My New Favorite Unconference: BarCamp Philly!

Yesterday I attended BarCamp Philly, a gathering of people from all walks of life who converged on the University of the Arts building with the sole purpose of, well, seeing what happens!  I met up with Ann Leaness on 15th Street as she walked from the train.  We had never met in person, but have been talking on Twitter for months ever since we met in an Elluminate session. (Ann, you can correct me if my memory is fuzzy!)  After getting some breakfast, we went to register, finding Kevin Jarrett and Rob Rowe and Kristen Swanson by the registration tables.  A few minutes after finding a seat to discuss our plans, Dan Callahan showed up as well and we began talking about doing one of the sessions we had been contemplating in a Google Doc Rob created before the conference to allow us to connect before meeting each other in person.

As we began talking, it was clear that we would be running 2 sessions, with Kevin manning his "Teaching as a Second Career" session at 10am and us running a "Social Media Survival Guide for Schools" at 2:30pm.  We found an empty classroom around 9am and started brainstorming.  What ensued was a dream come true for any true tech geek.  The 6 of us sat, laptops and netbooks open, with a Google Doc agenda in the works.   We alternated roles between adding links, tables and formatting text to create the final product.  We talked about using Google Wave, but with all of us working wirelessly and Dan using a netbook that might not have been able to handle it, we stayed with Docs, though it would have been a great use of Wave.

Teaching as a Second Career

After a short opening statement by the organizers we headed toward our first session with Kevin.  In the session were a group of people who were thinking of entering the teaching profession.  We answered their questions and gave them as much insight as we could about the career that we have made our lives.  Kevin was a great presenter, and, his story of changing careers is inspiring.  Hearing myself talking about what I do on a day to day basis really gave me a new found love of my career. In fact, I felt inclined to tweet about it:

Things That Suck

Next, Ann and I headed to the "Things That Suck" session to have a little fun and get out of 'work' mode for an hour.  It turned out to be pretty fun.  We were seated in a tiny theater called "The Black Box" with a facilitator who gave us the rules for the session.  He would be presenting us with a topic and we would have to decide whether we thought it 'sucked,' 'didn't suck,' or if we were 'ambivalent.'  The first topic was "Apple Web Design."  We had to sit in the appropriate section of the small theater that was designated for each opinion, moving around as our opinion changed.

The facilitator would ask people in each section why they had chosen that section and he would build debate by asking participants to rebut the other side's argument. It was silly and fast-paced and some people actually made some good points.  There was a lot of playful dialogue and the facilitator did a good job of maintaining the energy of the activity.  At one point, during a discussion of whether email 'sucked' or 'didn't suck' a woman argued that email was great for marketing, and the best way for her to send you coupons.  "You're the devil!" yelled the eternally ambivalent green-haired gentlemen sitting behind me.  That was the vibe. It was great.

I also got to meet another Twitter PLN member, Mike Ritzius, for the first time face to face at this session, though with the fast pace of the session we didn't get to really say much more than 'hi.'  He said he was doing a session right after ours.

Lunch Time

Ann and I headed to lunch with Dan and Rob, hoping to snag a table and free WiFi at Cosi, which we did.  Kevin and Kristen followed a little later.  We were supposed to be planning the session we had in mind, but like most conversations involving teachers, we ended up spending 45 minutes discussing education issues and comparing notes on how things are done in our respective districts and roles.  We discussed everything from the new 'modified' PSSA and web filtering vs. good classroom management, to the rampant problems with IEP compliance that we have seen over the years.

Finally, we buckled down and got our Google Doc agenda finished.  As we were about to tweet out the agenda to the BarCamp attendees (using the #bcphilly hashtag) the WiFi went down in Cosi, so we headed to the room where we would be presenting.

