Almost every Saturday, in the U.S. and abroad, teachers are doing the important work of reclaiming the phrase “professional development.” They’re reclaiming it from the years they’ve spent sitting through dull PowerPoints delivered by expensive consultants who haven’t taught in years. They’re reclaiming the opportunity to get information relevant to their classrooms. They’re reclaiming the ability to declare their own expertise and share their accumulated knowledge with others.

They’re reclaiming professional development at Edcamp. But what makes Edcamp so different from traditional professional development?

Edcamp is an “unconference.” Let’s start with the conference portion first. Like many other conferences, Edcamps are a gathering of teachers. The people attending generally register ahead of time. There’s most likely going to be some sort of light breakfast option.

But things aren’t as they first seem. Thanks to the generous donations from sponsors, that registration is free. Other conferences can cost hundreds of dollars to attend, but Edcamps started and remain free to attend for all participants. [full disclosure: SmartBrief is a strategic partner of the Edcamp Foundation, and has provided funds that enable local organizers to offer mini-grant scholarships to educators.]

We call our attendees participants, because they’re really the ones who run the show. At the beginning of the day, participants enter to their light breakfast and a blank schedule board. Over the first hour, participants fill in the schedule with sessions related to their passions, interests and questions. They form discussion groups and hands-on sessions. They share programs that have worked in their schools and advice for implementing those programs elsewhere. They share the latest tools and technologies and ways to use them in the classroom. At most events, continuing-education credits are not given — attendees have just given up a precious day off to work on the unending task of becoming a better teacher.

By creating a structure and then letting the participants take control, Edcamps become moving and powerful days, as teachers wrestle with ideas big and small, try new tools and stretch their minds to accommodate new perspectives. To give you an idea of the sheer variety, here are my three favorite sessions from the two years that I’ve been organizing and attending Edcamps.

  • A session at Edcamp OC (2011), run by students of Rob Greco, about the urban adventure field trips they take as a part of their school’s program, confidently and honestly discussing what they liked and didn’t like about the program, as well as the triumphs and challenges they faced.
  • A session at Edcamp Boston (2011) run by Jenny Leung, a middle-school classroom teacher, on the use of theater games in the classroom. She switched artfully between explanations of why she used the games and hands-on demonstrations of how to use them in the classroom.
  • A session at Edcamp Philly (2012) run by Miller Rothlein, about how collaborating with a local school to create a dance program to teach quantum physics to sixth-graders. The session included video of the students, discussions about the presence of the arts in schools and the influence of online learning networks in arts development.

I loved each of these sessions because they forced me to take a new look at how I run my classroom and how my school runs its programs.

Fortunately for participants, if these sessions don’t sound valuable to their professional growth, there’s plenty more to choose from at every event. Unlike a school’s professional development, participants are encouraged to leave sessions that don’t meet their needs. We call it “vote with your feet,” and tell people that they need to make the most of their learning opportunity. They shouldn’t waste time in a session where they’re not going to be actively engaged with the topic at hand.

Edcamp isn’t alone in bringing unconferences to educators. The U.K. has seen TeachMeets since 2005 (with a few events in the U.S.), and NECC/ISTE has hosted EduBloggerCon/SocialEdCon since 2007. New Zealand has had its own EduCamps, and that name has seen other fits and starts in the U.S. But thanks in part to being in the right place at the right time of social media usage, none has grown as quickly as Edcamp. The first event, held in Philadelphia in 2010, has lead to over 100 events in two years. In addition to the U.S., we’ve seen events in Canada, Sweden, Hong Kong, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Santiago, Chile.

If you’d like to attend an Edcamp, consult the calendar for more information and to see if an event is happening near you.

Dan Callahan is a K-5 instructional technology specialist at Pine Glen School for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts and serves as chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit Edcamp Foundation. He blogs at Remix Teaching.

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