What The Heck Is An EdCamp? (And Why Every Educator Should Know)

It was early September and I was feeling motivated to start a new year.  My Superintendent was still wishing everyone a “Happy New Year”, a term she uses with enthusiasm every September. I swear one year she is going to throw a party, complete with hats and noisemakers. You can see it in her eyes that she is genuinely excited to have our students back. Her positivity is contagious and even the most cantankerous school workers can’t resist to return her smile.

I was inspired by my boss–as I often am–to do more, be better, and do what’s right by the students of North Rockland. That’s probably why I made my way down to our Professional Development room despite the long list of phone messages and items on my to-do list.

I was a bit apprehensive about the reception I would receive from our English teachers, who like any group of teachers loveeeeeee being pulled from their classes, especially during the first week. I was pleasantly surprised when I found the group engaged in a meaningful conversation about the writing process with our consultant. It helped that the consultant was someone they trusted, respected, and delivered great ideas. It also helped that Kathy, a respected member of the department and one of the best teachers in the field of Education, had bought into the concept of “Making Writing” and was committed to go from “Great to Greater”.

I hung around for awhile, picking up some of the great strategies offered, listened to the participants’ thoughts, and tried to figure out ways to best support the teachers.

The lunch break arrived just in time as my adult ADD started to kick into overdrive (despite having my fidget spinner in hand) and my “to-do list” incessantly calling out to me.  

I took a minute a minute to catch up with some of our teachers, answer a few questions, and then chat with Angela Stockman, our consultant, and Gary Armida, our English Coordinator. Angela reiterated something that Gary and I already knew; we are blessed to work with such great people in North Rockland. She talked about the teachers’ openness, willingness to grow, strength to speak their mind respectfully, and, most of all, dedication to the students.

Even though I knew these things already it makes it even sweeter to hear from others, especially someone as well respected in our field as Angela. A familiar feeling of pride rose up in me, the same feeling I get when someone tells me what a personable kid my son Justin is, how funny Scott is, how creative Andrew is and, the one I hear most often, how positive Rebecca is.  

The conversation then shifted to education; I was trying to pick Angela’s brain about education and learn from her.  I always try to take the opportunity to learn from those I am around in the education field and that day was no exception. Angela spoke of writing, reading, compassion, and publishing.  She also mentioned something called “Ed Camp”. She explained that she had recently attended one near her home in Buffalo and picked up some excellent ideas.

Gary and I were intrigued and, after a bit of explanation, decided we were going host one. Two former coaches and one and half former athletes ( I am the half), we started to get competitive and decided that not only would we host an Edcamp, we would host “the best” Edcamp. Heck, we are North Rockland; we can do whatever we set our minds to!

That was how Edcamp Rockland (#edcamprockland) was born. The first step was to send some great minds an email, congratulating them for being selected to be a member of the EdCampRockland team. We selected smart, positive people who brought skill sets that complimented each other. Most importantly, I knew the people who were “honored” with membership to the team were too passionate about education to say no, despite the extra work, weekend days given up, and small amount of compensation they would receive…..an EdCampRockland T-shirt and string bag.  

Our Team

Craig M – The Tech guru

Gary – The Teacher

Laura- The Specialist (She does so many different things we have lost track of her actual title)

Karen- The creative mind

Lauren- The Science Coordinator with a Sonic the Hedgehog motor

Ed- The calming force who solves problems without breaking a sweat

Amanda- The soft spoken, amazingly talented and responsible data specialist

Diane- My right hand and the one who makes sure all my great ideas get done and that the not-so-great ideas don’t

We held the first meeting in my office. Karen started by asking a bit about what this event was all about. Gary and I tried to recap our conversation with Angela and said things like it is the “unconference” and “it’s a more organic learning experience.” and you “build a board”.

The group look a bit perplexed and Lauren said what everyone seemed to be thinking  “So what the heck is an Edcamp?”

I looked at Gary, he looked at me and we kinda shrugged and did what any self-respecting person would do in our situation…..we Googled it.  

