The un-conference

The un-conference

Day school educators set their own agenda on topics to tackle

A whiteboard brims with conference suggestions.

Take one whiteboard, five classrooms, and 80 enthusiastic teachers.

What do you have?

On Sunday at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, the answer was: a very successful “un-conference,” only the second of its kind for Jewish educators.

When the doors opened at 9 a.m., the event dubbed JEDcampNJNY had no agenda – only a whiteboard featuring a grid in which four time slots and five rooms allowed for 20 possible sessions. It was up to participants – teachers and administrators from day schools in Bergen County and beyond – to fill in the grid with a session they wanted to lead or a discussion they wanted to have.

Within half an hour, the grid was filled, many with topics the presenters hadn’t planned on presenting until they saw the empty space.

The topics included “Reaching the 21st century learner,” “What is positive psychology and how can we use it in our classrooms?” “Improv in the classroom,” “Strengthening teacher/administrator relationships,” “Standards in Judaic studies,” and “What would high school look like if we could recreate it from scratch?”

“The organic nature of it meant that when the sessions ended, people emerged from the rooms talking,” said Rabbi Aaron Ross, assistant principal of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus and a conference organizer.

And if participants found a session frustrating or boring, they were urged to leave in the middle and try another one.

The model of a conference without featured keynotes or speakers started with tech conferences in California not quite a decade ago; in 2010 the first “EdCamp” for educators was held. There have been hundreds since; on Saturday EdCamps were held in Virginia, Illinois, and Hong Kong.

But Saturday conferences are tough going for Jewish educators, one of the factors that sparked the first JEDcamp – it was held in Florida last December. Sunday’s in Paramus was the second, and brought teachers and administrators from Brooklyn, Westchester, and Long Island to join their colleagues from area schools.

“It was the most crazy lunatic idea,” is how Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, director of instructional technology at the Frisch School in Paramus and one of the conference organizers, recalls his first impression of the un-conference idea. Learning how un-conferences focused on the topics that participants wanted to hear rather than on topics selected by a committee eventually convinced him that the idea was worth pursuing.

In the end, “it was beyond any expectation I could have had,” he said. “It was so energizing. This is so much more powerful than a one-shot deal of paying for a guy to come in” and give a professional development lecture.

“We have to make more opportunities in our school for teachers to talk to each other and present to each other,” Pittinsky said.

The conference reflected the informal networks of Jewish educators that have cropped up in recent years, the result of blogs and Twitter and email lists.

“We are able to harness this power [of Twitter and the Internet] for Jewish education,” Pattinsky said. “It’s not what the conference is about, but it’s the only way to make the conference happen. It’s the facilitator, it lets the conference be created by teachers, not school boards or boards of Jewish education. That why I don’t think this would have happened 20 years ago.”

During the conference, several participants reported highlights online, and Jewish educators as far away as Rochester, N.Y., and Israel chimed in. Some in Baltimore and in California began online discussions about planning future un-conferences in their own regions.

Back in Paramus, “one of the nicest thing about it was there was a buzz in the building today, particularly from people who were not able to make it yesterday,” Ross said. “They are saying, ‘Tell me when the next one is and I’ll work with you on it and we’ll find a time that really works.'”

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