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Northern Kentucky Teachers Gather for Support, Networking, Growth Opportunities

The sky was the limit on brain power Saturday as more than 300 teachers attended EdCamp Saturday morning at Boone County High School in Florence, creating a virtual think tank of ideas by educators for educators.

EdCamp is a fairly new concept, initiated in May of 2010, and has spread like wildfire not only across the United States, but worldwide, from Stockholm, Sweden, to Abu Dhabi.

Erika Bowles, Principal of Longbranch Elementary in Boone County, had been watching and researching the phenomenon for awhile, and four years ago decided to try an EdCamp in her little corner of the world, the Cooper School Circle of which Longbranch is a part. She organized two and both were successful, so she was ready for the next step.

"I have a planning group of fourteen educators who all helped to make the EdCamp regional last year, and we had 75 people attend," Bowles explained. "This year I guess word got around and we had to set a limit on the number of people, but we still ended up with about 360."

Saturday morning kicked off with a corralling of the participants who were divided into 16 different classrooms for the first half hour session. Traditionally, when participants get to the EdCamp, they register and then put the ideas they want to talk about in any of the sessions on a huge board so that other people can see the topics they want to sign up for.

Because of the incredible amount of people who were scheduled to attend, Bowles and her team came up with ideas for the first session, allowing the attendees a chance to see how the system worked without delaying the start of the sessions.

"After the first session we had to reconfigure the board," said David Rust, Director of Academic Services at Bellevue Independent Schools, and one of the fourteen educators on Bowles' team. "We use an electronic board instead of a manual board, but in between sessions the topics always have to be reconfigured for the next session. The power of this camp is that the educators are allowed to learn what they want to learn."


He said that most people have been to seminars where the topics are firmly set, and attendees have to pick from those topics, and sometimes the subjects are not exactly what they thought would be covered. Sometimes when the people sign up for the sessions, they are not handled the way they were expecting, but they have to stay in the session anyway. At Edcamp the sessions are only a half hour, and if people don't think the subject is what they were expecting, they can discreetly leave that session and attend another.

"The nice thing about this is that most teachers wish they could talk to other teachers and educators, but it is not easy to network with a lot of people," said Bowles. "At this event, you have people from all over Kentucky, as well as Cincinnati, and some from Indiana. Last year I was able to connect with a principal in Bowling Green and he gave me a lot of good ideas. This is a professional learning network gathered together in one place, and everybody that comes loves learning and growing. We exchange contact information and instantly our network has grown exponentially."

In addition to the teachers and educators, Bowles expected representatives from KET in Lexington, the Kentucky educational channel, and the Kentucky Department of Education.

"The really impressive thing is that our educators and teachers put in countless hours and are dedicated to be the best they can be in their fields," said Bowles. "They are doing this on their own time because they know it will help them know what information is out there and help them absorb what they need to improve themselves as educators."

Bowles said most of the topics to be discussed will either be technological or instructional with a few exceptions. There are new apps like Voxer, or a subject like how to use Google apps for education, and how to move toward a totally paperless classroom, like Thomas Nelson school in Bardstown. There is a new place called Maker Spaces, which Bowles said will be opened up to the entire Northern Kentucky area in April, and it promises to include such subjects as robotics, sound programs and even welding. This is all in addition to advances in math, world language and English.

Bowles added that five more classrooms will be at their disposal in addition to the dedicated classrooms in case they want to expand the amount of topics to 21.

The idea of an EdCamp was born out of another camp called a BarCamp, which was for computer science. Some attendees got together at a coffee shop in Philadelphia in 2010 and talked about whether the idea could be successfully transferred to education. Kristen Swanson was fascinated by the idea of free professional development that is driven by the teachers who show up. The first EdCamp was in Philadelphia in May of 2010, and in that same year 7 other EdCamp events were held. In 2011, 51 EdCamp popped up. The number rose to 125 the next year, 171 in 2013, and 300 last year adding to a total of 600 worldwide.

EdCamps are redefining professional development. The day is vendor-free, and the topics are personalized and learner-driven.

"EdCamp is quite an invigorating exchange of ideas," said Kyle Holloway, fifth grade teacher at Erpenbeck elementary. "This will be my third camp, and it is going to be a tough choice which topic I will pick for my first session, because there are so many I want to attend. I will probably choose Maker Spaces, because this program tends to authenticate what the students are learning about. You give them a task and let them use their natural curiosity and creativity about how things work. I am looking forward to all the sessions."

For several campers this was a first time experience. Rob Hartman, Principal of Walton Verona elementary, was one of those.

"I really have no expectation of this morning other than what I have heard," he said. "I am open minded. But I will consider the morning a professional development success if I can come up with at least one tiny nugget of information that i can use. From what I have heard, that shouldn't be a problem."

Kelly Green, librarian at Immaculate Heart of Mary school in Burlington, also declared herself open minded.

"I am looking forward to learning new ideas i can put to use at my school," Green stated. "Even though it is my first EdCamp, I am looking for more ideas. I am pretty excited about all the different topics."

Heidi Neltner, a teacher at Johnson elementary in Ft. Thomas, is a veteran of one other camp, and was helping at one of the registration tables.

"I love EdCamp," she said simply. "It is very energizing. You get to talk to experts about subjects you are interested in, and you come to understand which of your colleagues are experts, which is helpful."

Fueled by coffee and donuts, the teachers emptied the cafeteria and headed towards the classrooms, armed with the knowledge that Bowles told them: "If it is 10:30 and you are confused, that is normal." Coming from schools where rules are a respected form of organization and calm, the educators nevertheless marched bravely and sometimes excitedly into a half day of a 'no rule' concept, where learning was emphasized in capital letters.

"Thirty minutes goes quite quickly," instructed Bowles. "After the first session, you can come back here and choose your second topic, or you can scan the QR code on your name badge and the board will appear so you don't have to walk back here, ­­you can go straight to the second session."

Attendees were told that they would receive a survey next week to rate their experiences so that organizers can work to improve the experience of EdCamp for next year.

"Our goal is to provide a rich and engaging experience for educators," said Bowles.

"They take away lessons that will help them be the best they can be for their students."

Story & photos by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor

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