EdCamp: a PD oasis in a desert of duds

BAM, consonance on D and S!

More importantly, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the strange creature that is professional development. I distinctly remember being a student teacher and looking so forward to my first PD experience. I thought, “Oh WOW am I ever ready to be professionally developed! This is going to be so great and.. developing! And.. professional!”

Fast forward a handful of years and that naïve enthusiasm has pretty much vanished like a bag of potato chips during PMS week.

PD is perhaps one of the biggest enigmas in my field of work. It’s called professional development and yet, when you go, you often leave feeling irritable and tired. You feel kind of like you’ve wasted your time. Like the stuff the people were presenting about was exactly the same stuff you heard about last year. And the year before that. Catch words/phrases like “21st-Century Learning,” and “differentiation,” and “inquiry” sort of get tossed about like the daily weather report. Everyone’s already heard about it but we’re going to talk about it anyway. Turn around, see someone you haven’t mentioned it to yet. Discuss ad nauseum. Feel developed yet?

Don’t get me wrong. Much of PD is like this but once in a while, you go to a session that restores your faith in good PD. I HAVE had worthwhile, enlightening, brilliant PD sessions. I would be remiss to write any kind of post about PD without mentioning Kelly Gallagher at least once. You might have already read my post about my first-ever (and so far, only) Twitter #engchat experience, but I joined in that day solely because he was facilitating the discussion(s). His books are on my wishlists and his website is a gem of a resource. If you teach English Language Arts/literacy, you definitely want to peruse that site. Other than Kelly’s PDs, I’ve attended some other great sessions on adolescent writers, film studies, teen cognitive development, differentiation, and assessment.

That said, I’ve definitely found myself in more bad PD than good, and have occasionally been embarrassed by my own “Oops I fell asleep” head bob. I use the desert analogy in my post title not simply for the alliterative delightfulness, but also because when we think about deserts, we think about… well, I think about camels. But generally, we think about thirst. And I thirst for good PD. I thirst for PD that is meaningful, worthwhile, relevant. PD that is real. PD that does what I think PD is supposed to do.

What I think PD is supposed to do is present something new. We keep saying, “Oh, let’s talk about differentiation in a new, exciting way!” but then we default to “What is differentiation?” and “What are learning styles?” and the same stuff we did last year. I’m not interested in talking about theoretical stuff anymore. I want something concrete. I want teaching ideas. I want cues. I want what Kelly Gallagher calls “ways in.” I want fresh perspectives that are coming directly from the front lines — from educators who, like me, face the joys/fears/excitement/self-loathing that comes with being in the classroom every day with young people, hoping to make a difference.

And there is a lot of PD that is led by people who are no longer actively working in a school setting. I don’t know how to feel about those sessions. And what I’m about to say may be more ignorant than anything else… But the truth is that when push comes to shove, and I’m faced with a choice of “Hear from someone who is teaching/working in schools TODAY” and “Hear from someone who has worked in a downtown office for five years,” I’m going to pick the former. Not because I think the second person has nothing to offer, but because I think teaching is one of those professions that evolves on a daily basis (and that strangely/paradoxically/maddeningly/[insertadverbhere] also never changes.. hmm).

I also think it’s somewhere between hysterically funny and horribly tragic that we’ll actually go to PDs on inquiry- or discovery-based learning and have a person LECTURE us for two hours straight. What? Did I miss something?

I’m lucky to have made friends and worked with some pretty fantastic professionals in my first real teaching job. The ladies in my department were (and still are) just utterly fabulous human beings, and I really learned to be more vocal about my work and to share my ideas because of my friendships with them. One day, one of my English Department colleagues, Erin, started talking about something called EdCamp. It’s supposed to be an “unconference” and is essentially PD that is organized and facilitated and attended by teachers. EdCamp is for people who want to talk about what they want to talk about. There are some driving concepts behind EdCamp: 1) EdCamp is generally free or low-cost. 2) EdCamp topics are decided THAT day by the people in attendance so that they can discuss what matters to them. 3) EdCamp strives to provide opportunities for people to ditch the theoretical nonsense and get to the practical application of teaching principles/ideologies in their classrooms. 4) EdCamp is collaborative and it is centered around professional sharing. 5) EdCamp is awesome.

Erin and some others assembled an EdCamp Edmonton organization team and put on the first EdCamp Edmonton last November. It was everything I hoped it would be. My best friend (French Immersion, 1ère année) even came with me to soak everything up. I invited my friend Megan to join in, too. Megan, by the by, has the greatest teacher Tumblr ever, and is a forward-thinking, ingenious, incredibly-well-dressed woman who I admired even when we were Ed students together. I continue to be fascinated by her ideas and vision and frankness about everything she does.

We were joined by a bunch of other wonderful, inspiring people, who helped to make EdCamp 1.0 a success (Click that link to check out our Google Doc from the day!), so I was looking forward to this year’s EdCamp with great zeal. And rightfully so.

Some highlights of this year’s EdCamp for me included meeting new people and finding inspiring Tweeps to follow, as well as seeing some familiar faces from last year. I was also super stoked to contribute to a wickedly amazing Google Doc that became yet another invaluable piece of PD documentation. I loved eating a predictably delicious lunch made with love by Erin’s parents. I felt enriched and challenged and hopeful while talking about Project/Problem-Based Learning, Poetry, Reading Comprehension and all things ELA, awesome websites for educational use, and current events in the classroom. We did a particularly fun activity towards the end of lunch hour that was named, “Things that Suck,” wherein some contentious educational topics were presented and we physically moved to place ourselves on a continuum of “for” or “against” and debate back and forth. We debated grades, technology, homework, and… something else. It was so. much. fun.

And throughout all of this, perhaps the one thing that was the BEST part of EdCamp was this: I felt, as I did at the last EdCamp, that I’m not alone in the way I feel about my job. Here you had a passionate group of educators who got together on a Saturday to discuss their craft, to bemoan the obstacles and policies that hinder us from doing what we’d like to do, and to celebrate the things we have been able to do. We were a group of people who see that rigorous, standardized testing is killing our kids (and us); who see that assessment practices need to change; and who realize that in the most paradoxical way, the best way we can teach is by stepping aside (sometimes) and giving our students the space they need so they can actually learn. I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. It makes me laugh to think that schools spend hundreds of dollars per teacher annually to send us to PD and yet, some of the most meaningful PD I’ll get all year was for free.

EdCamp came at just the right time, especially while I’m nearing the first report card and really coming to terms with this whole new world of teaching challenges and with the room for growth in my professional practice. EdCamp and the fantastic, beautiful people who attended it reminded me to keep trying to do things differently, not to let myself be jaded, and to keep pushing myself to do what’s best for my students rather than what’s easiest for me.

Hope I’ll see you at the next one.

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3 Comments

Filed under PD

3 responses to “EdCamp: a PD oasis in a desert of duds

  1. Pingback: How Not to Fail our ELLs | And then she taught!

  2. Natasha Allen

    Manda, I am so excited about #edcampyeg on November 2, 2013, that I am using your fabulous post about last year’s camp to hopefully motivate some of my colleagues to join in! Thanks for a great post!

  3. Pingback: Project Idea: Social Studies 9 (Alberta POS) | And then she taught!

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