Last Friday was an upsetting day. The conference I had attended for the past 10 years (SXSWedu) announced it was cancelling along with the larger SXSW that often brings thousands of people to Austin and over $356 million dollars in revenue to the city. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, I was frustrated. I realize that being frustrated at something like a conference cancellation is extremely small in the scope of what is happening around the world, but I’m just being honest. This event was the most diverse conferences I have attended, and selfishly, I looked forward to growing global collaborations and connections as well as the sharing of ideas for learning.
That night, I agreed to meet my friends downtown at their new bar, called Idle Hands, on Rainey Street here in Austin. When I arrived the mood was somber. The service staff were depressed. Uber drivers, stage crew, bands, waiters, bartenders, valets, food trucks and more make a significant amount of their income from the SXSW event and all the subsidiary events that happen before and after it takes place. In the case of one of the bartenders I spoke with, he makes almost half of his yearly income in the span of just a few weeks because of it.
While this was happening, I pulled out my phone to look at see what the reactions were on Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. The responses ranged from “thank god they cancelled it” to those that were now stuck here because of the late cancellation. Many of these people were from overseas.
People like Ryan King from China and Tracy Mehoke from Wisconsin (by way of Abu Dhabi) were here in Austin and now wondering what to do with themselves. Others like Krista Vaught from Florida and Vitor Bruno from Brazil were educators in a similar predicament of having already arrived here and literally collecting their baggage when the announcement came out. These people began to find each other through various social platforms and quickly formed an “EdUnconference” Slack channel as a way to connect and try and coordinate some meet-ups around Austin.
While this was happening, an idea started to rise up in my mind. We have all of these brilliant minds trapped in Austin, but no way for them all to gather. I’ve hosted educational conferences for years in Austin and around the world. While those events take months to plan, I didn’t have that kind of time. I had 72 hours.
I also needed a place. Enter Idle Hands. Like many bars in Austin, their space had been rented out for SXSW, but those sponsors had since dropped out leaving a fully-stocked event space with complete with service staff but missing an important thing….people. I pitched them the idea of hosting “an alternate event” to SXSWedu. They were all for it and excited to help out. The owners of Ranch Hand, a local food truck that had taken up residence in the kitchen of Idle Hands said, “We have nothing to do and would love to have some people to serve!”
I immediately put the news out on Twitter that night.
Within minutes Krista reached out and told me about the Slack channel. Magic started to happen. On Saturday, I got up and bought a domain and built a website out for AltSXSWedu.com. I threw together a quick form for presenters to submit ideas (so quick that I left off the field for people to enter a presentation title!) and an Eventbrite page for people to get their free tickets. By mid-day Sunday we had 20 submissions with over 50 people that were listed as attendees and I started to think…this might actually happen.
On Monday, I met up with Krista and Tracy for the first time in person. We started going over the logistics of what the 2-day event would look like and how we could utilize the space (a former house converted into a bar) to facilitate discussions and learning. I’m the type of person that thinks and creates better collaboratively and having these two share and bounce ideas off of was amazing. Krista agreed to lead the opening session with an activity called “Collaborating with Strangers” and Tracy was going to MC some “Flash Talks” – quick, 5-minute talks with no slides, for anyone that wanted to get up and speak. We had poetry, topic mixers, round-tables, and immersive experiences. Late Monday night some signage was put together and name badges were created.
I reached out to some local vendors like Bulb, Kahoot, Squarecap, Firia Labs and Brainpop to cover items like waters, coffee and snacks for attendees. I contacted good friend Humberto Perez to see if his band MariaBloom and another band could play both days to wrap up the event. All of this happened in less than 48 hours. My INCREDIBLE wife, Renee, who always is so supportive of my crazy creative ideas, was by my side for the next two days helping run registration, logistics and answer questions.
Then Tuesday morning arrived. I didn’t know what to expect. As people started to arrive, I grabbed my portable speaker and started blaring some Stevie Ray Vaughn to welcome our international guests to the event. The learning could not be stopped!
In all, over 120 people would attend and over 30 sessions were shared either face to face or virtually. Using my daughter’s portable karaoke speaker, I kicked off the event by telling everyone that they were not attendees….they were organizers.
We shared ideas.
We invented the #AltHandShake (photo left)
We argued about educational strategies and theories.
We collaborated on how to address the rapid shift to online learning that was about to take place.
