We are crammed three deep in a bright classroom on the campus of Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield Township, New Jersey, and Justin Schleider is leading several dozen laughing, hyped-up fellow teachers in a full-body game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Afterwards, the participants, iPads and laptops in hand, excitedly throw out ideas, many of which involve tech “tricks” with apps like EDpuzzle or the Google suite.

“My parameters were simple — have the crowd interact,” says Schleider, the physical education chair at Springfield Elementary in Burlington County, New Jersey. (His EdcampNJ session was titled “Turning Tricks in the Classroom.”) “We all play in the same sandbox. Just because I’m the one in front doesn’t make me an expert. Edcamps are all about the room being smarter than the individual.”

The Edcamp, or “unconference,” model is simple: It’s free and open to anyone, except vendors, and the people who show up facilitate the conversations. The schedule isn’t decided until the morning of, with anyone who wants to do a session posting a bright, oversize Post-it on the wall. Organizers then assign each session a time slot and a room, and the learning begins.

This is the new professional development, by teachers, for teachers, and it’s a far cry from top-down conferences or district-run PD. While doing Rock, Paper, Scissors with a bunch of your fellow educators might sound like a waste of time, the learning that occurs is anything but. And it’s inspiring educators to go back to their classrooms determined to hack the old way of doing things and get kids more deeply engaged in learning.

“We have people say, ‘What if nothing happens? What if no one shows up?’” says Hadley Ferguson, a cofounder of the first Edcamp (2010, in Philadelphia) and executive director of the Edcamp Foundation. “Just believe it will happen. We’re at 926 Edcamps, and it always happens. Whether it’s 20 teachers or 500, they always find plenty of things to talk about.”

“Teachers are hungry to have conversations with one another,” she continues. “I call it ‘Edcamp magic.’ They’re getting up very early on a Saturday and driving good distances to be with other passionate educators.”

What to Expect

First, know that you’re not alone. “Most Edcamps are 60 to 70 percent newbies,” says Jeff Bradbury, coordinator of instructional technology at Westwood Regional School District in New Jersey and an EdcampNJ organizer. “Organizers are happy to walk people through [the Edcamp process].”

“In the last e-mail we send out, we include a link and say, ‘Watch this video to learn more about a day in Edcamp,’” explains organizer Billy Krakower, a computer technology instructor and G&T teacher for grades 3–4 at Beatrice Gilmore Elementary School in Woodland Park, New Jersey. “And first thing in the morning, we always do Edcamp 101.”

William Chamberlain, a social studies teacher at Noel Elementary School in Missouri, drives several hours to attend Edcamp in Kansas City. “My best experiences were at my first few Edcamps. They work very well on that introductory level, though I’ve never felt like my time has been wasted. I always have interesting conversations — sometimes even in a session.”

Others concur that some of the best conversations happen outside sessions. “This is an Edcamp session,” says Bradbury, gesturing between us. “Two people talking. That is what makes Edcamps so special.”

Serendipity is part of the appeal as well. “Everything surprises me at Edcamps,” says Schleider. “I never know who will be there or what to expect. That’s what I love: watching the sessions go up on the board and wondering what they will be about and who will be facilitating them.”

You might even learn how to set up a makerspace or wield a light saber. Meredith Martin, a grades 4–6 STEM teacher at J. Mason Tomlin School in Mantua, New Jersey, was invited to set up shop in the gym at Jonathan Dayton with her “dollar-store STEM” materials. “I had gotten very into the maker movement from coming to things like Edcamp and talking to like-minded people about problem solving and critical thinking,” she says, her purple-tinted hair matching the glowing LEDs in her light saber.

How to Prepare

The thing about Edcamp is that unlike a regular conference, you don’t want to map out every moment. If you present, you’re not expected to talk for the entire 50 minutes. If you do, says Daniel Scibienski, an EdcampNJ organizer and a grades 6–8 ESL teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, New Jersey, “my bet is a lot of people in the room will leave.”

Instead, whether or not you’re presenting, go there with ideas or questions you’ve been struggling with (or found a solution to). “We say to teachers, ‘If there isn’t a session you want to go to, put one up,’” says Ferguson. “If you end up in a session that isn’t meeting your needs, it’s okay to leave,” she adds. She also suggests talking to veterans or organizers.

