Moby Dick, edcamps, and workshops

As you know, I’m a parent and not a teacher. I’m also a recently retired Army officer, having spent a lot of my career as a member of various staffs, supporting commanders facing tough problems, trying to make life less dangerous for our units while we were in combat, and turning the unknown into the known or at least the understood. And as a parent, I am someone who is active in the discussions about education and education reform, but I am and will always most definitely be an outsider.

But I am right there with you, in understanding things like the need to seek out an individual path for personal and professional development – so much so that I’ve made it to four #edcamps in three states over these last five months. I’m drawn to them for the same reason you are – great and like minds gather to grow and develop, and to talk about things that are really, really important, either from an intensely personal perspective or with regard to the health and future of the entire profession.

And while, no, I am not there because I need PD hours, I am there because there is a pattern of to the sessions that call out to me. Not exactly Lorelei, the siren that lured sailors and ships to their watery death. But for as many times as there is a session on Twitter 101 session, or the basics in how to flip your classroom, there’s a session because someone has asked about:

— how to define the line of acceptability for talking about race and racism in a school or educational setting, and what actions teachers can take steer these topics and address them when they get out of hand;

— the characteristics of an ideal faculty / administration relationship, and actions either can take to move towards achieving such an idea;

— the characteristics of an ideal faculty / parents or even teacher / parents relationship, and actions teachers or faulty or the administration can take to achieve this;

— what are we doing wrong about PD, which invariably ends up being about what can we do to deal with the obstacles we face in getting the personal and professional development that we know we need, or what values should we hold in developing a personal and professional development plan or program for our (school / district / whatever) for the next academic year.

I call those examples of Moby Dick questions, because we all come at them from different places in life, they swim deep in the sea, they drive us mad and blind as they did Captain Ahab, and if we’re not careful, they can kill is.

And as with Ahab, every time I’ve put to to sea at an #edcamp, some of these questions have come up. People come to #edcamps with things that are important to them, for their own personal and professional development, and that includes these big, ugly, hairy questions for which there are no single answers. They are topics for which we can only hope to make progress, and by we, it’s sometime an individual quest, something we do with a few others (i.e. a mentor), or something we do with our organization, as Ahab did (although, we should strive to be more successful and not suffer his fate.)

Yet every time, every #edcamp, every education conference I’ve been to, these sessions on these Moby Dick topics have not gone well. The hour or 90 minute discussion, often in a moderator or loosely-moderator format, wander all over the place, offering people a chance to provide their input and their feedback, and a chance to vent on the topic – about which they have strong feelings, convictions, concerns, and in many cases, needs. Because, like I said, these big, hairy ugly topics are like that, and I’ve seen – every single time – these topics provoke this response from people.

The end result is an hour of talk. Discussion. There may be some notes in the shared Google Doc that always goes with the types of events, but there may not be. And the hour always produces frustration. I saw it best at #educon in Philadelphia this year, at a discussion on race and privilege and integrating social issues into the classroom, when a junior teacher implored to the group and specifically the moderators, that she needed tangible, actionable things to take from this session back to her life and her classroom, things with which she could work with her administrator and her mentor in order to incorporate this idea as soon as this next Monday.

But her pleas fell on deaf ears, as #edcamps and the educational conference formats, with these loosely moderated 60 or 90 minutes sessions, are not designed to work towards those types of outputs. #edcamps and education conference do have workshops on other topics – maker space and the like – but they don’t make or devote time and space for these Moby Dick like topics that are, time and again, brought forth. And I have no idea why.

Here’s what it would take:

1. Make a long block of time for it. These questions aren’t an hour long discussion, they are a 3 hour workshop. No, not everyone is going to want to come to it, and no, this isn’t going to derail your #edcamp or educational conference. If people choose to do it, they choose to do so, knowing they are going to miss the other sessions happening at the same time. And in choosing to do so, they will want to push to have their preferred sessions put into the other time slots, so they can make it to those. This is 20 to maybe 40 people, in a single room, with enough space to work. Moby Dick needs room to swim.

2. Plan on having an actual facilitator. #edcamp sessions rely on whomever nominates topics to also step up and moderate them – we all know this because we’ve all seen the same Edcamp 101 video on YouTube. This won’t work with a workshop like this. This is going to require someone who has experience at least, training if possible as a facilitator. I got mine first in the US Army, as a typical staffer but then advanced training at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, before continuing my training post-Army as a ToP facilitator with ICA. Ask around; this is a workshop, and an actual facilitator is key.

3. Pick a topic ahead of time, and focus both on the question(s) to ask and the desired outcome. It isn’t “Let’s have a workshop on mentoring and coaching” but determining the one, two or three parts, and how they will fit together. An example would be,

Part 1. What are the characteristics of a high-quality, career-long mentor or coach

Part 2. What actions can we take to establish a coaching and mentoring program to develop junior teachers?

You’ll see that both of these are abstract, that the results of the workshop will vary as much as the membership of the workshop, and that the strength of the output will come from the experience, openness and participation of the members. Also, because this is consensus based, the outputs are foundational that can be used by any of the participants, as they move forward in converting the abstract to their action plans in their daily lives.

What do you want them to experience during the session? What do you want for them to learn and take away from the session? Those are two different learning objectives, and are things to consider and decide ahead of time, no different than any other lesson plan teachers do for their own students. (I don’t know why we would do it differently for ourselves, as adults.)

And in picking topics or ideas, it can be something that leadership does on their own, something they request from participants, or something they survey ahead of time. I would recommend working with their facilitator to determine when they need to decide on the topic; some facilitators will want or need more time to prepare their workshop, than others, as some topics will have greater requirements than others.

4. Go with it. Show up. Be open, be honest, be all in. Focus on the process, not later and how you’d apply things. That’s how these things work. And when it’s done, share the results with the participants and with others that have an interest in the results. Talk about it, blog about it, Vox about it, take over #SatChat about it. If it really was a Moby Dick of a topic, people will walk away feeling like they just went after a whale and feel like they emerged as some sort of Aquaman.

There is one other thing. Leaders – administrators, principals, superintendents – don’t need to wait for someone else’s #edcamp to chase after their own white whales. I wholeheartedly think they should invest some time and effort to identify what it is that they face, what troubles them the most, and do something like this on their own. Do it for their school, for their district – gather up their faculty, but be smart and bring in others from outside, too, since so much can and should be gained by having the right people in the room to be a part of this workshop process. Maybe not throw the doors wide open, but work with your facilitator to ID the right number of people, and then find the right people to augment your own team.

I say this, because schools need to take hard looks at topic like how to grow and develop junior teachers. At topics like digital citizenry and what it means for faculty and admins to model social media use. A half a day invested isn’t a waste, if a school is going to do a critical 1:1 fielding, or make a huge policy shift like allow or even suddenly flip to encourage BYOD. And for those truly Moby Dick topics – what actions can we take to reduce our rate of student suspensions? – well, those are things that shouldn’t wait another month, another week, maybe even another day, because for as important as those things are, and for as much emphasis as we can and should be putting into them, we should be putting them much effort into them, too.

Starting right now.


One thought on “Moby Dick, edcamps, and workshops

  1. Art,

    Once again, you bring me something new to think about. I am hosting an #edcamp next week. I hope I can do justice to your ideas here. I agree. Some topics need more than one hour. It might just be the change I was looking for.


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