and conversation, to be followed by a half-time. In the half-time, prizes were awarded using a random name generator of attendees and we enjoyed more conversation, bagels, and coffee. Most importantly, we created the schedule for the second half of the day.

The genius of this move reflects what good professional learning needs: authenticity and ownership. Through the conversations and sessions in morning, we were able to better plan the afternoon sessions. This allowed for reflection and conversation to drive the schedule instead of pre-planned canned presentations. I’m not sure who came up with this idea--I’ve never seen it done this way before--but it had a huge impact on my enjoyment of the day.

3. The Conversations

From the moment I walked in the building, I was surrounded by intense, passionate, and curious educators who wanted to learn and connect. With the Back to Basics theme, the organizers emphasized conversation over presentation, which was exactly what I needed. There’s a time and place for traditional presentations--as a frequent presenter and consultant, I’m not knocking them at all--but the spirit of edcamp empowers its participants to drive the session and conversation, too.

From leading a discussion on instructional coaching to participating in one about understanding professional development, I was able to choose the conversations I wanted to be a part of and decide how I wanted to participate. For the first session, I visited three different rooms where the conversations weren’t for me. Instead, I talked in the hall with some new friends and made great connections. The combination of the learning and discussing before, during, and after sessions left me feeling accomplished but relaxed--it wasn’t the traditional feeling of a “full brain” I often suffer at the end of a conference day.

There was so much more I enjoyed about the day, and it wouldn’t have been the same without the fantastic work of the organizers. It was great to connect and reconnect with so many friends and educators. For those of you #EdcampNJ attendees who are readers, it would be great to hear your perspective of the day, too. Let’s keep the learning and conversation going.

Share your thoughts on #EdcampNJ or your favorite #edcamp experiences in the comments or on Twitter @MrSchoenbart.

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