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My Post Game Analysis of Physics Teacher Camp

July 11, 2011

Since physics teacher camp turned out to be such a hit, I thought I’d try to give a bit of background on how it came to be. This year, I really wanted to go to AAPT, partly because my first AAPT was in Lincoln 13 years ago, partly because I longed for a great steak from a Nebraska steakhouse one more time, but mostly because I wanted to meet all the people who were I’ve met in the past year through tweeting and blogging and who have become my friends. There—I said it, I have internet friends. I wanted to do Andy’s awesome flash mob, I wanted to live tweet some of the presentations I watched, and much more.

But with a packed summer and an 8 month old daughter who just on the verge of crawling and bringing a new, wonderful form of chaos to my world, it wasn’t meant to be. So I thought—what if we just got together? What would happen if we could bring a bunch of these physics teachers who already know each other well together for a few days and let them loose?

As I saw it at the time, we had a few hurdles to overcome:

  1. Where would we stay?
  2. Why would anyone want to do this? After all, no one knew each other…
  3. What would we do?

As soon as I realized how many people I really wanted to meet and collaborate with, I knew sleeping over at my house wasn’t going to cut it. But I remembered that often, schools, and boarding schools in particular, are somewhat underutilized in the summer, especially faculty housing, since many faculty leave campus to spend summer at vacation houses (boarding school faculty aren’t a different breed of uber-rich teachers with two homes, but most of them don’t pay anything for faculty housing, so it then becomes possible to own a vacation home elsewhere). I instantly thought back to my previous school, St. Andrew’s, and pitched the idea to Mark, who thought it was awesome, and went about securing housing for everyone. Unfortunately, in today’s economy the school is far more busy in the summer than it was when I was a teacher, and we didn’t have nearly as much room as I would have liked to invite all the awesome people I wanted to, so we decided to try to restrict it to somewhat local (east coast) folks.

My biggest fear was, why would anyone want to do this? I still carry a small amount of baggage from being rejected when asking a girl to my eighth grade dance, so the thought of cold emailing a dozen physics teachers and asking them to join me in Delaware was hugely intimidating. But this is the best part, at least for me, every person I emailed responded so enthusiastically that I was humbled and amazed.

Now what would we do? Too often, I’d found and conferences that just when you get going with a great presentation or Q&A session, it’s time to move on to another session, and the flow of thought is interrupted. I thought it might be helpful to spend a bit of time in June for the participants to get together online to try see if we might be able to see up a very rough plan of what we’d like to work on. We also put together a google doc for brainstorming ideas, and eventually, Fran gave us the awesome idea of using an unconference structure where participants propose what they’d like to work on, and others simply join in. So this gave us a minimal bit of structure to make sure that we had something to work on collectively, but at the same time allows for all those serendipitous discussions, and lots of follow up where great things really happen.

Avoiding those awkward conference beginning moment

I’m sure you’ve been there. You walk into the conference, then you get your dorky nametag and you look around and wonder who to talk to. You don’t instantly recognize anyone, no one’s holding up a “talk to me sign”, and so you decide to check that email on your smartphone, instantly putting up the “don’t talk to me” sign.

At the same time, you probably see people chatting with each other like they’ve known each other since childhood, and if you can build up a huge reserve of courage, you try to step into a conversation. And more often than not, you suddenly find yourself chipping through all those awkward ‘get to know you’ layers. Too often, I’ve found getting lost in my smartphone saps me of this courage, and it’s too easy to imagine that I’m really there to hear from the speakers and the events, and meeting new people really won’t impact me that much—it saddens me to think how much I’ve missed out on.

But this is how twitter and social media are transforming conferences. Just look at the recent ISTE feed—teachers all but putting their usernames on their foreheads so that they can reach out and meet all those people they’ve been following online.

Physics teacher camp takes this to the next level, I think. First, we had chatted a little over GoToMeeting in June, but more importantly, it’s a smaller group of people who have been reading each other’s thoughts online and communicating on weekly basis, sometimes even more than that. So when Brian walked through the door of Mark’s house, I know instantly who he was, reached out and shook his hand and we got right down to the business of sharing stories and ideas like old friends.

Also, like unconferences, there weren’t any keynote speakers we’d paid thousands of dollars to hear. Getting together with the other participants was the whole point of Physics Teacher Camp.

Why this might not work if you simply try it with the teachers you work with everyday

So it might seem that if familiarity helps to make conferences work better, why not just organize a conference solely for the faculty who teach at your school? After all, they probably know each other better than anyone else. I don’t want to discourage this type of thinking—I think it’s awesome, and I’m always in favor of more collaboration between teachers, especially in the same school. But in my experience, if there’s an echo chamber out there, it tends to be in schools, where faculty stake out their positions and rehash them over and over with little progress. New ideas are often hard to come by, try or or accept in these circumstances. Of course there are ways to get around this, and one of the best I’ve seen is the great work our school is doing with PLC’s.

Still, if I’m setting up a workshop for professional development, I think one of the key ingredients is that you bring a little bit of variety of to your meeting, and don’t just limit it to the people you work with every day.

The power of reaching out to people beyond those in attendance

Personally for me, one of the best parts of this conference were the fairly active hashstag, and the deeply meaningful collaborations we had with teachers across the nation. Andy stayed up extra late to build a prototype of the SBG problem database, Rhett broke into his blog vault and gave us a ton of ideas for video analysis, and on Saturday, we were joined virtually by almost as many teachers as were on campus to talk about Standards Based Grading.

Why this might be a new model of professional development

I think the largest expense for any of the participants in this conference was a plane ticket. Mark generously covered all of the of the food expenses from the St. Andrew’s department professional development budget, which came to less than $700 for 11 faculty. St. Andrew’s had 3 physics faculty participating in the conference. Had Mark instead decided to send his faculty to a national conference for a few days, the expenses for just one faculty member would have far exceeded $700. So from the perspective of his school, not only is this professional development highly personalized and going to have a big impact on the learning of St. Andrew’s students, it’s one heck of a bargain.

How you can do this too

When I first wrote about physics teacher camp, I said it was the result of three things:

  • Use the internet to find a network of people who share your interests
  • Dive into that network and participate fully by listening and sharing
  • Bring that network together in real life

I still think that’s true, and with a little bit of creativity almost any other obstacle can be surmounted. You don’t need a boarding school campus to host the event—what you need is the courage to think that the relationships you are forming online are as meaningful as those you have with the people you see everyday, and be curious about what might happen if you brought all your tweeps together in the same room for a few days.

If Andy Rundquist put together a real physics teacher camp in the backwoods of Minnesota (with mathematica access via laptops, of course), I’d be there sooner than you could say “you betcha”, with my sleeping bag and tent in tow.

Conclusion

Why was this workshop so successful? In my mind, it’s simple—we brought together people who had gotten to know each other long before the conference started. The participants were mostly on the same page about many issues of curriculum and pedagogy, yet still had enough significant differences to make for lively conversation. We scheduled just enough to give us something to focus in those down moments, but left plenty of time for spontaneous conversation.

So when will you get started planning math/chemistry/history or whatever teacher camp?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    July 12, 2011 7:47 am

    Thanks for the breakdown of how you guys pulled this off. It’s clear that you got a ton accomplished and it seems you got way more out of it that a typical conference.

    I’ve been wondering if I could live with just blogging, twitter, and virtual meetings like the Global Phys Dept. I get a lot out of those, but certainly nothing like the focus you guys achieved.

    If we have one in the back woods of MN, keep in mind that I’m immune to mosquito bites so I might not realize that we have to put up things like screen tents around the picnic table. I’m getting good at filleting fish, though!

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