What we found was interesting:

  • There is a Edcamp organization that will help support any group that is planning one.
  • It seems to be a growing movement with Edcamps being held throughout the country.
  • Many educational businesses, especially those with new products or services, will donate to Edcamps
  • There is no right or wrong way to do one as long as you do not charge admission, try to sell anything, and just offer opportunities to learn with other educators looking to grow.  

The group was excited and everyone was in, although Amanda looked a bit skeptical and troubled by the lack of structure or a clear cut plan; I can’t say I disagreed, but we were determined so we forged ahead.

Over the course of the next few weeks we met, organized, and divided up tasks.

  • Collect donations
  • Secure a location
  • Build a social media presence
  • Promote the event
  • Determine the hours and structure
  • Design our logo and banner
  • Find help for the day of the event

We were making progress, but still realized we still weren’t quite sure “what the heck an Edcamp was.”

That’s when Laura decided it was a must that we go see one in action. I agreed and felt it was something that needed to be done. In fact, I had planned to check one out that was scheduled for late January about two hours away in Jersey. I just didn’t feel it was fair to ask the team to give up another Saturday on top of all the extra after school work they were putting into this event.  

Laura just had her 4th child a couple of weeks earlier, but was willing to do it with the less than two hours sleep that new moms get and, of course, “Sonic” was up for the trip as well despite a late event the night prior to “Edcamp Blitz.” Gary was in too, but had to cancel, due to the only thing would keep him away…his daughter Emersen. Gary is a one of a kind teacher and leader, but, as dad, he is even better and more passionate.

We arrived at the high school where the event was held and the first thing that caught our eye was the omelette station and cooler full of free drinks for all those in attendance. We also loved the football theme that played nicely with the upcoming Super Bowl.

After a few minutes of awkwardness that comes with entering a new place that you are unfamiliar with we started to feel at home. Before mingling and checking out the mysterious board, we enjoyed delicious egg white omelettes, made fresh to order.

This gave me a moment to reflect; if three experienced educators who spent their whole lives in schools felt a bit uncomfortable entering a school where we knew no one, how must parents feel entering our schools? Especially, if they came from a different country, had a bad experience in school, or looked different from everyone else. This sparked a brainstorm session where we tried to come up with ways to make parents and community members feel more comfortable entering our schools.  

We came up with some decent ideas; my favorite was a parents’ “waiting room”. This could be a small space with some seating, literature about the school, and maybe even a Keurig machine or cold water.

I guess we didn’t need the two hour drive to talk about ways to make our schools better, but the relaxed, educational environment seemed to support this type of discussion. We rarely have a chance to just sit and talk to colleagues without thinking of all the things we have to do.  

This board at Edcamp blitz was created by having anyone who was interested sign up to present in one of the eight rooms during one of the three, hour long sessions. Once all the spots were filled, the board was deemed complete and it went live so the participants could view the offerings and determine which ones to participate in.  

The first session we visited was facilitated by Paul O’Neil a charismatic and energizing speaker who I had previously connected with on social media. Paul did not disappoint and led a discussion on how to improve culture in your school. He emphasized that it is not position, but rather passion and personality that determines leadership.

The rest of the day was fruitful. We met some great people, made some new connections, and left with some swag, some new ideas, and, most importantly, feeling inspired.

With our day fast approaching we felt more confident that we could pull this off. Vince and Tom from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt donated shirts, Michael from St. Thomas Aquinas donated string bags, Sparkys, the famous local diner, donated lunch, and Bennies, the best pizza in Rockland, donated to our prize pack. Those were just of few of the generous donations we were fortunate enough to provide to those who attended. It seems everyone was willing to give back to the profession because this event was not about anything other than giving back to the profession and making schools better places for kids.

We knew we were ready: we had prizes, we had a process for the board, we had our banner, our program guide, student helpers, live music (again provided by the students), and food plenty of food. Our biggest fear was that no one would show up.  

