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My Attempt at Retreat 2.0

I’ve been in education for almost 20 years and some of the campuses I’ve worked for have made attempts to do a “retreat” as a way of team-building and goal-setting. When it comes to retreats run by public education, we are a bit limited in scope. As we are funded by tax payers, we can’t take our employees on a boat cruise to Hawaii or a weekend in Vegas. Private companies have been hosting get-away retreats for years as a way of celebrating past successes and setting goals and benchmarks for the future. In general, the anatomy of a retreat is made up of the following items:
  • An off-site location
  • Some sort of team-building activity
  • Some time dedicated to goal-setting

While I am , I have never attempted to host a retreat.  Sure, we’ve gathered at my house for happy hour or gone out to lunch together, but generally, these are social gatherings (which are necessary from time to time).  We’ve also done quite a bit of revamping of our meeting structure to make it more retreat-like (more on that later), but still not technically a retreat. With the pressure mounting on what would be our first ever retreat, I felt that we needed a mixture of the following:

  • Inspiration
  • Appreciating our differences
  • Problem-solving in collaborative teams
  • Opening up avenues of communication between the team
  • Identifying passion projects

Adding those elements into the previous anatomy of a retreat, I had a mission. And since I do my best thinking with others, I brought in a couple of team members, Tim Yenca (@mryenca) and Jennifer Flood (@floodedu) to help build some of the structures of the retreat.

Location

Finding places to meet around Austin isn’t a problem.  Finding FREE places to meet that also cultivate creativity is an issue. So rather than just meeting at a local coffee shop, I contacted Joshua Baer (@joshuabaer), head honcho at Capital Factory – the epicenter of entrepreneurs and start-up companies in the city.  Josh was kind enough to set us up in the “Willie Room” on the 16th floor of Capital Factory (located in the Omni downtown).  What I love about this space is not only the breathtaking views, but also the openness of the space and proximity to other start-up companies working in the same space. that we have access to for free.  With our base location set-up, it was time to build the agenda.

Ed Techs gathering in the Willie Room at Capital Factory (Can you see Willie in the background?)

Team-Building Activity #1 – Guess Who

During the retreat, we working on getting to know each other better. The first thing I sent the group was a pre-survey that asked them a few basic questions.  Some of these were for future activities, but for the retreat specifically, I asked the team to identify the following:
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What app do you love?
  • What was your childhood nickname?
  • Where is your dream place to visit?

Using this information, I printed out cards that read “FEAR” or “PLACE TO VISIT” with their answers on the back. We used this to play a pictionary-meets-charades version of the Guess Who? game. Splitting the group into two teams, each team member took turns either acting or drawing out the answer on the back of the card. The team had 1-minute to guess the answer and if they got it right, they got bonus points for identifying the correct Ed Tech who said the particular item.  While there were a lot of cherished moments during this activity, one of my faves was rookie Ed Tech Chris Hanson (@tejashanson) doing a flip to demonstrate the app FlipGrid in charade form.

This game could have gone on for a couple of hours, but after a few rounds and my “Who’s line is it anyway?” type scoring, we ended in a tie and then went through the remaining cards to guess who said what. This activity was a great way to start out the retreat and it really highlighted the unique-ness of each of us, including our strengths and weaknesses and ways in which we can support each other. Finding out that Ed Tech Debbie Smith (@dsmitheisd) had a fear of small spaces made it particularly interesting for an upcoming challenge where we all crammed into an elevator together.

Goal-setting (Individual & Team)

This team is composed of visionary thinkers and ideators with a wide variety of expertise. While it’s important that we create and share some common team goals, I wanted to use some time during the retreat for the team to reflect on individual goals as well. I set up this next portion to help the team answer the following questions:

  • What is something that you want to learn this year?
  • What are goals for your campus?
  • How do you know when you are achieving these goals successfully?
  • What is your BHAG or Passion Project for the future? (could be more than a year out)

We then gathered in teams (elementary and secondary) to discuss our individual goals and using district goals to guide the creation of one or two team goals for us this year. I think that third question above is one that I often struggle with. I love creating goals and ideas, but going back and checking on their success (or failure) is often a missed step.  I’m hoping these goals guide each of us individually and as a team, and that at next year’s retreat, we can check in and see how successful we were in accomplishing them.

