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Unconferences! Changing the Way We Facilitate Professional Learning





Thank you to #NAESP16 for allowing me to share Unconferences! Changing the Way We Facilitate Professional Learning. I am inspired by the passion and energy at #NAESP16, and hope you find unconferences to be practical to your leadership and learning. You can find the PowerPoint presentation here and PDF handouts here. Attendees can also download the presentation from the NAESP16 app.

Three core goals of the presentation:
  1. Learn why an unconference is supportive to professional learning
  2. Review best practice research on professional learning
  3. Design an unconference in your school to promote adult learning, student growth and positive morale
Over my years as a principal, it took me many attempts to design the "just right" professional learning sessions for our rapidly growing and dynamically talented staff. In fact, I'll admit that no matter how hard I tried, no "one" professional learning fit everyone's needs. I wanted to change that somehow.

Then we tried unconferences, which lit up the room with ideas, strategies and sharing; changed the professional energy; and created exciting instructional momentum for all of us on staff. Unconferences have been a high leverage professional learning tool for staff and student learning, and supported our school culture in exponential ways. I wish I learned about them when I first started my principalship!


Photo credit: 
(http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2016-05-24-1464106527-7011249-paper_inspiration.jpg)

In a nutshell, an unconference is an organic and flexible professional learning model that can be accomplished on any scale (with a team, department, staff, schools and district), where teachers and staff share their expertise, ideas and inquiry with one another in short, informal sessions. The topics come from teachers and are designed for teachers. Teachers have professional autonomy in the topics they post and choose.

A core belief of unconferences is that there is no one idea of "smart." As Lorne Michaels, Producer from Saturday Night Live said,



Instead, it's the notion that the collective wisdom of the faculty, when supported by a safe forum for sharing, can quickly and positively grow professional learning within your school (think diffusion of innovation theory!) American technology writer David Weinberger put it this way:


After three years of practicing and celebrating unconferences with my staff, I have become more and more impressed with the variety of professional topics and sharing, and an even deeper believer about the power of unconferences. A recent staff survey showed that 100% of faculty felt their professional learning increased as a result of unconferences. Wow. This feedback matched up with my informal observations that unconferences were inspiring and motivating for ALL (not just some). It's not any surprise that unconferences were fast becoming our key signature on professional learning.

The unconference ripple has been unmistakable and unstoppable. Staff often asked me, "Sandy, when's the next unconference?" or said (numerous times), "That topic would make a good unconference." Staff have also surprised me again and again by saying, "I am partnering with a staff member so we can plan an unconference session together." Who knew? I'll admit, it made my heart sing.

As a principal who loves sharing with other principals (okay, maybe I'm addicted to sharing with other principals?), I often wove unconferences into my presentations. Frequently, attendees asked me about "that part of the presentation" (the unconference part). Unconferences are so simple in concept, I felt guilty making it a presentation of its own. But I did it - so, my thanks goes to all the principals who asked me to unpack unconferences even more. It made me crystallize my thinking about why I LOVE this model of professional learning.

Not long ago, when @bmaurao attended one of my sessions on unconferences, she asked me to FaceTime her school as the opening speaker to help kick-off of their first staff unconference day. I am not sure who was more nervous (me or them), but it turned out that they experienced exceptional success with unconferences, and in fact, they have kept the momentum going on their staff! Here is just a sample of their reflections. Soon after that, I was on the phone with a different principal for a reference call, and she said, "By the way, I went to your session on unconferences and I tried that in my school! It was phenomenal and I wanted to thank you!" Again, you can never underestimate the power and ripple effect of unconferences.

In preparing for today's session, I asked staff volunteers to share their personal testimonials about unconferences. It was a feedback flood. Here's what they had to say:

"Participating in unconferences this year allowed me to gain knowledge about a variety of topics. It sparks your interest and makes you want to learn more. It is a valuable professional learning experience. It is nice to have options instead of being forced to learn a topic that may not be applicable to you. It also provides more ownership for teachers in their ability to share ideas, knowledge and experience that they have learned. It gets teachers excited about learning new ideas to bring back to the classroom that directly impacts student learning. It also facilitates a culture of shared vision and ownership of where your school is headed."  
"Unconferences are a gamechanger. They simultaneously empower educators as both presenters and learners, share in-house expertise among colleagues and provide real-time moves teachers can put into place immediately. Perhaps the best part is that the conversation doesn't end when the session does. Teachers are talking about what they learned and shared in the hallways and staff rooms for weeks to come!" 
"Unconferences provided a growth mindset culture for me - an atmosphere of collaboration, authentic, open and practical. I love learning from colleagues!"
"As a presenter of an unconference, it was really enjoyable to share something that I was excited about with other teachers who were also excited about the same thing. As a participant, I love that unconferences give teachers choice. I was able to select sessions that really spoke to me, which definitely increased my engagement and motivation to take what I learned back to my classroom. The model also allowed me to collaborate with teachers that I often don't get to see or work with, such as teachers of the younger grades. I strong sense of community is definitely developed working cross grades and across disciplines." 
"I took an unconference hosted by a ELL teacher from another school. This teacher had years of experience teaching in the classroom, and also had the state required Sheltered English Immersion licensure. This was pivotal for me as I had just received an ELL newcomer student in my class, and I directly used the resources she provided for me in my classroom instruction to support him. We probably wouldn't have crossed paths in a professional development setting otherwise!" 
"The unconference model has been empowering for teachers. This is an authentic way to let teachers know, 'You are valued.  Your knowledge and expertise is valued.  You are a key component to making this school a great place for kids, families and staff.' Through the unconference sessions I have attended in our school, I have learned from colleagues how to better support students who have experienced trauma, and how to create a safe space for ALL students that helps ALL students achieve at high levels.  I have deepened my own skills in using assessments, such as running records, and how to access school resources to supplement my curriculum.  I have also benefitted from sharing resources for both staff and students to practice mindfulness, in order to help manage stress and create a school climate that is relaxed and full of joy. In addition to all the knowledge that is shared to help students learn, the primary “side-effect” of the unconference model is the benefit to school culture, as teachers and staff from all disciplines come together to share their unique perspectives and expertise.  This builds authentic community, as everyone builds relationships around professional ideas, leading to greater teamwork, which benefits the whole school community."
"I have found the unconferences to be one of the most valuable professional learning opportunities I have had to date! The variety of sessions, materials and technological devices offered me the most meaningful learning experience. I especially liked how the sessions were open to all teachers regardless of grade level, specialty or school. The openness of the unconferences, in my mind is the foremost crux of the experience, because it allows for open and candid creativity, innovation, reflection and discussion that empowers, enlightens and truly engages the participants an unconference leaders. Unconferences are also dynamic like no other professional development opportunity, because you find yourself genuinely excited to continue the conversation, brainstorming or collaborating with your colleagues long after the sessions have ended. I have walked away from every unconference experience feeling enthusiastic and motivated, not only by the knowledge, but also the robust collegial interactions across disciplines and schools."

So, why not try unconferences? Why not start small" Remember, there is no "one"...

it's ALL.



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