“Sometimes you go in thinking you want to learn about one thing, and then you think, ‘I really want to see this session’ or ‘I hear this person is really good at presenting,’” says Krakower. “Going in with an open mind is definitely a positive. If you’re a veteran, go to something you haven’t been to. Or if you always present, go and listen. If you’re a newbie, get in to as many things as you can.”

How to Find an Edcamp (or Create One)

Twitter and Edcamp are a marriage made in heaven. Many first-timers find out about a local Edcamp from the scrum of tweets that go up in anticipation of an event, and veterans reconnect with one another to ratchet up the excitement. (The Edcamp Foundation tweets at @EdcampUSA, and each individual camp, like @EdcampNJ, has its own handle.)

EdcampNJ, along with Edcamp Philly and Edcamp Kansas City, are particularly large and well organized, and attendees come from other cities and even states to attend. But what if there’s nothing in your area — or you want to start one? The Edcamp Foundation, which just got $2 million in funding from the Gates Foundation, hopes to make it easy to create your own.

“We started Edcamp-in-a-Box,” says Ferguson. “You register to do an Edcamp, and we send you money for the breakfast, along with name tags, markers, stickers, Post-it notes for your board. We’re hoping to make it super-easy to do it. Our job is to be fertilizer for the grassroots.”

Specialized Edcamps have sprung up as well. Besides Edcamp STEAM, Edcamp Common Core, and Nerdcamp (focused on literacy), there’s SpEdcampNJ, about to hold its second annual event. Christine Garner-Duane, a special education teacher in Monroe Township School District in New Jersey, organized the first SpEdcampNJ last spring. “We couldn’t handle the event alone, so as people arrived, we said, ‘We need someone to run our Instagram account. Will you do it? Oh, and by the way, we don’t have an Instagram account. Can you set it up, too?’”

The Takeaway

Chris Aviles, a K–8 education technology coach with New Jersey’s Fair Haven School District and a well-known blogger, is an Edcamp regular. “I want to talk about very specific things with very specific people, and Edcamp is a great way for all of us to be in one place. Plus, I get to give back the knowledge I’ve gained.”

First-time attendee Kimberly Donatello, a fourth-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wyckoff, New Jersey, came with a very specific goal in mind: “There was a roadblock I kept facing with Google Classroom, and in a session I attended, ‘Painless Paperless,’ everyone in the room knew it! If I hadn’t come today, I’d never have learned it.”

Her husband, Kevin, a fifth-grade teacher at Jessie F. George Elementary in New Jersey, appreciates the freedom to engineer his own learning: “There’s nothing worse than being forced to sit in on PD that’s not relevant. Here, if you realize it’s not for you, you can get up and leave.”

“My number-one takeaway was building a network of teachers who want to collaborate and are high energy,” says Shahr Rezaiekhaligh, a social studies teacher at Summit Lakes Middle School in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, who recently attended her first Edcamp in Kansas City. “I got more out of this style of conferencing than I ever have at a traditional conference.”

Adds Schleider: “I learn technology tricks, problems ELL students may have, how to code, how parents are intimidated by IEP teams, and so much more. I could write pages about what I have learned.”

The Pitfalls

As with any endeavor that involves large numbers of people, things can go wrong. “Projectors not working, running out of parking…then there were the people who complained the pizza was cold,” says Krakower, with a dry laugh.

First step: Nail down a venue way ahead of time and be sure to find out about any insurance issues. Also, though it may be tempting to accept help from companies offering to sponsor breakfast, there’s an ironclad no-vendor rule at Edcamps.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to keep your ego in your pocket — an Edcamp session is not a command performance. “Leave your prepared slide deck from another conference at home,” says Ferguson. “Those who come thinking they’ll be the expert in the room, rather than thinking, ‘I’m passionate, I want to talk about new ideas,’ won’t get far. It’s about collaboration rather than walking out patting yourself on the back.”

“I’ve found only a handful of people who say they didn’t like Edcamp or that the presenter wasn’t prepared, but maybe it’s just not for this person — this is a Vietnamese restaurant, and they don’t like soup and noodles,” says Scibienski. “Maybe they need to go to a conference with experts and PowerPoints. Or maybe there’ll be enough of a spark to shift their mind-set.”

“The worst thing that could happen is that you walk out without having at least one more person you can connect with later,” says Chamberlain.

Click Here to Subscribe to Scholastic Teacher Magazine

Images: Stephanie Diani/Getty Images