VIP Tour & VR Room Experience

Another benefit of hosting the meeting in Capital Factory (besides the free food and beverages) was the VIP tour that we got of the complex for one of our breaks. One stop on the tour was the Virtual Reality Room. We each got to participate in a wide variety of games and simulations. I was immediately blown away with how far these VR simulations have come in recent years. In talking with the resident VR resident (who went by the name “Justin”), it was clear to see the educational impact a VR environment could provide to students and their learning experiences. One thing that was even more compelling was the idea that students could create and program their own worlds, which is certainly an area we want to investigate bringing into our schools in the future.

iVenger Fred & Chris (background) experiment with VR as Han Solo watches on frozen with anticipation

Creating Avenues for Collaboration

I’ve been experimenting on ideas to get our team to cross-collaborate more often. One of the benefits to having campus-based Ed Techs is that we are able to have a lot of just-in-time learning opportunities for staff on campuses. However, this does create more silos when it comes to the team sharing and collaborating on ideas. To battle this isolationism, I’m testing out something new that I call the “Ed Tech ShareCase“.  The concept is that one Ed Tech is the campus Lead and two other Ed Techs collaborate with them as assistants so to speak.  They collaborate on a project or professional learning experience for the campus and then go there to help deliver it.  My initial goal is for the team to do this a couple of times throughout the year in an effort to build cross-collaboration. Then, during our monthly meetings, Ed Techs will not share their own work, but instead the work of others that they are supporting.  

Going on an Adventure!

With some goal-setting and team-building under our belts, and a much needed lunch break, we set out for our next challenge. Using the EventZee app that we’ve used at past iPadpalooza events for photo-hunts, I created a city-wide scavenger hunt for the team to complete. My goal for this part of the retreat was not just getting everyone up and moving around our fabulous city, but also getting breaking up the teams into groups that don’t get to collaborate often. A couple of days before this challenge, I actually walked the course myself as I wanted the hunt to end in a specific final location. (see below). I perched myself on top of a tall parking garage structure to see the teams walking towards various clues throughout the city and sent them occasional alerts when their time was running out. I love the scavenger hunt concept for the competitiveness and collaborative problem-solving aspects. Plus the walking makes for a great “after lunch” activity.

Ed Techs Tanna Fiske, Lisa Johnson, and Rich Lombardo caught wandering down a random alley during the Scavenger Hunt

Escape!

The final stop during our retreat was the Escape Game Austin. Having never been a part of an escape room experience I didn’t know what to expect, but this ending event really brought our team together and as a great way to wrap up the retreat. The rooms/games you can choose from vary in size (4 to 12 people) are complex and really encourage collaboration, communication and problem-solving. The particular room we chose was called “Playground” and actually involved several elements from a school (ironically enough). Once I heard about escape rooms, I’ve always wanted to do one with this team.  I brag to anyone that listens to me about how clever and collaborative our team is and how we would escape without an issue despite the 11%-15% success rate of most teams.
I’m happy to share we escaped with 10+ minutes to spare!

The iVengers Escape!

Summary 

The retreat was a major success in accomplishing the goals we set forth at the beginning. While there were a couple of activities we didn’t have time to accomplish, it did a great job of getting us all on the same page and also gave us much fodder to harass each other for the rest of the year.  If you are planning a retreat, think about the experience and what you hope your team to gain out of it. And what ever you do, don’t just make it a meeting only longer. Otherwise, you may have your team trying to escape!

The Dream That Was….iPadpalooza

During his mini-keynote, Derrick Brown (@DAB427) claimed that we were all “just living in a Hooker’s dream.”  While I’m honored by his statement, I can tell you this entire experience has far exceeded any dream I could have dreamt. I can also tell you that this dream wasn’t just mine, but a shared dream amongst teams of dedicated educators that I’ve had the pleasure of working with because of this event.

This past week at the ending of our 6th annual learning festival, I announced that it would be the last iPadpalooza main event. This decision was not made in haste and has involved countless of hours of discussion, counseling, and, in my case, even some tears. But, before we dive into what comes next, I decided to write this post as part explanation, part reflection, part appreciation, part therapy (for me), and part teaser (for what’s next).