As the event wrapped up on Wednesday afternoon, I was physically exhausted but mentally and emotionally fulfilled. I made connections and learned ideas that I rarely do at a large conference. This event COULD NOT have happened without the support of the amazing companies like those mentioned above and amazing people like Ryan, Tracy, Krista, Renee, Anne, Jami, Humberto, Vitor, Meghdut, Pauline, Anna, Claudio, Carolyn, Al, Nikki, Rebecca, Sarathi, Maru, Suzanne, Reyna, and many, many more that made this event happen.
Minds from all over the world, brought together because of a virus, showing me that learning can’t be stopped even when the world around us is facing uncertainty.
I will cherish the new connections I made, the things I learned and the memories I made for the rest of my life.
We did have a few news agencies come by to see what we were up to. If you’re interested in hearing more, here are links to their stories about AltSXSWedu:
If you’ve been in education for any length of time, you’ve likely experienced a myriad of professional learning experiences. Conferences, webinars, book studies, workshops, and the dreaded “mandatory training” are all part of the lexicon of learning for the everyday educator. Strangely, a large part of our profession dreads these events. Then again, maybe that’s not so strange.
We try and tell teachers to make their classrooms student-centered with voice and choice. We want them to incorporate movement and mindfulness as well as risk-taking into their instruction. Then we absolutely do NONE of that when it comes to professional learning. During my 10+ years as a provider for professional learning, I try to emulate all the things we are asking our teachers to do. If you’ve ever seen one of my sessions you know there’s movement, voice, choice, and conversation taking place regularly. I’ll admit, there are some times when I can tell educators just want to sit in the back and surf on the web or grade papers, but usually by the time we are finished, they approach me with comments like:
“You know, I hate ice breakers, but I’m glad I did that.”
“I really just wanted to sit in the back and get my 6 hours credit, but I’m glad you got me to participate and try new things.”
I think at our core, all of us are learners. However, I think for many of us, we have been subjugated to instructional malpractice when it comes to the teaching of adults, otherwise known as andragogy. Brianna Hodges and I are in the midst of a several-year debate on the subject that teaching adults is different than teaching kids, otherwise known as pedagogy. We recently took this debate on the air with the OnEducation Podcast, and while the debate remains unresolved, I do think we need to consider the learners in our audience whenever we plan professional learning.
Last night, I woke up in a cold sweat. I’d just had a series of nightmares about attending a variety of professional learning and ALL of the worst things I could imagine were happening. I quickly grabbed my notepad to write down some of the things I remembered so I could think about a cure for each uncomfortable situation. The following scenarios may make you cringe or may hit a little close to home, but please know, these are all completely hypothetical and pulled from my series of nightmares.
Nightmare #1: The professional learning that could have been an email
As I walked into the room I could tell there was something wrong. Everyone had their laptops open around the table and no one was making eye contact. Had I done something that offended them? Was my zipper down? Had I forgot my clothes? (remember, this is a nightmare). Finally my boss says, “I’m glad you all are here, this shouldn’t take very long but we need to go over our TPS reports.” Obviously I had been watching Office Space recently and that had crept into my dream. I looked down at my watch and it was 9:02. I sat down in my chair and a foggy haze seemed to drift around me. It seemed like the clock was spinning rapidly and people’s faces seemed to get sucked into their laptop screens.
My stomach started to growl. You know, that uncomfortable growl that everyone else notices but you try and pretend your chair was just making a funny noise? Was I hungry? Or starving? Had we taken this meeting right through lunch?
Then, I noticed my beard was growing at an abnormal rate. How long was this meeting going to take? What was this all about anyway? At the end, my boss asks me in a question in a voice that now sounded like my old varsity basketball coach, “Well Hooker, what do you think?!”
And then I wake up. The anxiety I was experiencing was similar to those that recount tales of being stuck in a small space or trapped in an elevator. It was like I was suffering from some sort of claustrophobia of learning.
Cure: I think that schools and districts have the best of intentions when holding meetings to discuss things. However, rather than making the meeting focus on items that could easily be handled over email, make it about outcomes. Consider “flipping” your faculty meetings so that time together is time to collaborate and problem-solve, not just disseminate information.
Nightmare #2: The all-day sit-n-get
I drifted back off to sleep and awoke in a strange room. The walls were colored that sanitarium off-white tone. Everyone was in a chair and desk, but they all appeared to be wearing straight jackets and Hannibal Lecter-like masks. Suddenly, the lights dim and a person wearing what appears to be some sort of 1940’s style army sergeant clothes walks in. He begins to show us videos of classrooms, a wide variety of apps, and even shares some clever quotes. I was almost in a hypnotic state as I watched slide after slide loaded with bullet points about “optimal learning production” flash across the screen.
