Student Led Edcamp- An Extraordinary Experience

I believe that if the world were run by 9 year olds, we would all be in a better place. “You Matter,” “Learn Like a Pirate,” “Take Risks,” “Fail Often,” “No Box Thinking,” “Innovate,” and the list goes on. The culture in which these words shape are not only essential in creating a better world, but children wholeheartedly live and breathe what each represents.  And somehow, they are geniuses at putting them together.

My fourth graders have created a world in which I love to live.  They have inspired me to go beyond the teacher I was in order to become the teacher I choose to be.  Without giving students a voice, this inspiration would not exist and without this inspiration, I wouldn’t have listened so hard.

A few months ago, I chose to listen and this is what I heard-Give us something that counts.  We want to change the world.  We have ideas.  We love technology, so BRING IT!  We are willing to take risks.  We believe everyone matters.  We want to connect globally. We want to learn.  We CAN do this.  

On a not so beautiful New England morning in March, I had an unforgettable experience, Edcamp. Through attending sessions and even leading one, I participated in conversations filled with passion, insight, and liberation. This was unlike any professional development I had experienced before and I felt an educational camaraderie much like Twitter, only face to face.  I walked away thinking, “This is it.  I can hand my students this experience and it will be like nothing they’ve ever done before.  They will lead and they will be heard.”  

I am sure many left with the same thought and motivation to bring the idea of Edcamp back to their classrooms, putting their students in charge. In fact, I later found that a few educators have actually blogged about incredible student led Edcamps. Recently, however, I had the honor of being asked to share my own experience.  Just like my student pirates, when I know something I create has the potential to matter, I am all in.

So, this is the story of the first Crew 202 Edcamp with twenty-four pirate students, a group of individuals who will indeed change the world.

The very next Monday after my own Edcamp experience, I began theirs.

“Just start talking in your groups about anything at all school related.” (It should be noted that I was pretty lenient)

“Anything?  Just talk?”

“Yes!  I can’t wait to walk around and LISTEN to your conversations!”

I am pretty sure it was the most beautiful buzzing I have yet to hear.  One that screamed both passion and freedom.  Once conversations ended, we quickly gathered on the carpet and “popcorned” potential topics.  I simply couldn’t keep up and watching me rush to write yet another brilliant idea was, of course, part of the fun. I was amazed by the level of sophistication my students brought to the table with topics like Global Learning, Makerspace,  Synergy, and App Smashing.  Just listing topics alone gave me incredible insight into what my students consider important.

What’s supposed to happen next unfortunately didn’t.  Due to several factors, I certainly dragged the Edcamp process out, in fact, longer than intended. Edcamp should be a one day event beginning with conversations that lead to schedule building right there in the moment.  I took three weeks.  With it being my first time, however, I didn’t want to rush the process and like so many schools in April, we had a heavy week of state testing. I was also battling a common battle educators fight every day, time.  I did promise my students that I would use every minute I could and that one day before April Vacation, they would indeed lead an Edcamp session.  It should also be noted that I now have the confidence to run our next Edcamp the Edcamp way.

I hung the poster we created as I wanted students to get to know potential topics for their own unforgettable experience about to take shape in our classroom.  I also wanted to give them the chance to add any ideas they had.  At the end of the week, I asked students to choose one topic they would like to lead and one topic they would like to attend.

The following week, I created a table of student led sessions and a separate table of sessions they were interested in attending.  Most sessions students were interested in attending were chosen by other students to lead, which made my job easier.  I faced a couple of challenges, for example, many wanted to attend App Smashing, yet no one felt comfortable leading it.  We decided to make this a discovery group and I reminded students that many times in Edcamp, “leaders” are doing just that, exploring.  In addition, a couple of students were passionate about the same topic so this time, I allowed them to lead together.

To ensure there was enough interest in all topics, I gave students the finalized table and asked them to write their name under their session and star the sessions they would like to attend.  We certainly had enough interest for each-we were ready to go.

Finally, last Thursday, it was the day we had been waiting for, Crew 202 Edcamp.  I had repeated over and over all week, “No preparation is necessary.  Just bring your passion, voice, and ears.” Under the Morning Message full of “pump it up” sentences, hung a piece of gold, our first Edcamp schedule listing both morning and afternoon sessions.  I tried to group the most popular sessions together as well as the less popular sessions so each leader would have at least a few attendees.(It wasn’t so perfect in real time, but we learn as we go.)

During Morning Meeting, I modeled leading a conversation on service learning as I knew this was a topic students would be interested in discussing.  Students could see that I am passionate about service learning and their nervousness about lack of preparation eased.  They could see I had prepared nothing and only brought my passion, voice, and ears!

I was convinced at this point we were ready.  We started and ended with three sets of thirty minute sessions. To achieve balance, I held it to three to four taking place at the same time. Before each set of sessions, every leader stood up and gave a few words regarding what to expect and what they hoped each attendee would walk away with. Students made their choices and we were off.

Except for two instances, all sessions had at least a few attendees. For the leaders who had less than desirable attendance, I did two things:  I simply reminded them that this happens in life, that one of my blended learning presentations caught the attention of two people while someone down the hall grabbed the other thirty. Knowing my students, I also asked for risk taking pirates to leave the group they originally joined and balance it out. Each time, several students quickly ran to make their classmates’ day.