First…a little history 

In 2011, we had launched our iPad 1:1 and wanted to hold an event that would bring teachers together to share and learn from each other. Since other districts in the area were doing it, we decided we could open it up to outside educators as well. The thought of holding an “iConference” was kicked around but sounded boring and overdone. One of my amazing iVengers (Marianna Ricketson) said at a meeting in early 2012 that we should name it iPadpalooza as a way of making it sound more fun. So we bought the domain and set a date without any clue as to what we were going to actually do. (Hey, sometimes, you just have to take a risk and put it out there)

Also at that point, I added the tagline that “It’s not a conference…it’s a learning festival” to make attendees aware of what they were attending would not be a normal educational conference. So, on June 19, 2012, we partnered with TCEA to host our single-day event and even had some film students create this promotional video (below). As a fun side note, I had to reach out and chat with Norman Greenbaum to get his permission to use his song in the video. He’s a groovy dude.

 

 

The truth behind the lie

Sir Ken on the big stage

Following a successful first year, we wanted to make the next year even bigger and expand it to two days. So I hopped on the phone with Sir Ken Robinson’s people to try and convince him that he needed to come to our learning festival. When he said he’d never heard of it, I lied. I told him that it’s a global event that is attended by 1000 educators from all over the country and the world. He and his people agreed to do the keynote, and even though in the first year we only had 400 attendees, when he showed up, so did 1000 people from all over the country and the world. So….it wasn’t necessarily a lie, it just wasn’t true…yet.

The “Learning Festival” ideology

Getting educators to attend professional learning during their off-time can be extremely tricky. While ideally, people would just come to improve their craft, there is also some pressure on those providing the learning to make sure it’s worth their time. When I was a classroom teacher, I always thought the best trainings I attended gave me some choice and allowed time to collaborate and be hands-on with activities rather than sitting in a room for several hours being talked at. When I attended conferences, I took notes of the parts I liked, and the ones I didn’t. Cramming sessions in with 5 minute breaks left no time for reflection and collaborating. Also, as I attended events like TEDx, SXSW, and even ACLFest (a music festival), the idea to create a festival atmosphere kept creeping into my head and those on my team.

The learning festival ideology is centered around the concept that learning can be fun (even for adults) and that learning should be an event…an experience if you will. From the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, you should be a part of the experience. Taking the traditional conference concept and shaking it up with live music, food trucks, t-shirts, contests, film festivals, and unique session types helps make the learning more festival-like.

It’s more than just a name

We knew when we named the event “iPadpalooza” that the name immediately excluded certain groups of educators (those without iPads). While we began the event as a way for teachers to share iPad resources, education, devices and technology integration has evolved. Indeed, our session titles in the early days were also centered around the device rather than learning. Sessions like “50 apps in 50 minutes” were popular when we began, but as the festival evolved, we noticed a stronger push to focus deeper on learning strategies with and without technology.  Whatever our next iteration will be, we want to make sure that all adults (and students) have an opportunity to experience the Learning Festival-feel regardless of what device their district may have purchased.

6 years – by the numbers

Here’s a look at a few numbers of iPadpalooza over the the last 6 years:

Eric Whitacre

Major Keynotes

Before Sir Ken, Tony Vincent took a chance and decided to open up our inaugural event in 2012. (I was actually the closer for that event). Without Tony, our event wouldn’t have had the initial credibility to get off the ground. I’m forever grateful to him and the work he brings to education. Other featured keynotes included Sugata Mitra, Guy Kawasaki, Adam Bellow, “iPad Magician” Simon Pierro, Cathy Hunt, Eric Whitacre, Kevin Honeycutt , Austin Kleon and Jason Silva.  Also, in 2014, just to be a little different (and to make @techchef4u happy), we had the band Blue October close out our event.

 

This year’s mini-keynoters (credit Yau-Jau Ku)

Edu-Celebrities

Besides the above, we’ve hosted nearly a hundred “celebrities” from the education world, many of whom have been roped into doing a mini-keynote over the years. Here’s just a few names that have generously given us some of their educational expertise over the years:  Tom Murray, Christian Long, David Jakes, George Couros, Kerry Gallagher, Dan Ryder, Amy Burvall, Dean Shareski (and his daughter this year!), Audrey O’Clair, Wes Fryer & Shelly Fryer, Felix & Judy Jacomino, Adam Phyall, Amy Mayer, Greg Kulowiec, Andrew Wallace, Cathy Yenca & Tim Yenca,  Lisa Johnson, Greg Garner, Don Goble, Kyle Pace, Phil Hintz, Kyle Pierce, Leo Brehm, Chris ParkerMichelle Cordy, Jennie Magiera, Scott Meech, Tracy Clark, Cori Coburn, Rafranz Davis, Kathy Schrock, Monica Burns, Derrick Brown, Todd Nesloney, Jon Samuelson, Matt Gomez, Reshan Richards, Julie Willcott, Richard Wells, Rabbi Michael Cohen, Brianna Hodges, Carolyn Foote, Brett Salakas, Jona Nalder, Matt Miller, Holly Moore,  Joan Gore, Janet Corder, Kacy Mitchell, Steve Dembo, Lucas Loughmiller, and Chris Coleman just to name a few. (Apologies if I left anyone off this list!) So much talent has graced the halls of Westlake High School over the years and I can honestly say you would be lucky to have any of the above as keynote speakers at your event. There were also countless other rock-star teachers that have been a part of the 509 presenters that have shared their wisdom at our events.  Check out the last couple of mini-keynotathons and other featured speakers on the iPadpalooza YouTube channel .

