It’s a jump to the left…and a step to the right

Full Disclosure:  I am currently employed by The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools which is the organization which hosted the conference I presented at in October 2014.  As part of our job each year, we are each asked to give a presentation at the conference.
Each year the organization I work for holds a conference that brings charter school teachers, administrators, sponsors and management companies together for two days of collaboration.  As part of the conference, I have a slot reserved for a presentation.  The original idea I had for my presentation didn’t materialize due to various conflicts so I took a jump to the left and came up with a presentation, that for me was not radical but would be a change of pace for the conference and it’s attendees.  As with most conferences, the standard procedure called for presentations to be submitted months in advanced, reviewed and approved for the conference.  A good number of these presentations follow the popular format of sit and get.  This is the same format that we see employed in classrooms where the teacher is seen as the gatekeeper of knowledge.
It was just over two years ago that I got my first taste of an unconference at the annual Ohio Educational Technology Conference and my first Edcamp experience.  These formats exemplified everything that I liked about conferences.  As I had become a veteran of conferences, I started making friends and building my professional learning network and I found that the most interesting parts of the conference were the conversations that happened in the walk between sessions or the late night sessions at local establishments where we would get beyond the sit and get stuff that was the conference.  We were talking philosophy and a different approach to learning.  It excited me!
The Edcamp setup is where the people attending come together at the start of the day to build the board which will be the sessions for that day.  It is also a model where you vote with your feet and find a session that excites you.  None of the ten attendees in my session had ever heard of Edcamp or had been a part of a session of this nature.  I provided them with a crash course of how Edcamp functions and advised them to check out the Edcamp website for an event near them.  I recall basically telling them that Edcamp was everything this conference was not and that the conference format we put on drove me nuts because of the structure.
As our conference guide had went to print, I didn’t have a chance to change my session description and I showed up hoping for the best.  I should also note here that I had been sick the previous week and had lost my voice the night before so my presentation was going to be quite the adventure.  As the ten attendees entered the room and the session started, it was time for me to take them on the same jump to the left that I had taken and move them from their comfort zone (Hey…Stacy…I borrowed the comfort zone analogy!).  This jump was the idea that they would be active participants in this session, there would be no slide presentation, this was not going to be a sit and get session.  I boldly stated to them that I was going to suggest things that I may not necessarily agree with but the whole idea is to start a discussion and see where it leads.
The next part though was a step to the right that brought them back sort of to their comfort zone.  I told them that I know this presentation was not going to be as described in the conference guide and they can leave now or at any time throughout but they all stayed.  This is where I broke from the Edcamp format in my opinion as I had created questions ahead of time.  I did this because I didn’t know how many people would be in attendance, who my audience would be or if they would be comfortable with the idea of being an active participant in the session.  The questions were complied with the help of Stacy Hawthorne (@stacyhaw).  The questions were as follows:
1.  What, in your opinion, is impeding the integration of core content in technology?
2.  What factors or fears are keeping people from becoming “tech people”?  How might we overcome these fears?
3.  Describe some of the technology integrations that you have seen.  What caused them to succeed or fail?
4.  How might teacher education programs better prepare pre-service teachers to be effective technology integrators during their first year of teaching?
5.  How might a student show mastery instead of a traditional paper or exam? What are the benefits/downfalls of allowing alternative forms of mastery?
6.  How might we better prepare a student to enter a world where the expectation is the use of technology to conduct problem solving, communicate and collaborate across not only departments within a company but with a global community using technology?
We were able to get through all the questions above and diverted into other questions as a result of the discussions.  I also shared with them in relation to question 5 the work of Sean Wheeler (@mrwheeler) and Ken Kozar of because I think these two are onto something.  If you ever get the chance to sit down with Sean or Ken…take it!  The conversation with these two is amazing and my brain is always left trying to process what is discussed!  In summarizing the comments from the participants it was a bit disappointing for me to hear the same old argument being used.  The words money, mandates and lack of staff were the themes that kept creeping up in discussions.  I was hoping that we could come to something else (which I am not sure exactly what that is yet) where we didn’t beat the same dead horse.  We did make progress in other areas such as bringing the parents and students together for a class on resume writing for example or bringing the parents in to give real life examples of how they use the skills they learned in school in their everyday lives.  One item we arrived at was ensuring the students saw the light at the end of the tunnel and the importance of education.
There were two attendees who didn’t say a word the whole session but listened and took notes.  Were they engaged?  I’m not sure.  The session was the second to last session on a Friday and I felt that the attendees left the session not tired but excited and that was a major accomplishment for being the second to last session and a Friday.  As we ended the session I asked for feedback regarding the format and it was positive.  They enjoyed being an active participant, being part of the discussion.  I asked is this something you would take back and try in your school and the answer was yes.  The most satisfying part of the entire session and the conference for me was a question that came from the audience which was “How do we get you to come out to our school?”.
As I take a step to the right and rejoin the reality that is the real world I came to a few realizations.  The work I am doing now is work that I enjoy but is not the work that I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I find myself longing to be back in a school setting surrounded by teachers and students.  I had a conversation with a student at a school the other day who was building his own computer because he wanted to build a computer.  That conversation not only made my day but made my week and made me further realize that I miss being in that environment.  While I feel the work I am doing now is having an impact on student learning, I miss having those personal connections with students and teachers.  Helping them solve problems or letting them build something in an independent study class that is centered around technology.  It is not a question of if I will return to a school setting but when and when I do return to a school setting, I hope that I can bring the best of what I have learned over the last 3 years and what I will continue to learn to the environment and help move the school, administrators, teachers, students, parents and the community along the path.

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