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:
It wasn’t the dried blood pouring from their ears or the vampire-like teeth they seemed to all be sporting. Being a teacher for 20-plus years, she had become accustomed to kids not following along with the school rules banning any type of costumes or “Halloween attire” from the school. Having fought (and lost) many a battle with parents, she had given up hope in some ways that the kids (or better yet, their parents) would actually honor any type of school rule.
No, what was different was that they all seemed to be actually sitting quietly waiting for some direction.
She dreaded this day.
From her first day as a teacher in 2020, to the present year 2041, she always hated dealing with typical rowdy behaviors from her 3rd/4th grade mixed class on October 31. It became a huge pain to try to keep them engaged in any type of lesson. She tried to have them create their own virtual haunted houses and even used augmented reality to zombify their “Facetagram” profiles. Nothing seemed to work.
They were obedient kids, but their boredom tolerance was almost non-existent. She felt as if she had to always entertain them and on Halloween, when they had visions of ‘safe-for-school’ candy dancing in their heads, she knew it would be particularly difficult to keep them engaged in any task.
So, this year, she decided to try something different. Something that would TRULY scare them.
“Class, today we are going to take a surprise field trip,” Ms. Shannon said.
“What? Where? Today? Our parents didn’t get a note, how can we do this?” the students questioned.
“Will it be a virtual field trip?” some pondered as the teacher liked to integrate virtual reality into her lessons regularly.
“No, it will be an ACTUAL field trip,” the teacher responded.
Following some moans and groans, the students slowing rose from their flexible furniture and ambled in zombie-like fashion past the interactive wallpaper at the front of the class (which was currently displaying a misty cemetery setting with headstones that had each of their names).
“Should we take our tablets?” one student asked.
“No, for this you will only need your eyes, your feet, and a snack,” replied the teacher.
As the self-driving bus landed in front of the school, the students filed in with a murmur. There was a mixture of excitement and fear. Usually all field trips had to be approved by parents, and most of these students had never gone anywhere without their parents careful planning. From pre-planned “play dates” when they were 3 and 4 years old, to the cavalcade of TaeKwonDo lessons, Oboe Practice, and Drone Racing League meets, they had all lived extremely scheduled and pre-approved lives.
After a quick flight out of the city, the bus came to rest in the middle of a forest.
“Alright class, everyone out!” the teacher exclaimed.
The students noticed her demeanor had shifted from grumpy to cheerful, which put them all at ease, albeit she seemed to be overly cheerful.
“Students, today you are going to be a part of something you have never experienced. In a few moments, I’m going to leave you alone here in these woods.”
The students shifted uncomfortably in their self-lacing shoes. Some began to look nervously to each of their classmates as if to say, “Do you think this is real?”
“Somewhere, there is a note giving you directions that you’ll have to uncover, but until then, good luck.”
And with that she stepped onto the bus which quickly flew up into low-hanging grey clouds and disappeared.
For what seemed like a lifetime, the students stood still, mouths agape.
“How could she leave us here?” one boy with an interactive t-shirt displaying a 38-year old dancing Billie Ellish commented.
“She’ll be back. I’m sure of it,” a girl with three pig-tails reassured.
After a few minutes, when they realized she wouldn’t be coming back, many of the students began to gather in small groups trying to decide what to do next. One group elected to stay right where they were until their parents came and got them. Another group started to cry and scream from the stress. A third group immediately began looking for the note the teacher had mentioned.
One of the girls in the third group, Sheri, had been a part of “the Scouts” as they had now been named. (Boy and Girl Scouts had been merged in 2036) Sheri had some knowledge of survival skills and immediately took up a leadership position in the group.
“Listen, we can’t wait here for someone to come get us. This is a challenge that we must overcome together. Our teacher is always talking about how we need to collaborate more, think critically, and problem-solve. I think this is a test to see if we can do that,” she stated.
“There are 20 of us here. If we work together, I’m sure we can find the note the teacher mentioned and get out of here.”
“LOOK!!” one of the boys shouted. “There’s an old cabin over there!”
The students gathered closely together as the dilapidated cabin seemed to leer at them behind spider webs and dead vines climbing along the sides of its walls.
“What are you crazy?!? Go into that place? NO WAY” one of the kids commented.
Sheri reassured them,”You don’t really think our teacher would leave us out here with something dangerous? She’d get in so much trouble from our parents. I think this is all an elaborate trick.”
As the words escaped her mouth though, Sheri began to wonder. She had noticed a change lately with Ms. Shannon. She seemed to be getting more and more pail as the year wore on. Her hair, normally perfectly placed, had become disheveled. She seemed stressed. And not just the normal stress that teaching 60 hours a week for a small paycheck had brought upon her life. No, this was different.
Secretly, Sheri thought that Ms. Shannon had finally cracked.
As the students huddled together and slowly approached the cabin, a deep fear had crept into all of their brains. They had never done anything without first checking for consent from an adult. A large group of kids decided to stay in the very spot where they had been left by the bus, opting to collect their snacks in a pile and await for their parents or the teacher to come back for them.
The smaller group, led by Sheri, progressed into the cabin. Inside, it was musty. There were strange all-in-one desk looking torture devices set in rows in the room. An old interactive whiteboard from yesteryear hung tilted off one of the walls. What was this place?
One boy named Leo chimed in, “This almost looks like a learning studio. I think they used to call it a ‘classroom’.”
Other students nodded. There were old, sun-bleached bulletin boards on the walls and alphabet letters strung up across the top of the wall (although four letters E,H,L, and P were missing).
At the front of the room was an extremely large desk. The students had never seen a desk of this size. One of them commented, “It almost looks like it could be a teacher’s desk, but teachers don’t have desks anymore so I’m confused.”
On the middle of the desk laid a single sheet of paper.
Sheri, with hands shaking, picked up the note.
You have all lived very scheduled lives. You have amazing skills when it comes to using technology, however, none of you have ever learned how to think or entertain yourselves. So today, I’m going to challenge you.
The note continued:
You have no directions. You can do whatever you want. There are no devices to help guide you out of these woods. You are miles from any resources or Wifi. There is only one way out.
Once you have figured out how to think for yourself, you will be freed from the forest.
A loud SCREAM came from the cabin. The group of kids outside sprawled and ran in all directions.
I wish this tale had a happy ending, but it doesn’t.
The students would never leave those woods.
And to this day, if you ever hover near the old school house planted in the middle of woods, you might hear their confused cries for help and direction as they sadly never figured out how to think for themselves.