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Want to foster rich academic discussions? Try a student #Edcamp

An innovative professional development model comes to the classroom

edcamp-studentsEdcamp “unconferences” have shattered the traditional model for professional development, and they’re catching on as a way for educators to share their ideas and expertise in an informal, collegial way.

Now, some forward-thinking educators are adapting the Edcamp model for their students, as a way to spark richer conversations.

Edcamps are professional development gatherings without a predetermined set of topics or presenters; instead, participants volunteer to lead conversations and hands-on workshops among their peers. Content for these sessions is determined organically, during a common schedule-building time at the outset—and participants are free to float among sessions as their interests dictate.

Because the topics are participant-driven, this free-form arrangement often results in lively, passionate discussions among educators, said Jason Seliskar, a fourth grade teacher for the Covina-Valley Unified School District in California. In other words, the kinds of discussions that educators yearn to hear from their students.

“I thought: What would this look like if I tried it with my students?” said Seliskar, who is transitioning into a new role as a district technology coach this fall.

Next page: How it works with students

Seliskar didn’t act on his idea right away. But one day, as his class became sidetracked in a conversation about study habits, he realized his students had a lot of useful strategies to share with each other.

This is the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the Edcamp model, he thought.

After showing his students a video of the Edcamp model in action, he created and posted a Google Docs spreadsheet for his students to fill out, indicating the topics they would be interested in presenting. The class ended up with 15 sessions altogether, each lasting 20 minutes. Topics ranged from “How to Study on the Weekends” to “How to Be Successful in Math.” Because Seliskar’s classroom included six student tables, he set up concurrent sessions at each of the six tables.

The result was a series of enthusiastic, student-driven conversations that led to what he called real “two-way learning.”

“Even the students who normally were quiet were taking part as well,” he said.

‘A voice and a choice’

Seliskar discovered what other educators who have tried the Edcamp model with their students have observed: Not only can students learn a great deal from each other, but the format also is an effective way to enhance their communication skills.

“We talk a lot about the importance of the four Cs,” Seliskar said, referring to communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. “This is a great opportunity, in a short amount of time, to help foster those 21st-century skills.”

Scott Bedley, a fifth grade teacher in California’s Irvine Unified School District, has been going to Edcamps for a few years and also has brought the concept into his classroom. “The Common Core standards focus on speaking and listening skills,” he noted. “This [practice] addresses those well.”

Next page: Top questions to consider

Like Seliskar, Bedley focuses these events on a particular subject, such as science or history, and then turns his students loose to choose their own topics. He tries to hold a student Edcamp about once a quarter.

“The conversations are awesome,” Bedley said, recalling one discussion that centered on whether time travel was possible. “When you allow kids to have a voice and a choice in their learning, it increases their level of investment.”

He said it’s impressive how much his students know about various topics: “People might assume that kids don’t know that much, but you’ll get a kid with a passion for history sharing all these facts about George Mason’s house, for instance.”

The Edcamp model is a great way for students to practice their presentation skills in a non-threatening manner, Seliskar noted. He finds that his students aren’t as intimidated by the Edcamp format as they might be when presenting in front of the entire class.

“They are more easily able to talk in front of their peers in small, informal groups,” he said—especially when they know they have an audience of students who share their interest in a topic.

Questions to consider

If you’re thinking of trying the Edcamp model in your own classroom, there are several logistical questions you’ll have to consider. For example, where will students hold their conversations? How will you plan the topics and determine who will attend each session? How long should you make each session? How much direction will you give students?

After showing his students a video of an Edcamp, Seliskar didn’t have to do a lot of coaching, he said: “The kids got it right away.”

However, educators will need to be sensitive to their students’ feelings, he added. When one student only had two others attend his session, Seliskar explained to the student that this was actually a good thing, because it would lead to a deeper discussion of the topic.

Bedley introduced the concept to his class by forming a small discussion group and showing his students what an Edcamp session would look like. “I think it’s important to model this activity for your students, or else you might not get the kind of discussion you want,” he advised.

To organize the sessions, Bedley puts up a grid on his whiteboard and has his students fill it in with different color-coded cards: One color is for students who want to present on a topic, and the other is for students who simply want to attend a session.

Both educators recommend becoming familiar with the Edcamp model by attending an Edcamp for yourself (a complete calendar is available online). And Bedley suggests that you include a reflection period at the end of each event, to discuss with your students what you can do to make these more effective.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids to connect and have academic conversations with each other,” he concluded.

Seliskar, who has made Edcamps a monthly occurrence with his students, shared some of their comments after he first tried it out last year. “This is the funnest time of my life at school,” one student declared, while another wrote: “I hope that all the kids who came [to my session] learned a lot. … I felt very grown up.”

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for nearly 20 years. Dennis can be reached at

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