 

Kids on stage for the Youth Film Festival (credit: Richard Johnson)

Events around the event

One of the things that really makes our festival different is the thought, time, and energy put into events happening during and around the main event. The APPMazing Race and Youth Film Festival both kicked off in 2013. In 2014 we added the iLead Academy and in 2015 the Prepalooza Learnshops. This final year, we also added our first ever Ed Tech Poetry Slam at the Spider House in Austin (Shout-out to Lisa Johnson for the idea!)  These events around the event really make it a nearly 24/7 experience in learning, connection, fun, and collaboration.

Other ‘paloozas and the Learning Festival Network

In 2014 I was approached by Kari Gerhart and Caroline Little about the possibility of bringing iPadpalooza to Minnesota. And thus, the iPadpalooza spin-off events were born. A little bonus history here, it was around this time that someone, either Caroline or possibly Reshan Richards coined the term “Godfather” for me – owing to my Sicilian background.

All told there have been over a dozen spin-off events with Minnesota, East Texas, and South Texas being the longest running. In 2016, we went international and became the first iPadpalooza in Australia.  While the main event is over, we still support our spin-off events and hope many more will pop up over the years.

Speaking of spin-offs, there were several events created that were “inspired by” the spirit of iPadpalooza. Events like iEngage-Berwyn, Miami Device and others took pieces and parts of iPadpalooza to spice up their own event. In the coming years, we hope to fold these and other spin-off events, into our Learning Festival Network to support them in any way we can.

Making sponsor “thank you’s” fun

In 2014, I decided that instead of doing the traditional sponsor thank you speech at the beginning and end of the event, that I would turn it into a rap song. I also tried to set the Guinness World Record of “most synchronized light show” in history by turning off the lights and controlling everyone’s iPads with Nearpod as I sang my version of LMFAO’s “Party Rock”.  While it worked, Guinness sadly failed to show to recognize the achievement.

The following year, I tried my hand at a parody of Eminem with “iPadpalooza Yourself” (sang to “Lose Yourself”) but realized that this was becoming a one-trick pony and I needed to push myself.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, a lot of my inspiration comes from talking and collaborating with others.

Enter Felix and Judy Jacomino.  With their input, we starting working on a different way to thank the sponsors….via a “Slow Jam”. Experience it below –

This year I attempted to follow it up with my version of Car pool karaoke, which was fun…but the slow jam will always be my favorite.  And their ending of this year’s event with the “Ed Tech Musical Review” will go down in history as an epically funny way to look at trends in Ed Tech.

 

iVengers & Volunteers

These events can’t happen without dedicated staff willing to do the dirty work from running around fixing projectors to handling prima dona keynote speakers. I’ve been blessed with an amazing team here at Eanes ISD. They work their tail off year after year for this event and always with a smile on their face. Without my amazing team of Ed Techs, a.k.a. iVengers, none of this would be even remotely possible. The ideas for this event come from the collective brain power of this group, not just me. I’m excited to have them on board for what comes next….

So…What’s Next?

While iPadpalooza sails off into the sunset, I can promise you there will be something else coming. We are already cooking up ideas for a prototype event next summer with our internal staff that will keep some of the same features of iPadpalooza but also open up some other thoughts and ideas. But why stop at just one event? There are also plans for a SUPER SECRET idea (my BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal) that I can promise you will be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Thank you all for being on board this voyage for learning over the past six years.

Here’s to the next dream!

Our last volunteer and VIP wrap-up boat cruise – Lake Austin 2017

The infamous “jump” to wrap up each year’s event

Two people without whom none of this is possible. Felix and my better-half, Renee