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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Our Edcamp Failed

By Peter DeWitt — February 28, 2013 5 min read
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“We always talk about how failure is good but never give examples of how we actually fail.” Jessica Johnson

On December 1st 2012, educators from around the state of New Jersey got together for an Edcamp. For months leading up to the event there was a buzz on social media. Teachers, principals and other staff that work in schools were Tweeting how they couldn’t wait for the Saturday event. From an outside perspective, it was a very successful edcamp. They had presenters, participants and prizes. As a neighbor to the north, I was green with envy.

As a fan of professional development I love when teachers and administrators share best practices, which is probably why I am hooked on Twitter. In the district where I am a principal, I have created a couple of inservices where teachers shared their best practices and it was an awesome experience. The collective thoughts of a group are much more engaging and powerful than the thoughts of one person in the front of the classroom.

Given the power of Edcamp New Jersey, I decided to take a risk and create an edcamp for the school district where I work. As an elementary school principal, it’s intimidating to put myself out there for the whole district because if it failed, I was worried I would take it personally. Plus, the staff in other schools don’t know me like my staff does.

In preparation, I wrote a blog called Edcamps; The New Professional Development and used it as a blueprint as a plan for our district edcamp. In the blog I wrote,

Money is short, and many of us have always believed that our best resources are within our own schools...or we probably wouldn't have hired them in the first place. Schools can create their own Edcamp for teachers and administrators within their district. If the district is too large, they can be separated by elementary, middle and high school. The best thing about an Edcamp is that they are open to the flexibility of the person organizing the event."

There was only one problem...it failed.

Jessica Johnson, an elementary principal in Wisconsin and an important member of my PLN, once said in a Tweet that “we always talk about how failure is good but never give examples of how we actually fail.” So in an effort to help you succeed, and perhaps help me succeed the next time, I wanted to provide the steps I took on my Titanic-type voyage to a district-wide Edcamp.

The Plan
In late September/early October I spoke with the K-12 admin team about doing an Edcamp. I already spoke to Lynn, our Director of Technology and a person who constantly helps stretch my thinking. Lynn was highly supportive of the Edcamp and her two-member team began coming up with ideas of what we could do. They went off to their tech-cave and began hashing a plan.

I put out an e-mail to the whole district and said when the first meeting of the Edcamp team would take place. I used my edcamp blog as a reference along with other resources so they understood what an edcamp was because some people had never heard of one. At the first meeting, 12 people showed up. It was a mixture of technology staff (there are only 3 of them) district administration, building administration and teachers. Most of the teachers were the staff I work with every day so I appreciated their support.

In our meeting we came up with a date of Saturday, February 9th and decided to hold the edcamp from 9 am to noon. We wanted a mid-winter edcamp so people could get a break from the cold weather. Some of the committee members came up with the following ideas:
Wordle - it combined all the words we could think of to describe an edcamp.

Edcamp logo - we knew we needed to market the idea and every marketing campaign includes a great logo.
Webpage - we wanted a place where people could go to read resources and get a feel for an edcamp so they wouldn’t be intimidated to attend or present.
E-mail address - We created an address where people could send their presentation ideas or interest in participating.
In-service credit - We offered inservice credit for those staff members who attended and doubled it for those who presented.

For all intents and purposes, we thought our district-wide edcamp would be successful. After all, it was a trending idea in many states around the country. Unfortunately, over a two month period we heard from about 8 people who said they would attend, and most of those were on the committee. One person wondered if an administrator would present, and two teachers said they would present. After a couple of months, a few reminder e-mails, and a final deadline to present, we cancelled the edcamp. So, why did it fail?

What Happened!
Like usual, I consulted with the teachers I work with every day. We always have open dialogue about our success and failures. The following were some of the issues they had and others that I came up with through my own reflection.

Timing - I started the edcamp campaign at the end of September/early October which was the same time teachers finished completing their first ever state-mandated Student Learning Objectives (SLO). They didn’t have time to consider attending and presenting.

Accountability - This school year has been like no other because of the accountability we are all under. It’s not an excuse but a reality. Teachers feel stifled and worry about doing one more thing. At a time when we should be inspiring creativity, accountability is killing it for some people.

The Common Core (CCSS) - This was the first year in the CCSS implementation for certain grade levels and they are more concerned about doing the Common Core correctly than trying to present at an edcamp.

Burnout - The year began with so many state-mandated accountability measures that people just didn’t feel like doing one more thing, regardless of whether it was a good idea or not.

Social Media - One of the reasons why edcamps are trending ideas around the country is because they are being done at a state-level, not necessarily a district-level. Social media plays a huge part in it because most of the attendees and all of the presenters are on Twitter and the excitement builds naturally over months through those on-line conversations.

We will try a district-wide edcamp again because our committee heard from staff after it was cancelled. Ironically, upstate New York was hit with a huge snowstorm through the Saturday the edcamp was supposed to take place, so it would have been cancelled any way. However, as we all know, we can learn many important lessons through failure, and I definitely learned some things through this one.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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