We all want to learn, we all want to get better, but who wants to give up a Saturday, especially after two nor’easters in five days, power still out in many homes in Rockland, and the day after a county wide professional development day?  At last check we had about a hundred people signed up, but I was pretty sure that Barack Obama, Aaron Judge, and Deez Nuts weren’t actually going to show up.

Our fears were alleviated pretty quickly as people started to pour in prior to the 8:00 start time. They kept coming and coming until, at last count, we had near 200 people show up. We had friends from local Districts like Ryan R., Dr. Joe, and Chris P., friends who previously worked in North Rockland like Colleen H, friends from social media, and many people we didn’t know…yet. I was pleasantly surprised when my Twitter friend Paul O’Neil (#PLN365) showed up to support the event. We even had @disruptingedu17, another social media connection, come all the way from Massachusetts.  

It was a great day and I couldn’t have been more proud of the team.  A brief rundown of the what our participants experienced:

Arrival and check-in with students at the front desk to get a raffle ticket and flyer that recognized sponsors, provided wifi info, room locations,and the bit.ly to the board that was to be built.

Move to the next student-manned station where they picked up their EdCampRockland T-shirt, and string bag filled with education related prizes.

After picking up their swag, they made their way to the cafeteria where a student group played classical music. In the cafeteria, food was served from the famous Rockland Bakery, coffee, drinks, and eggs served by the always smiling, efficient, and positive Lori, the supervisor of the High School cafeteria.  

On the tables were large yellow and pink post-its. Yellow post-its were to put topics you were interested in discussing or learning about and pink were to indicate topics you were willing to facilitate. You could choose to just participate, facilitate, or any combination of the two.  

As I was walking around greeting guests, the team had somehow miraculously matched topics of interest with those willing to facilitate.

When I noticed the board was getting close to being complete I was forced to interrupt the authentic conversations and offer some directions, pull a few raffle prizes, and offer those looking to network an opportunity to provide me and other administrators with their resume.  

Before long we had nine 45 minute session for each of our three blocks of time. We had decided to have shorter sessions with 15 minutes built in between to allow for more discussions, enjoy snacks donated by our local Stop and Shop, and, most importantly, feel relaxed. It was a Saturday after all.  

I was impressed by all of the sessions. A sample of those offered were:

  • Mindfulness lead by Ruby Sneakers
  • Emotional Intelligence by Mary E.
  • Flipgrid and the Flipped Classroom by Chris P and Ed
  • Special Education by Sarah S
  • School Climate by Paul O’Neil
  • Filling buckets by Laura and Rebecca
  • Readers/Writers workshop by Principal Flip Johnson

Gary was even able to sign us up for a Teacher and the Admin session on homework. It was definitely one of the highlights of my day, second only to the teacher who made a point to tell me how genuine, smart, and down to earth our student workers were. In fact she told me that after her “real” conversation with them, she was seriously contemplating sending her own children to North Rockland.  

After the last session we brought everyone back to the cafeteria for lunch, open mic takeaways, and, of course, the raffles. I was surprised by how many people stayed until the end and that the conversations still flowed long after last raffle drawn, and last slices served. People seemed genuinely inspired by their colleagues, willing to share ideas, learn new concepts, and do something different. Our whole team was very proud when Paul, who has been to several Edcamps, expressed what a great event we had pulled off during his time on the mic.

It didn’t take long for the team to start brainstorming ways to make the event even bigger and better next year. I was on a high and they were too. I knew I was pretty lucky to have such a great group of people to work with. We had spent the whole morning with a bunch of educators and not once did we hear a complaint, a “yeah, but”, a “that’s the way we do it around here”. I only heard discussions on how to make things better and a genuine openness to learn.  

That’s when I realized what makes edcamps so special. There is no one telling you that you must learn this or you must do that. You can follow your passion with other like-minded educators who are crazy enough to give up a Saturday in March to learn.

I left wondering how we can make all professional development more passion-driven like this and can we steal from this model to make learning for our students more authentic, inspiring, and innovative?