My back started to ache so I tried to stand up, only to find that I had been chained to my desk. Others in the room seemed to be struggling to move in much the same way. The presenter didn’t stop or even recognize the discomfort. He continued to drone on in what was quickly becoming a very monotonous voice similar to Ben Stein’s teacher voice in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The room began to spin. The walls closed in as the florescent lights over head began to buzz and flicker. The temperature seemed to be increasing. I was in hell. Finally, I got the courage to try and rock myself back and forth to try and tip over my desk in the hopes of breaking the chain. When I finally started to tip over, I awoke with a jolt. I had fallen out of my bed and found myself wrapped up in my sheets.
Cure: There are many days in our lives where we have an entire day dedicated to professional learning. Sometimes, the provider has only one job: to make sure you hear and see every bit of information they have prepared. The average adult brain can go 18-20 minutes in lecture setting before needing some sort of transition. My cure for the all-day sit-n-get is to break the day up into 20-minute chunks. Some of those chunks may involve some lecture or information sharing, but they never go longer than 20 minutes without some sort of brain break or discussion question to focus thinking. I often have my attendees “Stand-n-talk” to someone across the room about a question or idea. This accomplishes a couple of things:
1. It gets them out of their seat, thus increasing oxygen flow to the brain.
2. It makes them talk with someone that might not know as well, thus helping them expand their thoughts outside of their echo chamber.
Need other ideas on how to break up your professional learning day? You can find some of my favorite brain breaks on this google spreadsheet.
Nightmare #3: Drinking from a firehose
After picking myself off the floor and crawling into bed, I quickly fall back into the dream I was just in. Only now, something is a little different. I appear to be the only person in the room. I’m still strapped to my desk, but now there is a spotlight blaring into my face. I can’t quite make out what or who is behind the spotlight, but I do notice a 60-second countdown timer on the wall and what appears to be a panel of people sitting at a table taking notes.
The timer goes off and a door to my left opens. Someone walks in as a slide lights up on the projector screen. They quickly go through their presentation (about an app or idea, I can’t quite remember) and then proceed to walk off to the right and punch a giant red button.
I hear the squeak of a nob turning and look up just in time to be blasted in the face with a stream of water. As I shake off the water, I notice the timer go off again as another person walks in from the left. They also rapidly go through their presentation as the 60 seconds counts down. Again, after the rapid-fire presenting of non-sensical information, the presenter slaps the red button and I get sprayed by a hose. And then another presenter walks in, followed by another and another and another. Each one does the same thing. They present information quickly and then punch the red button. After what seems to be 50 or 60 of these, I wake up in a cold sweat (and realize I need to go to the bathroom).
Cure: This scenario reminds me of the early days of apps when you would see all sorts of sessions that were “60 apps in 60 minutes”. They are referred to as firehose sessions for a reason. I will admit that one of my more popular session offerings is a “list” session, however I try and do it a little differently by building in some time for attendees to reflect on what I had just covered. Another cure for these rapid-fire sessions besides doing a little less and allowing for reflection, is to differentiate and prepare self-paced challenges ahead of time. I’ve started doing a session on “Google Tips & Tricks” which can admittedly be a misleading title. However, once the session starts, I give all the attendees access to the resources, which include a ton of self-paced challenges. I tell the crowd that there is no way I’m going to rapid-fire through all of these and that I know most people learn best by actually using the tool or strategy. Creating self-paced challenges ahead of time transfers the voice and choice of instruction from the presenter to the attendee. They can self-monitor how much information they are taking in and decide whether or not to crank up the hose.
While these nightmares may seem extreme, my dreams were influenced by real events that I’ve experienced during my 21+ years in education. I do not have cures and solutions for every problem when it comes to professional learning. However, I do think if we begin to be just a little more mindful of our adult learners, we can start to make perceptions and attitudes around professional learning change for the good. One of the biggest compliments I ever get as a professional learning provider is when someone says, “I always look forward to your sessions because I don’t know what to expect but I know I’ll walk away entertained and with something useful.”
I think for providers of professional learning the best way to judge the success of what we provide is a simple math problem. Take the speed of which people are running to your workshop and divide it by the speed of which they are running away from it.
And hopefully don’t make these nightmares a reality.