Wednesday, May 30, 2012

No Artificial Flavors

This past month, I’ve felt like I’ve died and gone to PD Heaven. Yes, Professional Development and Heaven: terms I never thought I’d use in the same sentence. But here I am writing this, and meaning it.
This past month I’ve gone to two incredible education conferences without paying a cent and one without even leaving my desk. Education has been turned on its head, and it seems Professional Development is following suit.
On May 2nd, I attended Google On-Air, a day chocked full of 47 live hour-long  concurrent sessions:  Attendees didn’t pay a penny; they just showed up in Google+ for sessions that interested them. I lurked in a dozen sessions over the course of the day and participated in two “Hang Outs,” which meant my live mug was on the screen along with 9 other other educators, asking questions, giving suggestions, and sharing screenshots as an unlimited outside audience watched.
The “Take Away” from Google On-Air was inspiring and practical. I learned from classroom teachers and from technology pioneers alike. I can think of a dozen changes I’ve already made regarding what I’ve learned and I have a list of others I’m dying to implement when time allows. Even better? Each of the 47 sessions is archived online, ready, free and waiting for anyone to see:  A chunk of my summer will be spent exploring its treasures. There we were: a community of educators from around the country and around the world and country collaborating virtually because we wanted to.
A friend of mine who teaches in Florida calls this group “The Society of Yes” – a group of education enthusiasts who have found each other through blogs, listserves, and Twitter, who refuse to encounter a good idea without sharing it, and who know that if we share what we learn we can incrementally change the world and its classrooms for the better. The Society of Yes doesn’t do this because our names are being checked off on an attendance list or because it’s in our contract; we do it because we are compelled to learn, because it’s who we are.
Just ten days after Google On-Air, I encountered more from “The Society of Yes” at EdCamp Milwaukee,  the 100th of its kind in the U.S. over the past two years.
Here was the deal: EdCamp was available to the first 250 to sign up. After showing up on a Saturday morning at South Milwaukee High School and chatting over bagels with some new friends, we hit the auditorium where we collectively Skyped with the founders of EdCamp (EdCamp Philly). They explained their EdCamp vision: An collaborative, free exchange of ideas, where there is no “expert,” but educators learning along side each other.
That’s exactly what it was.
Instructions for the day were simple and liberating, things like:
- “This day is about you; move from session to session; no one’s feelings will be hurt: it’s about your learning”
- “It’s about conversation and having the right people in that conversation”
- “Follow the Twitter feed; see what’s happening in other sessions: stop by if it’s a better fit for you. ‘Vote with your feet’”
Then, we the people, determined the day’s agenda. It started with a blank white board in front of the auditorium, a stack of post-it notes, and a microphone. What happened next was democracy in action.
One-by-one educators came up to the microphone and proposed a topic they wanted to lead a session, or a topic of interest for a discussion session: flipped classroom, multimedia integration, learning stations, student help desks, learning coaches, mastery learning.  Announce it, record it on a post it, and stick it in a time slot on the whiteboard.
Though this was my first EdCamp, I found myself suddenly courageous: spotting a new friend (from the Society of Yes) I’d met at breakfast, I invited him to co-facilitate a session on Tech integration in Secondary English. A post it note later, we were on the agenda.
Within 20 minutes, a shared Google Spreadsheet came together and a full-day’s agenda was born: containing way more interesting sessions per hour than one could humanely attend.
The day maintained a steady clip of collaboration and learning; important discussions; shared frustrations; fruitful brainstorming, and loads of learning. In each session, we tweeted out tips, links, and advice, all collected under our #EdCampMke hashtag and on shared Google Docs.
It was fluid and exciting. For only one session did I stay in the room the whole time—the one I co-facilitated (it seemed the right thing to do); otherwise, I was taking and giving and sharing and moving and experiencing the most exciting single day of professional development of my 18 years in education.
It was an incredibly democratic, collaborative, liberating…utopian even: several times during the day, I found myself silently saying “This is how the world is supposed to operate.” And there it was.
These days, I’m doing a great deal of questioning about how learning really happens versus how it allegedly happens. In recent years, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting another Master’s Degree; this time in Educational Technology: a formal credential to back up what I’m now doing in the classroom. However, the more I investigate the degree program the more I realize its requirements do not correspond with where I’m headed and what I need to get there. I have come to the conclusion (cemented by a conversation with a mentor at EdCamp) that getting an Edtech Master’s degree will do little for me. That a more organic approach to my education will yield greater growth.  That earning specific tech certifications useful to my practice, that self-teaching using online tutorials, that attending EdCamps and virtual conferences, that collaborating with edtech like-mindeds on Twitter and the blogosphere supersede the old paradigm of “get another degree.”
I’m not the only one thinking these things. And it’s not just educators, but about all learners. One of my Twitter colleagues led me to a recent article Thomas Friedman who wrote of Stanford Professor Andrew Ng’s foray into free, online learning. “’I normally teach 400 students,’ Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning.’” He, and others like him, perhaps for the first time in history, are attempting to create truly free and public education.
This is exciting. This is subversive. This is democracy.