For many teachers, the phrase professional development conjures up mandatory, snooze-inducing, school-sponsored lectures.
EdCamp, an "unconference" for educators that was conceived in the Philadelphia region last year, was designed to be the exact opposite: the free events are participant-driven and attendance is strictly voluntary.
There are no keynote speakers or even set schedules. Instead, attendees sign up the morning of an EdCamp - often on Post-it notes or index cards - to lead discussions on whatever they are most interested in talking or hearing about.
The first EdCamp, held last May in Philadelphia, has spawned a national movement. About 16 other EdCamps have followed from California to Florida, including a second Philadelphia event held recently at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and at least eight more scheduled for later this year.
Attendees gush about how much they learn and take back to their own classrooms and schools.
"What makes EdCamp stand apart from other professional-development opportunities is teachers choose to come there on their own on a Saturday, so right there the commitment level is different," said Meenoo Rami, an English teacher at Franklin Learning Center, a Philadelphia magnet school. "They're there to share and to learn. That collaborative spirit of the conference really makes it stand apart from anything else I've ever attended."
Karen Blumberg, a technology integrator at the School at Columbia University, has been teaching for 15 years.
"I learned more at EdCamp than I did at grad school," Blumberg said. "It was exactly the information I needed to know." Blumberg said she learned, for instance, a lot about how to use iPads effectively in a classroom.
Blumberg was so excited about the possibilities of EdCamp that after attending the Philadelphia conference last year, she organized another event in New York City.
The first EdCamp was created by about a dozen educators in the Philadelphia region who attended a local BarCamp, a technology-focused "unconference" model used internationally (the "bar" refers not to alcohol but to computer-programming language).
After the event, the teachers, who hail from New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania suburbs, decided to use the model to create an "unconference" for educators.
"We ran into each other at BarCamp, and by the end of the day, we were together as a core group," said Kevin Jarrett, a technology facilitator at Northfield Community School in Northfield, N.J. "We thought to ourselves, 'This is fantastic, we need to do this for education.' "
Ann Leaness, a teacher at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia who was one of the original organizers, said she and other organizers were surprised and gratified that EdCamp had taken off so quickly.
"It's been really fun to watch people continue the process and tweet about it, talk about it, and share," Leaness said. "It's really empowering for teachers because it's a safe place for them to come and talk about ideas."
Because the events are driven by the participants instead of the organizers, putting together an EdCamp can be a nerve-racking experience, Leaness said, because even the organizers do not know who will show up and what topics will be discussed.
"Every single team that has run an EdCamp says they're always really nervous, but it's like magic, it just happens," Leaness said.
Topics at the EdCamp Philly on May 21 included a session on Twitter, using online document-sharing and applications in the classroom, saving money and building a case for technology at a school, and creating authentic learning experiences with the Internet.
Several attendees said the best part of EdCamp had been the relationships and conversations that continue long after the day is over.
"It's not even really so much the conference but the connections," said Kim Sivick, who teaches at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia and who helped organize the two EdCamps here.
Mary Beth Hertz, another of the original organizers and a technology teacher at the Alliance for Progress charter school in Philadelphia, said EdCamp offered teachers the chance to share ideas and network in a way that teachers typically were not given the opportunity to do.
"Very seldom do teachers get to sit around and talk and brainstorm," Hertz said. "Most of the time, we're in the teacher's lounge, complaining about our kids. The educators who go to EdCamp give up their Saturday, and they don't get any credit for it. You know when you're going there you're there with dedicated teachers who are lifelong learners."