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ILA’s First Edcamp Online Offers Virtual Opportunity for Educators to Connect, Collaborate

By Colleen Patrice Clark
 | Apr 09, 2020

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On April 1, ILA opened registration for our very first ILA Edcamp Online, one of several initiatives we have launched in response to the need for increased virtual learning opportunities for educators in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures around the globe.

The Edcamp offered three sessions centered on the themes of access, continuous learning, and reaching struggling readers.

They were full within a few hours of being announced.

So one thing is clear: This was our first experiment with bringing Edcamp, a perennial favorite at our annual conferences, into the virtual realm—and it certainly won’t be the last.

Educators from around the world joined us for the event on Tuesday, April 7, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. ET. Set up as three Zoom meetings that served as “rooms”—each one even included the opportunity to break out into smaller groups for more intimate conversations—the virtual “unconference” followed many of the same guidelines that make Edcamp unique, most important that of letting participants drive the discussion.

A virtual environment does pose its challenges though, so we had facilitators on board to help keep the conversations running smoothly.

The Alternative Access: Connecting When Your Students Don’t Have Connectivity session was facilitated by ILA Board member Kia Brown-Dudley, while Board member Rachael Gabriel facilitated Supporting Struggling Learners: Instruction and Intervention in a Virtual Environment. Kristin Patrick, past president of the Indiana State Literacy Association, facilitated the Continuous K–5 Learning During School Closures: Techniques, Tips, and Tools session.

All three topics were chosen after surveying educators beforehand for their top picks. The majority of responses fell neatly into these areas, clearly expressing the top needs of educators as we navigate this brave new world of remote learning.

“We were thrilled but not at all surprised by the enthusiasm we saw from educators,” said Becky Fetterolf, ILA’s director of program content and engagement. “With the isolation that we’re all going through, this provided a critical opportunity to come together and, most important, have a voice.”

The goal of ILA Edcamp Online was to create a space where educators could connect in real time, on a level deeper than even Twitter chats or Facebook Live broadcasts can provide.

Through using Zoom feature such as polling, virtual hand raising, group/private chat functionality, and the ability to break out into smaller sessions and talk in real time, we witnessed the dynamic conversations that are known for driving in-person Edcamps.

Several educators commented on the relief they felt to know that they were not alone in their challenges.

Katie T. from Pennsylvania said that, despite having 10 years of experience with teaching online, she has found that some of the best connections she’s experienced these past few weeks have happened when she picked up the phone to call a student.

In fact, several people mentioned weekly phone calls being a part of their routine in order to check in on their students’ social-emotional well-being. Some schools have handled this by assigning 15–25 students to each teacher to check in with. Many participants said part of their approach has been to let their students know that this is not normal and no one is trying to pretend it is. We’re simply looking for ways to offer continuous learning opportunities and some semblance of a routine in these most unordinary times.

Speaking of unordinary, several teachers are finding creative ways to reach their students, such as turning everyday home activities into literacy sessions (think using FlipGrid to share reviews of the new series they’re watching on Netflix). There’s also Blanca G. from Texas, who’s regularly doing virtual read-alouds, and Anne E. from Virginia, who rides on the school buses that deliver lunches to students each morning so she can check in and say hi.

Some reported that their districts are using buses to park in neighborhoods with hot spots to provide free internet access, while others are being used to deliver home learning packets. And these packets aren’t just worksheets. Some include markers, dry erase boards, and games.

While educators learned creative ideas from each other, they also discussed the need to reevaluate how they teach—not just now but long term.

Michelle B. from Wisconsin said her biggest stress is thinking about the Matthew Effect and how this pandemic could create a wider gap among students. The challenges have inspired Ais B. from Washington to educate herself on trauma-informed mind-set, a critical approach to keep in mind with today’s instruction.

Although the future is uncertain, educators acknowledged that this is the time to help shape it. They expect to see distance learning redefined, to rethink intervention and how students are labeled, and to closely examine issues of equity and opportunity inside and outside the classroom.

ILA Edcamp Online served as a unique opportunity for educators to connect and collaborate—a challenging feat in our current environment. Community is built through conversation, so you can expect to see more digital events in the future from ILA.

Colleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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