Food for Thought Friday: EdCamps for Kids!

Today’s guest blogger is Glenn Robbins, Principal of Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ and 2016 NASSP National Digital Principal of the Year. .  He took the very popular (and successful!) idea of the Edcamp for educators and decided to apply the concept to his own students – giving them their own “Edcamp Period.”  This blog post is re-posted here with permission.

by Glenn Robbins

Last summer, we began to implement a series of changes to our school and programs in the interest of better serving the needs of our students and community. We never expected the reaction these changes have generated – and how they’ve rippled throughout the school. Today, we’ve got Digital Shop, the Black Mesa Learning Management System (LMS), Idea Street, Design Thinking, and a “manifesto” that has taken a life of its own throughout the building. And that’s just the beginning.

One of the most remarkable developments – something that has pushed student (and staff) engagement to previously unforseen heights – is our EdCamp period.  Earlier in the year, I wrote several blogs about it:

Fast forward to the present – late January 2016. Our school is no longer what it was in September.  Yes, we are still a public school, but we are now approaching something very different, something new, exciting, and unexpected. Some might even call it “Middle School 2.0.”

Led by students in grades 8 & 7 (the latter started an EdCamp period of their own this month) along with their teachers, we are seeing and feeling a vibe, a presence, an electricity that is hard to explain. How did we achieve this? We showed our students respect; gave them autonomy; allowed them to follow their passions; and, we began to promote personalized learning – to students who have never experienced it before.

During this ungraded experience –  that takes place every day – our students work far, far harder on their work, projects, and ideas than they seem to in other classes.  They push one another to rise up. Why? Because they are focused on learning, not being restricted by rubrics, seeking to impress the world instead of “playing school” – working just hard enough to get a good grade.

What our visitors, our teachers, and I have seen epitomizes, in my view at least, the definition of “student growth, data, and assessment.”

 

Examples of sessions just in the past few weeks:

  • Mock trial – designing a court case from scratch. Students organized their own teams, and created controversial cases based on topics such as race, religion, hate, and cybercrime. With a focus on a selected Amendment of their choice, students story-boarded the sequences, and then tried the entire case with Google Docs during the period and beyond.
  • Stop action video. Mr. Vain, one of our outstanding veteran teachers, took it upon himself to create his own short video (made his pen go in a circle) the night before the session. Students were shown his video, explained where they could venture to on Idea Street, and then raced off like olympic sprinters. With no recommendations or requirements as to apps to use or what to do, within 20 minutes, I watched two incredibly creative videos that “wowed” me and everyone else that watched them.
  • Improvisational acting. Upon walking into Mrs. Terista’s studio with a group of visitors, I had no clue what we were about to experience.  Within two minutes, I honestly felt as if we were watching a live show of “Whose line is it Anyway?” Students wrote out lines, and placed them into a bag to draw from.  Students in the audience told the improv actors as to what they where and their roles. To see students speak in front of their peers with little or no anxiety –having fun – was incredibly inspiring. When is the last time you saw students jumping up and down and all over each other to have a chance to present in front of the class?
  • Shark Tank Inventions. Although this session is currently in action right now, and isn’t finished, there is A LOT OF HYPE from both students and staff! Students are eagerly trying to pull me aside to share, and the staff are talking among their colleagues, stating that several ideas might actually amount to an product or start up business. Yet, the frustration that I am experiencing, as one of the sharks (they said Mark Cuban), is that I can’t hear about any products until it is time for students to present.
  • Virtual Reality field trips with Google Cardboard. Students took to the virtual streets of Paris, Venice, Tokyo, and more, while sitting in Mrs. Terista’s studio.  They controlled where they “went” on the streets, and were so eager to share with others.
  • App Designing. Mrs. Juhr will be the first to admit that she’d never designed or coded an app before. Yet, she helped facilitate a session where students designed apps, with their friends, on their own devices, because they were challenged to. By the end of the session, our superintendent and I were playing against each other with one student’s app.

These are just some of the many EdCamp sessions that have run; hopefully the point I’m trying to make here is clear.  Students really stretch themselves when given an opportunity to excel with different methods – and this in turn “infects” the entire school. Yes, “infect” is an unusual term to be used when describing a learning environment, but for example, when 5th and 6th grade students and teachers also saw / felt this energy, they were inspired to demonstrate their powers from within as well.

Our EdCamp period has helped to shatter the notion of “playing school” – in the process, we’ve cultivated a new sense of curiosity, wonder, and awe among our middle school students – how many middle schools can claim that as an accomplishment? Not many. You can sense the enthusiasm and comfort of the students and staff as they have the freedom of autonomy and empowerment to take risk to achieve more meaningful learning. Just ask anyone who has been in our school recently.

The best part? We’re just getting started…

 

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