During the couple of hours dedicated solely to Edcamp, I gained tremendous knowledge as a student participant right alongside my “classmates.” Conversations included ideas centered around the calmness in drawing and the power in creating with our hands. Students discovered the world of app smashing, developed ideas for global learning, brainstormed student led digital chat topics, and critically discussed the status of our school lunches and required homework. They talked about their experiences with animals, recess, sports, brain breaks, synergy in the classroom, bouncy ball chairs, and the effects of positive thinking.  A few leaders acted on impulse and asked to use Legos, scissors, paper, laptops, and more!

As if being a student participant wasn’t satisfying enough, I also found myself observing as a teacher and it was then that I witnessed courage, leadership, and empathy.  What more could a teacher, or world for that matter, ask for.  Students truly encouraged each other and showed a genuine interest in each conversation. They learned about their classmates and they learned about themselves.  Some of my quietest students spoke loudly with confidence, and many times it was my most vocal students who quietly supported them.

Even students who are in and out of the classroom showed off their talents as their classmates ate up every second.  While one drew pictures that helped us tap into his personality, another student called for volunteers to help demonstrate his daily strengthening exercises.  The bottom line is my students and I played a variety of roles and had a chance to see who we are in each of them.  And together, we created something successful.

Quotes From Student Reflections

“I started as nervous as a zebra who saw a lion, but as the session went on, I gained confidence.”

“I was really surprised that I didn’t need to prepare anything to make it a success.”

“Everyone had a say and we didn’t argue once!”

“I learned a lot about ME.”

“When you lead a session, they’re (students) listening to you, sharing their thoughts, and are anxious for more.”

“You get to see what people are passionate about and you get to see them lead.”

“Our class has so many great ideas!  I love all of the discussions we had!”

“Everyone gave us full respect and followed the rules.”

“I learned things I didn’t already know from classmates that knew more about it.”

Two of my unique thinkers received several shout outs for being brave and leading something different.

“A genius idea was making a homework website with your own avatar that adapts to your skills.”

“I would do this homework website every day including the weekends.”

“The Makerspace session was brilliant and awesome.”

“Makerspace was so cool.  I loved it!”

It seemed the classroom wish list carried common themes.

-More time!

-More hands on sessions! 

-Next time can we all have laptops opened to the same google doc like you did?

-Can we continue learning about the same topics?

-Can we sign up for sessions before they start so they are more even?

I already answered “yes” to every request.  Why not?  They own this. I believe that giving students a voice in reflecting what they would like to see change is at the heart of improvement when running a student led Edcamp.  I honestly can’t wait to run another one and as much as I would like to say that it will be as in the moment as possible, I must honor the last request.  This is a work in progress and when dealing with young hearts and minds, we must plan carefully.  What I do know is that my goal is to make it as similar as possible to Edcamp for teachers keeping in mind that after all, they’re kids.

I hope you will comment and tweet ideas so we can collaborate in making successful student led Edcamps for all classrooms.  There are so many changes I’d like to make, one of which is to go more high tech with the planning as well as actual sessions.  I also plan to join another classroom thanks to Sean Farnum’s suggestion and I would love to hear your suggestions as well.  It will never be perfect, but according to my amazing students it can certainly improve.

I’d like to close by giving a shout out to a group of amazing life changers- Beth Houf (who told me to go to Edcamp!), the Burgesses, Jay Billy, Paul Solarz, Angela Maiers, and Don Wettrick. (I am sure I will be thanking Matt Miller soon too!) This year, change is what keeps me going and it seems to be what keeps my wonderful students going as well.  In fact they seem to crave it, digest it, and produce greatness.  They are also better people because of it.  I like to remind them a few times a week, “You will leave here not just great students, but extraordinary people.”

Our first Edcamp experience was far from perfect (I even had to redirect students at times!) but extraordinary it was.  There’s no time like the present to try it again as I aim for a student led classroom thanks to Paul Solarz and Learn Like a Pirate.  And there’s no time like the present as these children will one day lead the world.  We should encourage them to be good at it.

Special thanks to Sean Farnum and Sandy Otto for showing their interest on Twitter and asking me to write something I may have never initiated myself.

Student wrote positive comments throughout the day for their classmates.
Student wrote positive comments throughout the day for their classmates.
“Brain Break” Dancing
Strengthening Excerises
Modeling Exercises
Revolutionize Homework
Revolutionizing Homework
Digital Chats
Digital Chats
Bouncy Ball Chairs
Bouncy Ball Chairs
Two students took a risk in leading something they knew very little about, App Smashing.
Two students took a risk in leading App Smashing, a subject they knew very little about.
School Lunches
School Lunches
The Calmness of Drawing
The Calmness in Drawing

5 thoughts on “Student Led Edcamp- An Extraordinary Experience

  1. I admire your courage to let your students create something authentic, memorable, and real. The student-led edcamp is a brilliant model of what education should look like. Thank you for sharing the experience with readers. There is nothing like seeing student feedback and hearing their voices. Keep leading a great group of young, innovative minds. Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I can’t believe I am seeing your comment months later!!! So sorry. I truly appreciate your feedback and let me know if you have tried edcamp with your students or teachers. I would love to do it again this year!


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