Friday, April 19, 2013

Why Webinar? They're a great snack!

Last year, before our professional development hours were due, I was short. I had been at plenty of PD sessions, I was just teaching them all, and you don't get credit for that. (Strangely enough.) So, I scrambled and found a few cheap workshops in the area that I could attend, though I did end up having to take a personal day to attend one. I knew there had to be a better way.

Then, many thanks to my favorite source for professional knowledge, my Twitter feed brought up a tweet from someone referencing I clicked the link, and discovered that EdWeb is a relatively new website with many burgeoning teacher communities all putting on free webinars (with the help of generous sponsors of course, like Follett and ePals). You just have to log in and view the webinar (live, or to the archived version) and then you get an emailed PDF with the hours certificate. Not only that, but the topics were very up-to-date, relevant, and led by people in the know (classroom teachers, working administrators, well-respected librarians, content specialists, etc.) As a sample, some of this week's topics include: Shakespeare from PBS, 21st Century Skills with 1:1 iPads, How Exercise Can Transform Skills, Expanding Fraction Understanding, Twitter in the Classroom, Flipped Learning Primer, etc.) `

The more I participated in these webinars, live or archived, the more I realized that for a certain part of of teachers' professional development needs, it is exactly what we need. Short, on-demand content, directly related to what we know we need (as opposed to whoever shows up in our weekly school PD session). I also love that the live webinars have a chat feature that allow teachers to discuss the topic, their own experiences with it, and questions and comments that benefit others. Not only that, it's free and accessible anytime, anywhere. This alone is huge. Teachers don't have the time or money to be paying for expensive workshops and conferences around the country. These fit the bill :-)

Professional development is an active, dynamic process that can take place anywhere, anytime through the Internet. With the Internet, we are no longer bound to four walls and a guest speaker in front of us to tell us what we should learn. In fact, the more actively you take part in designing your own PD, the more evident the results will be in your teaching practice. --Isaac Pineda

While I am a huge proponent of higher-quality, teacher-chosen, job-embedded professional development, I also believe that there are times for different kinds of PD. (My colleague John Spencer has written about this very eloquently.) One of those is the unconference model, or as it relates to education, Edcamp, which I can (and have) talked about this ad nauseum as the planner for the first Edcamp Phoenix. These annual meeting of the minds are a fantastic tool for sparking new innovation and collaboration. However, sometimes teachers need a little snack of PD, just enough to help them refine a particular practice, give them a boost of energy in a particular area, and keep their minds thinking about professional matters, not just the day to day craziness of being a teacher (gotta call his mom after I enter these grades, I forgot to turn in that form, what? an assembly today??) Generally, these little snacks help me stay focused on why I teach, and how to do it best.

As it turns out there are quite a few resources for free, online, on-demand PD. One of my Edcamp Phoenix co-planners, the venerable Dr. Peggy George, even put together an excellent Live Binder (collection of links) documenting these options. So I would highly encourage you all to go get a PD snack! Just open the proverbial fridge and look!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Edcamp Do's & Don'ts for Organizers

It can’t be that hard, right? I knew that wasn’t going to be the case, but I was still amazed at how much time all the details took. In retrospect, these are a few things that I loved, and wasn’t so in love with, about the route we took to arrive at Edcamp Phoenix 2013. 


  • Sponsors that contacted US! (Thanks to the page!) Make sure you make a page on the wiki for your Edcamp, since this is Grand Central Station for all things Edcamp.  Many sponsors look through these pages looking for Edcamps to sponsor (6 groups contacted us) as well as potential attendees looking to see if there is an upcoming edcamp in the area.
  • Using Google for planning. We used Google’s FREE services for everything.
    • Google+ Hangouts for meetings at home
    • Google Drive for TONS of shared documents and collaboration (specifically one massive spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs covering every aspect of Edcamp)
    • Google Docs for note-taking in sessions on the day of Edcamp. They were open for anyone to contribute. Here’s one great example. Go to for Google Doc notes, under the session tabs.
    • Google Sites for our website,
  • Having multiple intelligences on the planning team. By including people in different fields, locations, and with different skills, we were all able to focus on areas of specialty. One person used his technical skills to create and maintain our fantastic website, develop a cool logo, and a pretty spectacular promo video called The Most Interesting Teacher in the World. Another member, a retired principal, was able to call on many of her professional contacts to help us promote the event, as well as keeping an eye toward the details of the event. A third person made it his mission to get a bank account set up, which meant setting up a non-profit. And another person ran clean up, filling in many other gaps, always volunteering for all the little things that needed doing: posters that needed to be made, organizing the registration table, etc.
  • Picking the brains of other Edcamp organizers. Twitter was a lifesaver as we debated many Edcamp issues, particularly how to go about doing the session suggestion time. When we had questions about contacting sponsors, @dancallahan was immensely helpful. Many other organizers were quick to jump in with suggestions as well, since many follow the hashtag #edcamp. (Hence, definitely tag any Edcamp twitter posts with that tag.) Blog posts about organizing the event were also immensely helpful, such as this one that nearly gave me a heartattack with all the things I needed to be doing when I found it 3 weeks before the day!
  • Unexpected sponsors. Do not assume that certain groups will sponsor and certain ones won’t. Assume nothing. The ones that seemed like a perfect fit for sponsorship, I never heard back from. The ones that seemed like a total shot in the dark, ended up being very committed sponsors, and can lead to lasting connections. My best sponsors were the ones I could explain how I used their product in my classroom or in the district, education-related or not. So contact anyone you can think of. You’ll be surprised who says yes!

