The first day of Educon is supposed to be an opportunity for conference participants to see the host school, Science Leadership Academy, on a more-or-less normal day. We can go to conferences and talk all we want about inquiry-driven project-based learning, but it’s much more valuable to see what’s actually happening in the classrooms of these so-called experts. So Educon is designed to allow time for visitors to observe classes, talk with students and staff, get a feel for the school culture, and generally get some context before the sessions start on Saturday.
It didn’t quite happen that way. At 7:00 PM on Thursday, the School District of Philadelphia announced a snow day for Friday. It had snowed a lot over the previous 36 hours. School had been closed on Thursday, and there were still huge piles of snow in the middle of the streets. Buses weren’t running. Residents were trying to dig out their cars. There was no practical way for the students to get to school.
Chris Lehmann, the principal of the school, seemed a bit worried. This was supposed to be a nice, relaxing dinner with some friends before the craziness of the Educon weekend started. But Chris was pacing. And talking on his cell phone. And having conversations with his teachers. And texting. And pacing some more.
I don’t blame him. He had 500 guests coming from all over North America, and no plan of what to do with them. The teachers, though, weren’t worried. Things change. You have to roll with the punches. Teachers are good at adapting. They’re also good at calming down principals.
The text messages started coming from the students. They wanted to come anyway. “Please don’t make me stay home.” “I’m coming whether school is closed or not.” And they meant it. Despite not having any way to get to school, 150 of the school’s 500 students showed up on the snow day. This is their school. They’re proud of it. And they have visitors coming.
In the end, Friday became an unconference day. The bulletin board was marked off in a grid, and anyone could throw up a topic in a time slot and have an impromptu session. I was invited (encouraged) to throw a hat into the ring. But it was too soon for me. I was the new guy. I’d never been to Educon before. And the place was filled with rock stars. It was a veritable Who’s Who in educational technology. So I just attended others’ sessions. I met some great people. I heard some diverse perspectives. I contributed a little to some of the discussions. It was a productive day.
Four days later, I found myself in a different city, at a different conference, in a different storm. The ice storm at the eTech Ohio Educational Technology Conference sent many people home on the first night, and attendance continued to dwindle on Tuesday as reports of more freezing rain and high winds made people want to get back home. Many presenters canceled their sessions, and there were lots of empty rooms available.
Ryan Collins suggested that we do some sort of impromptu session:
@schinker aren’t there Unconference rooms available at #oetc11 Maybe we should do something tomorrow if the weather doesn’t improve.
I was all for it. I asked the network what kind of session they wanted. Jeremy Brueck chimed in. Like me, he had just come from Educon:
@schinker @mr_rcollins Why wait until 2mrrw? Start today. I have 5 iPads and 8 iPod Touch I’m bringing over. Interested in hands-on w/ iOS?
Within ten minutes, we had scheduled a session for noon the same day: Hands-On with iDevices. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know much about iPads or iPod Touches. We found an empty room and tweeted out. The official conference people added us to the schedule. Then others started. Can we have some of the more popular sessions repeated? What other kinds of things can we do? What had been a conference with an agenda and schedule determined weeks in advance turned into a dynamic experience responding to the needs of those present.
On Wednesday, the last day of the conference, they had a problem. Brene Brown, the day’s keynote speaker, was stuck in Texas. Apparently, Skyping her in was not practical. As Katherine Harkin, the director of eTech Ohio, explained this to the crowd, I half-expected her to ask for volunteers. I could think of at least half a dozen people who could pinch-hit a keynote with 10 minutes’ notice. Many of them would probably be willing to Skype in and talk to a few hundred teachers. And, by that time, I would have done it myself if offered the opportunity.
We don’t have to be the all-knowing oracles that teachers once were. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just have to have some good questions, the abililty to lead a discussion, and the willingness to let go of the control.
Next time, I’ll throw something up on the unconference board at Educon. I’ve learned a lot this week.