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The Big Fresh January 25, 2014 The Unconference

Brenda Power

Nothing will work unless you do. 

                                              Maya Angelou

Last weekend I attended an "unconference" -- the Northern New England nErDcamp at the Biddeford, Maine high school. The organizers used the same format made popular by EduCampers -- conferences in which the participants generate the content for the day. Colby Sharp and his friends pioneered the first literacy nErDcamp for friends of the Nerdy Book Club website last summer in Michigan, and Susan Dee spearheaded the Maine effort last week.

If you've never been to one of these events, it's hard to imagine how they can work -- especially if you've been on the other end of conference organizing, and know how much work goes into finding and vetting presenters, putting together a schedule for the day, and figuring out room arrangements and AV needs. Yet the format worked beautifully.  People sign up in advance, and the event was limited to 200 people to ensure there would be room for everyone and the group would be a manageable size. Participants paid nothing, unless they wanted to purchase a delicious $5 lunch available onsite. The high school donated the use of the facilities, a local coffee shop donated coffee and pastries, and nearby Poland Springs contributed bottled water.

After picking up nametags and ample goodie bags filled with free books from publishers, everyone convened in the auditorium. Participants shared topics of sessions they would like to attend. There were two one-hour workshop slots in the morning, and each had nine different options, ranging from specific grade levels (K-2 , 3-5, middle school, high school) or general interest (K-12).  As everyone threw out topics, audience members with some expertise on the topic volunteered to lead individual sessions. It was understood that the leaders wouldn't give formal presentations, since nothing was prepared in advance. Rooms were assigned to topics using a shared Google Doc on a large screen in the front of the room that anyone could access with a smart phone or laptop (we were all asked to bring a fully charged device). The same guide was simultaneously written out on chart paper to post outside the auditorium for those without access to tech tools. A notetaker was asked to volunteer for each session, and these volunteers posted their detailed notes from each session on the master Google doc, so that everyone could read notes from all discussions after the event ended.

In one session I attended, the leader had vast experience with the topic of leading book clubs in grades K-5, so she shared a wealth of tips and materials. In another session on reader response, the session leader spent most of her time guiding the group, and dozens of resources and tips came from participants.  After the two morning sessions, everyone convened again for lunch and to spend another 30 minutes together deciding on the afternoon sessions. 

It was an amazing day of learning, not even marred by the surprise blizzard that afternoon. On the drive home, I thought about how teacher leaders are facing an impossible task of trying to keep up with all the demands of the profession. One of the things falling by the wayside for many is organizing regional and state conference events. It's just one task too many to handle these days. The EduCamp format cuts the work of organizers substantially, and the expenses for these events are minimal. Organizers eliminated the headaches of soliciting presenters, paying for keynoters, guessing which topics would be most popular, and trying to assign rooms accordingly. In return, everyone decided together which topics would be most interesting, new friendships and professional connections were forged, and everyone left eager to try out new teaching techniques and learning resources.

I predict that many participants will bring this format back to their home districts and tweak it for use on professional development days. The shared responsibility of generating and leading sessions lowers expectations and elevates conversation at the same time. There will always be a place for events where educators come to listen to presenters with national reputations in specific realms. But the "unconference" is a format that could lead to a renaissance of state and regional events that honor the expertise and community spirit of those around us. 

This week we focus on formative assessments. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Brenda Power

Founder, Choice Literacy

You can read more about the Northern New England nErDcamp at this link: http://nerdcampnorthernnewengland.blogspot.com/


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Here are two features from the archives on different facets of formative assessment.

Cathy Mere explains how she uses a classroom wall display and conversations to highlight strong writing and help her first graders learn to assess improvements in their work in Formative Assessment: Wall Displays and Conversations in First Grade:


Gretchen Taylor finds this time of year is perfect for having her middle school students step up reflection and responsibility for growth in Value-Added: Moving Assessments from Inflicted to Student Owned:


We've posted a new podcast with Jennifer Serravallo talking about formative assessment. Jennifer's latest book is The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades 3-6: Four Steps for Turning Assessment Data into Goal-Directed Instruction:


The National Council Teachers of English has published a new PDF download, Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction. This article would be a great conversation starter for study groups and faculty meetings:


Terry Heick at the Teach Thought blog shares 10 Formative Assessments You Can Perform in 90 Seconds:


Kathy Dyer at the Teach. Learn. Grow. blog extends Terry's list to 22 quick and easy formative assessment techniques:


Join Franki Sibberson for the online 12-day course The Tech-Savvy Literacy Teacher offered January 29 - February 9. This interactive course includes three webcasts, Franki's newest book, a professional development DVD, and an introduction to scores of resources on the web to integrate into reading and writing workshops. For more details and to register online, visit this link:



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Max Brand has developed templates for grades K-2 and 3-5 to use for formative spelling assessments:


Mary Lee Hahn finds 15 minutes of writing on Friday builds fluency and confidence in her fifth-grade students, and gives her a wealth of formative assessment data at the same time:


This week's video is a testament to how much thinking and learning you can pack into a one-minute conference.  Katie DiCesare confers with first grader Sebastian, and then reflects upon what's next for him:


We continue our video series from Linda Karamatic's second-grade classroom as she builds an inferring chart with students:


Megan Ginther and Holly Mueller focus their February Literacy Contracts on dystopias:


You can browse many more articles and videos at our Assessment Tools link:


That's all for this week!



Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.