Did NOT love:

  • Not enough organizers: The 5ish people who worked on our team were amazing, but we could only do so much. Next time, I’ll aim for about 8 people, who can focus on specific tasks and run with them.
  • Attrition Rate: My initial goal was 150-200 people. (I always aim high :-)) That was a bit much for the first time around, but I had no idea what to estimate, and am generally a terrible estimator. We ended up having about 125 people register, which I felt pretty good about. Either way, as I did my research, I read in multiple places to anticipate an attrition rate of 40-50%. This was very true. We ended up having about 75 attendees, which equals exactly 40% attrition. I just don’t understand how people can plan to attend something and not go. I know a few people will have things come up, but the number always boggles my mind. One tip I read online suggested emailing attendees 1-2 weeks in advance asking for any advance cancellations. This did help, as I had about 10 people cancel in advance, which helped me to give better projections for the food.
  • Session Creation time: Since I was apparently not crystal clear enough in my description of the session creation time, our people that helped consolidate session ideas into the allotted slots had a difficult time. We had a number of suggestions of things like, “Virtual classrooms” or “Retirement” that were 1) unclear/vague, and 2) had no name attached so we couldn’t ask the person what they were referring to. In retrospect, we definitely want to make 100% sure names are listed, as well as encourage people to write a 1 sentence explanation of their topic.
  • Participant misunderstanding of the purpose of Edcamp: Upon reading the evaluations, I was disappointed to see a number of people comment on the fact that there wasn’t necessarily an expert in the room on every topic. I can see how this might be frustrating, but that’s also part of the purpose of Edcamp, is that everyone can choose topics on that day, anyone can lead a session on anything, and anyone can suggest a session. Part of me wanted to respond with, “Then try a regular conference,” but at the same time, there may be ways to massage the system to help make sure the purpose is well-understood, and provide for ideas in this case. As we talked through some of this as a planning team afterwards, we decided that these were some possible suggestions for that situation:
    • Make a major point of encouraging teachers to come prepared to share on a topic
    • Use the registration form to indicate interest in topics and presenting
      Make the registration form public on website, which allows other participants to see who’s coming and what topics are of interest to people
    • Use the session time to do research together and report back your findings in 30 minutes (become experts!)
    • Have a number of people on hand who might be able to share on a wide variety of topics (specialists, etc.) who you can send out to sessions that may be big (Common Core, iPad use, etc.)

Overall though, Edcamp Phoenix was a fantastic experience. Now that it’s over, I realize how much time it was taking up, but it was 100% worth it. The enthusiasm that people had for the event was stunning to me :-) I have no doubt that next year will be even better! 

[The posters were made by our awesome, slightly bored during sessions, student volunteers :-)]

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Is this real?

One of my groups of 7th graders has been blogging with a group of students from Iowa after their teacher and I connected via Twitter (one of my favorite methods of professional development). I explained to the kids what we were doing and what the other class was doing. (They're a writing class, and mine is a technology class. The IA class was doing some interview practice and were asking questions of my students. Mine were learning to blog and comment.) I was floored when, after reading questions from the other students, my kids kept asking if the other students were real. What?? Of course they're real!

As I reflected on how ridiculous I thought this question was, I realized that it wasn't ridiculous at all. Why WOULD they think this was an interaction with real students? Everything we do with students tends to be a copy of real life. Pretend you're writing a letter to the mayor. Imagine you are a soldier in the Civil War and explain their thoughts. Create a fake newsletter for animals about to hibernate. Play this simulation game showing what happens when rabbit populations explode. Why would students even consider that what they're doing is something actually real with other people in the world?

I've started to be more and more aware of the "unreal" things I ask students to do; things that have no real value in the world. As I see myself giving these assignments, the question of "Why" keeps wriggling in the back of my head. In high school, I was always the one asking "Why do we have to do this?" If I had a good reason, no problem. If the teacher had no good reason, I had a very difficult time motivating myself to finish. Today, I think that I (and many in education), have forgotten how to create authentic tasks that matter for students.

I was reminded about this today, when I saw the tool iFakeText come across my Twitter feed, as a new and exciting tool for kids to create fake text exchanges between people, i.e., book characters, historical figures, etc. (Another example: Fake Facebook pages.) I understand the purpose this is trying to serve, helping students put themselves in the place of others. However, as a student, I would have hated this. There has to be more authentic assignments out there than creating unreal versions of real life. Wouldn't it be better for students to actually find primary sources from the Library of Congress or other sources showing what Franklin Roosevelt's writings said? Or to create another ending to a story and then send them to the book's author?

If the work that kids are doing matters, we should treat it as such. If the technology how-to videos my 7th graders are making are important, than I should post them on a site for teachers to use (because let's face it, my 7th graders could teach many teachers a thing or two about technology). If students are learning about the periodic table, contact a scientist online and see if they can Skype with students and answer questions about how it impacts their job. If my students need to make a presentation about something, maybe I should have them create a Powerpoint or Keynote about about something they're trying to convince their parents of (what they want for Christmas?) and then use appropriate information (graphs showing allowance vs cost, images demonstrating the benefits to both, etc.) Or even presentations showing something that needs to be changed about the city and then pass them on to the mayor's office!

We have to show kids that they are learning things that matter to important people and that help our society function. Again, if the work that kids are doing matters, we should treat it like it does.