The Social Media Survival Guide for Schools

Sitting in the room was Mike and 2 other educators who would be presenting in the same room right after us.  We settled ourselves and set up the projector as people slowly filed in.  We were happy to see that at least there were more attendees than presenters (there were 6 of us!)  We found that there were not many educators in the audience, though there were 2 librarians in attendance.  We covered digital identity, professionalism and taking care with what you put up online as well as challenges that we come across when trying to use social media tools in the classroom.  We had a chance to discuss the successes we've had, with Ann sharing her student Ning and me sharing my student work wiki and student blog.  What was amazing about the whole session was that the 6 of us had never met in person before.  Some of us had just met on Twitter over the past few days.  Yet, once we were all in one place, it was like we had always know each other.  That in itself is proof of the power of Social Media for learning and collaboration.

Honestly, I have no idea how well received our session was, but most people stuck around, so I guess it couldn't have been that bad.

Asynchronous Learning

Next up was Mike Ritzius and Nicolae Borota from Gloucester Township Technical High School in Camden County, New Jersey.  As they began to describe the innovative Project Based Learning that they were doing with their students I was dripping with amazement and, to be honest, a little bit of jealousy. 

They are 2 of 5 teachers who co-teach a group of about 100 students in grades 9-12 in one large, converted shop room.  Each teacher has a different area of expertise (Mike is the Science teacher and Nicolae the Math teacher) and they integrate all of the content areas through Project Based Learning.  They each are in charge of about 16 students as their 'advisory' and they teach large group as well as in smaller 'seminars' which are held in an adjoining classroom or in rooms not in use in the building.  The students stay in the classroom all day, leaving only to attend specials like gym and, as it is a technical high school, to attend career classes like mechanics. 

They use Project Foundry and Moodle to facilitate the projects and assignments.  Students sometimes attend 20 minute seminars that deliver content and then move to a workstation or a computer to complete a discussion or an assignment based on the seminar.  Since all of the work is completed online, Nicolae and Mike reported that many students who are home sick log in and complete their assignments and take part in the classroom discussions from home through Moodle.  The teachers have found that many students are not used to working so hard.  There are no separate 45 minute classes with transitions, so students are working all day long.  (in photo: Nicolae on the left, Mike on the right.)

The teachers in this classroom work closely to plan lessons and call themselves a PLC (Professional Learning Community).  They have been using Google Wave to plan and coordinate lessons and they have built a community of learners who are independent and who are as engaged with the content as their teachers are.  You could see the glint of excitement in both Mike and Nicolae's eyes while they were discussing their classroom.

When asked about discipline issues, they told a funny story.  They have different rules in their classroom than the rest of the school.  This is part of the open and independent community that they have built over the last 2 months that they have been teaching together.  They do not have huge discipline issues in the classroom--though students have been written up for cutting classes that they were supposed to go to because they weren't watching the clock and forgot to go.  However, once a teacher approached them saying they didn't like the way the kids didn't have to follow the same rules as the rest of the school.  One of their students had been in trouble in this teacher's class for having his or her cell phone out.  Mike and Nicholae indicated to the teacher that, although they allow students to have cell phones out in class, there was not one student in the classroom with a cell phone out.  This, the two explained, is because their students are too engaged in what they are doing to find time or have a reason to pull out a cell phone.

What is amazing about this, what could be called 'experiment,' is the amount of administrative support the teachers have received from their Superintendent and the local administration.  Mike is the president of his teacher's union, so he was able to present this learning model to the Superintendent himself.

For more information about this amazing classroom, you can contact Mike and Nicholae:

Email: or you can follow him on Twitter:
Email: or you can follow him on Twitter:

Closing Thoughts 

BarCamp Philly was an amazing time.  It was so refreshing to attend such an event so close to home.  What all of us teachers kept saying was how amazing a BarCamp would be for staff development.  It's a great way for teachers to act as leaders and experts in their own school, as well as a great opportunity for collaboration across grade levels and disciplines.  It also allows teachers to choose the area that interests them or is relevant rather than all teachers receiving the same training whether it applies to them or not, which is the current practice in most schools and districts.

BarCamp also got me really excited for Educon in January.  If I could just do these kinds of conferences all day everyday, I'd be happier than a pig in....well, you know.

Thanks to Kevin Jarrett for the photos of lunch and our session!


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