“Conferences” are Dying; A New Species of “Design Camps” Arises!

NOTHING moves the needle of school innovation faster than high quality, interest-based, peer-to-peer collaboration.  If teachers who are eager to create a deeper learning environment for their students can “see” what that looks like, and learn from peers who are actually doing it….boom.  We are seeing the emergence of this kind of collaboration in explosive new ways that you can mimic, steal, and scale, right now, regardless of budgets, time, or experience.

photo-1I have experience with helping to create large professional development conferences; I have seen the time, energy, and expense that can be swallowed by the effort.  A new model of free, open, collaborative, energetic, inspiring learning is emerging that is re-writing the education learning conference model.  It is a hybrid of EdCamps, which are completely informal and a bit anarchistic (in a great way), and a traditional conference with keynote speakers and formal breakout sessions.  A small group of dynamic edu-leaders launched their second annual Design Camp for this coming January…and filled more than 200 available slots in less than a week.  Last year’s Design Camp was an enormous success by any measure; this year’s will be larger, more diverse, and even more energetic (if that is possible).

What are the keys to re-creating this kind of successful PD?  How can you replicate it in your own community?

  • Hold the event at a school; stop paying fees to rent hotel rooms when schools have tons of free space after hours.
  • Hold the event on a Saturday when every teacher is free.
  • Don’t pay keynoters or workshop facilitators; after facilities expense, the biggest cost for a conference is hiring talent. I am one of those, and I charge a fee for 98% of the events I attend.  But when friends and local colleagues call and ask if I will keynote and share for a morning for free, I am there!
  • Don’t serve lunch; brown bag it, and maybe get one or two school parent’s associations to kick in for coffee and bagels in the morning.
  • Start with a small group of schools to provide a core group of attendees; Design Camp is organized by Design 39 Campus, VIDA, and High Tech.  (Follow and link with the dynamic leaders of these three schools: Joe Erpelding, Eric Chagala, and Kaleb Rashad.) A portion of spots are reserved for teachers at these schools and the rest are opened up to the rest of the world.
  • It is free!  In the word’s of Wavy Gravy at Woodstock, “it’s all of us, man; we are all helping each other”!
  • Build around a solid theme and vision. Don’t be afraid to say “this is the direction of learning in the future”.  Don’t offer a camp that is watered down with a bit of everything for everyone.
  • Screen workshop proposals; all breakouts should involve active learning; no reading Powerpoints; and facilitators should be experienced (or teamed with someone else who has experience).

So, get a small group of energetic, like-minded, eager school leaders together and launch your own version of Design Camp. In the first year you will learn a lot; commit to this as an annual event and it will blow your mind how quickly word gets out!

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