Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jedcamp on a roll

It started so simply.

Back in late 2012, a number of educators in South Florida organized the first ever Jedcamp, or Jewish Edcamp.  Playing off of the still-young-but-gaining-steam "unconference" model of Edcamp, these educators decided that a similar model could be employed for Jewish educators.  The rationale was simple and twofold: First, almost all Edcamps took place on Saturday, thus precluding observant Jews from attending, and, second, that there are many issues unique to the Jewish educational community that rarely get discussed among educators from different schools and different branches of that community (day schools, supplementary schools, community schools, federations, etc.).

The initial results were excellent.  Over forty people came out for a day of fruitful and dynamic discussion on a wide range of topics, both tech-based and non-techie.  But the true success of the first Jedcamp was that it led to the second one, in New Jersey in April 2013.  Like the one in Florida, the New Jersey Jedcamp brought together a wide range of educators for a full day of meeting, greeting, brainstorming, and envisioning.  One member of the Florida planning team came north, and a future Jedcamp planner from the West Coast made the cross-country trek to see just how much potential this new model had.  A small start, but a solid one.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, the Jedcamp model gained a little more traction.  South Florida held a second Jedcamp.  San Francisco held two.  Chicago had their first.  In New York and New Jersey, two full day Jedcamps were held in addition to two shorter (but very well attended) nighttime events.  In all, several hundred Jewish educators attended Jedcamps last year, experiencing the power of professional development that was based on collaborating with inspiring and devoted colleagues, not simply listening to well-paid gurus sharing the current trend in education.

Beyond the events themselves, Jedcamp started connecting with the broader Edcamp movement.  Kristen Swanson, a founder of Edcamp, attended Jedcamp in San Francisco and became a source of advice and direction for several Jedcamp organizers.  Jedcampers attended the Edcamp "Birds of a Feather" session at ISTE 2014 and shared the community-building aspect of Jedcamp that is such a powerful feature of these events.


The 2014-2015 academic year has barely begun, and already Jedcamp is in full swing across the continent.  JedcampBoston and JedcampLA took place this past Sunday.  South Florida is back with another Jedcamp this coming Sunday (sign up now!).  Chicago gets back into the game on October 19th (sign up here) and Toronto takes place a week later on the 26th - the first Jedcamp outside of the United States.  Plans are being made for a Jedcamp in Brooklyn, NY in early November and one in Northern New Jersey in the spring.  The Jedcamp model has begun attracting attention from several other communities, including Mexico City!  Like Edcamp before it, the second full year of Jedcamp is poised to have more events after a few months than it had in its entire first year.

Like any maturing phenomenon, much is being learned as more events have taken place.  Attendance often peters out as the day goes on; scheduling on a Sunday can be tricky when trying to include supplementary school teachers who often teach Sunday morning; reaching out to those not tied in to social media often takes an extra effort.

At the same time, Jedcamp has achieved some notable successes beyond its mere existence.  To some extent, Jedcamp grew out of social media communities such as #jedchat on Twitter and Jedlab on Facebook, and the conversations at Jedcamps have often started in cyberspace, continued live at the events, and then gained further steam back in cyberspace.  Real connections and relationships among distant "colleagues" have been formed and strengthen through Jedcamps, as educators from far-flung parts of one region, or even from different regions of the country have come together to share their thoughts and concerns.  Topics that rarely get discussed in more formal professional development sessions are given plenty of airtime due to the "bottom-up" nature of the Jedcamp model.

So, what comes next for Jedcamp?  I would offer a few visions:

1) Spreading the learning.   For all of my enthusiasm about the spread of Jedcamp, it really has only hit a few major cities so far.  While there may be a limit to the number of metro areas that have enough Jewish educators to have their own Jedcamp, there is still a ways to go before we reach that limit.  If you are interested in starting a Jedcamp in your area and want to know what to do next, please feel free to reach out to me or anyone else who has planned a Jedcamp.

2) Spreading the learning (part 2).  Even in communities that have hosted Jedcamps, there are doubtless many educators who did not even know that such an opportunity existed.  Reaching out both within and beyond social media networks can take serious planning and requires knowing the contours of your community and who can help reach out to all potential participants (by the way, lay leaders are welcome as well).  It takes effort, but a Jedcamp is enriched when it includes as diverse a group as possible.

3) Recognition as "real" PD.  Jedcamps are fun; professional development is serious.  You choose to go to Jedcamp; your school sends you to a professional development day.  Jedcamps are free (so how valuable an they be?); professional development has a line in the school's budget (so it must be worth it).

All of those dichotomies often lead people to believe that Jedcamps and not as valuable a use of teacher's time as traditional professional development sessions are.  That conclusion is clearly false to anyone who has been to both types of professional development.  While there is no question that there are experts in the field who have much that is valuable to share, and there are certainly full-day workshops that equip teachers with new skills and tools to take back to their classrooms, it is just as true that a day at a Jedcamp conversing with colleagues about innovative, inscrutable, or pervasive issues can be just as meaningful a day and can help a teacher grow and develop as a professional in a similarly meaningful way.  As Jedcamp continues to grow and spread, it is important to convince stakeholders and decision-makers in schools that Jedcamps should be considered equally among the other professional development opportunities afforded to schools.  And, let's face it, they can be a real money-saver as well.

To all those who have run or attended a Jedcamp already - Kol Hakavod!  To those who have not done so yet - what are you waiting for?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Most Important Year

My youngest child is about to begin second grade (where did the time go?), and while that may not seem like the most momentous change that is happening in my house this school year - our oldest is headed to high school, after all - in some ways this is a game-changing moment that is about to take place.  Why?  What earth-shattering learning happens in second grade that is more important than that which is learned in 6th or 9th grade?

The answer is simple and twofold.  At least in our school, 2nd grade is when a child learns Shemoneh Esrei and receives her first Chumash.

Learning Shemoneh Esrei means a radical change in how a child davens (prays).  Until now, davening has been about a handful of songs from the periphery of the service, as well as the all-important Shema.  However, Shemoneh Esrei is the heart and soul of every prayer service, and until this point my daughter has been missing that.  When she sees her parents and siblings davening at home or in shul, she knows the motions of Shemoneh Esrei (feet together, gentle front-to-back swaying, siddur held slightly aloft), but she has never really had access to what they were really doing.  Now she is going to know, and her davening will forever be different.

The same goes for Chumash.  Until now, her exposure to Chumash has been second-hand.  She has learned many Bible stories, often in great detail and with meticulous attention to what the text describes, but it has all been a story, perhaps no different in her mind from Ramona and Charlie Bucket.  Now those stories will have a text and words and grammar.  She will be able to recognize roots that she learned in one chapter and have now popped up in another one, and she will be on a path to notice, as generations of commentaries before her have, when something seems to be missing or askew in the text.  Many civilizations have their heritage preserved as an oral tradition; we have ours entrusted to the written word.  A child's first encounter with that written word is hopefully the beginning of a lifetime of deep and serious learning.

As we grow older, we tend to form connections with our high school teachers, our college professors, and our Rebbeim and Morot that we as young adults are privileged to learn from.  Often we forget or lose touch with the teachers who had us at our earliest stages.  And yet it is they who put us on the path towards those teachers who will educate us when we have matured and who usher us, at a very young age, into the world of Jewish learning and Jewish living.