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Edcamps offer great professional development for teachers

Stephanie CarmichaelJune 8, 2016

Jess Henze is a passionate, driven educator and lifelong learner. She strives to have a first year’s experience every year and rarely does things the same way twice. Through constant professional networking, both virtually and personally, she has learned so much from so many people. She has a blended family that keeps her on her toes and brings joy to her life every day.​

Tell us a little about yourself as an educator and what subjects and grade levels you teach.

Jesse Henze: I am an eighth grade science teacher in Edgerton, Wisconsin. It’s a fairly small town, but we’re 1:1 iPad Minis with our students. I came to the district I’m in now a few years ago as a result of edcamps. The principal that I worked for last year was very much into edcamps and very much a lifelong learner.

I’ve been teaching now for 10 years. I did about six years in Madison and two years in Milwaukee as well.

It sounds like edcamps have been integral to your career as a teacher.

Henze: Absolutely. I honestly couldn’t even think about where I would be without having attended my first edcamp, which was in Milwaukee. It was the first one in the state. I went and they introduced this whole idea of “vote with your feet.” Typically, when you go to an educational conference, you sign up for specific sessions and go to those sessions. One of the philosophies with edcamps is that if you’re not getting what you need to out of a session, you get up and go to another session and chime in on conversations as you go.

“I’ve continued to go to edcamps because I can learn pretty much anything that I want to.”

I’ve learned so much. I’ve connected with so many phenomenal educators that share a similar passion. It’s an amazing experience. … I’ve continued to go to edcamps because I can learn pretty much anything that I want to.

What is an edcamp exactly?

Henze: The going term or phrase that is related to edcamps is that it’s an “un-conference.” Because it’s an open and not set schedule, it’s a lot more laid back.

I know that not having a session schedule ahead of time can be a little intimidating or anxiety-filled for some people. I basically just tell them that we start the day off with a light breakfast, and we do a lot of networking where you get to talk to people and share ideas. We really encourage the veteran attendees to touch base with people who are new because the first time you go to an edcamp, it can be really intimidating. But at the same time, as you learn from these people who have made a name for themselves through networking, you tend to loosen up and think, “Oh, this is really cool, and I can get a lot out of this.”

What’s a day at an edcamp like?

Henze: The other big philosophy of edcamps is the session schedule is completely blank when everybody arrives. We will do some networking in the cafeteria or the commons, and then we have the opportunity to welcome everybody in. Then we do session-building where we basically give people Post-It notes and we say, “What do you want to learn about?” They come up, and we call it “pitch and plan.” So they pitch the session and slap it onto a Post-It note, and we put it onto the empty schedule.

“I think the number one value of edcamps is the people that are there.”

Because it’s a “pitch and plan” kind of thing, basically the participants become the presenters. It’s not something that’s so formal like, “I’m gonna have this really long PowerPoint presentation set up.” A lot of times there are panel discussions or Q&As, or “let me just talk to you about this.” There are lots of different things you can do. It doesn’t always center on technology, but it often does because the people who are attending edcamps are usually more innovative and want to learn more about technology and best practices. It’s nice because people have the opportunity to learn from people who are already doing it, and they get to know, “OK, what do I need to do to implement this into my classroom on Monday?”

What’s the value of attending edcamps if you’re a teacher?

Henze: I think the number one value of edcamps is the people that are there. You can go to as many conferences as you want to and focus on specific things, but what’s really nice about an edcamp is that you’re going to get a wide range and variety of things to do—different sessions and different people to talk to that might not be someone you’d normally talk to at another conference. The networking that you can have and just to be able to bounce ideas off each other, or make lasting friendships from people you had never even considered … It’s just amazing.

Often, especially during this time of year—January, February, March, between winter break and spring break—so many people tend to go downhill. You kind of feel like you’re burnt out, and students are driving you nuts because they’re all cooped up inside. With edcamps, it’s a huge boost to your attitude because you get pumped up. You leave edcamp after a day, and there are so many things whirling around in your head and so many cool things that you’ve heard that you just want to go back and implement them. It really re-motivates you and reignites your fire as a teacher.

Even if people don’t think they’d get anything out of it, I’d say, give us the morning. If you think it’s not for you, then go home. There’s no money lost. It doesn’t cost anything to attend. There’s nothing lost if you don’t stay, but so often when I’ve said that to somebody and they come … they’re there all the way through the door prizes at the end of the day.

For teachers who are new to edcamps, how can they get started?

Henze: The first thing that you really need to do is find one near you. Oftentimes, if you’re even hearing about an edcamp, it’s because somebody is already registered and is talking about it. A lot of word of mouth and a lot of social networking happen. We have both Twitter and Facebook as far as getting the word out to help people and sharing information.

Edcamps are worldwide now. The movement has crossed seas and moved elsewhere. has a map that shows all of them on there. The entire United States is just covered with little dots because it’s a Google Map. So there are pins everywhere. Just in Wisconsin, there are probably eight or nine.

How have edcamps improved how you see yourself as an educator?

Henze: I would have never seen myself presenting or suggesting sessions to happen at edcamp. For the last one I attended, there were four sessions, and I was talking for three of them. My role at edcamp, having been to probably 15 of them now, has changed from learner to leader. I go to do things to help people. It’s been a nice change for me personally and professionally because I can feel like I belong.

If I look at myself even six years ago in my classroom, I was boring. When I look back to see where I have come, it’s been a drastic change. Even my husband said this year, because of learning different things from edcamp—like gamification and talking to people on Twitter about Classcraft—I have pretty much thrown by the wayside the old-school version of what my classroom looked like. I don’t care what anybody else thinks because the kids are excited.

Share your ideas: Have you attended an edcamp before?

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