There was a buzz of excitement on the morning of August 21, 2014 as approximately 50 school librarians arrived at Westborough High School during summer break to participate in the very first MSLA Unconference. They came armed with their coffees, devices, and ideas, in preparation to connect, learn, collaborate, and network with fellow school librarians. Volunteers showed up early, too, to help the organizers set up the registration table, schedule board, and hang lots of signs. An unconference is just one of those informal kinds of events where everyone lends a helping hand if needed so if you were there and helped set up or clean up then “Thank you!” (especially Donna Miller, Kim Keith, Linda Kimball, Maria D’Orsi, Heather Lobenstine, Randie Groden, and Sharon Lux.)
By definition, unconferences are a day-long workshop that has no keynotes, no vendors, and no pre-approved sessions. They are participant-driven because we are our own best resources. They are full of conversations, not lectures. Unconferences and Edcamps are sweeping the country (and the world!) and redefining what meaningful professional development looks like. Watch the video below about Edcamps to learn more:
As one of the organizers, I started the day with opening remarks and an introduction to the format which helped frame the day. A quick survey showed that there were quite a few participants who were new to the unconference format which, as a die-hard fan of unconferences, is always exciting to see. Then one of my favorite parts of the day happened: the building of the schedule. The suspense was tangible as the schedule slowly began to take shape from the blank board. What did everyone want to learn about today? What were the conversations going to look like? Some are unsure about leaving the building of the schedule to the participants because they worry that there won’t be enough people who want to offer a session or facilitate a conversation. However, in all the unconferences that I have attended, this has never happened. Never. When given the opportunity to share and “talk shop,” librarians and educators will always step up to the plate. The only problem is that there are typically too many great sessions to attend (which is a great problem to have!)
As a way to embrace the culture of sharing (and for those who were not able to attend), participants tweeted throughout the day with the hashtag #mslauncon. Here is the full list of archived tweets from that day. You just may find a new librarian (or two) to start following!
The session topics were as numerous and diverse as the library programs we manage, such as global collaborations, design thinking, assessments, RETELL, library newsletters, 1:1 environments, learning commons, DDM’s, makerspaces, and ditching Dewey. To see what topics were on the schedule and to read the Google Docs notes for each session, click here.
One of the most important rules of an unconference is “Vote with Your Feet.” This simple rule gives you the permission to leave a session if it is not working for you. Perhaps the session was different than what the title suggested, or the conversation went in an unexpected direction, or maybe (and this is the worst one!) the facilitator thought they were at a big conference and brought out his or her PowerPoint and started giving a formal presentation. For whatever the reason, if the session is not useful or inspiring or meaningful to you, you may get up to go find a better session or discussion. Part of this rule is that the facilitator does not get offended because he or she, too, knows that your time is valuable. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have happened because I voted with my feet and got involved in what is charmingly known as a “hallway session.” I simply ran into another educator in the hallway and started a great discussion.
As the day progressed, I witnessed many wonderful things happening: I saw librarians helping each other brainstorm solutions to problems. I heard conversations about what good teaching looks like. I saw librarians sharing research strategies, tech tips, new tools, and project ideas. I heard discussions about innovative initiatives for library programs. I saw librarians working on their laptops feeling free to use the time to try something new they just learned about. Who needs expensive keynotes and workshops when we have each other?
At the end of the day, everyone joins back up together for the Smackdown and the prize give-aways. In the Smackdown, participants have two minutes to share a quick tip, such as a new online tool, web site, app, another way of doing something, or a resource. As participants share, an organizer writes down everything and generates a list of great sources. The Smackdown list can be found on the original schedule or in a tweet. This is great way to share lots of tools without taking away from the valuable session time. Think of it as quick reference for resources in a format that is way more fun than an encyclopedia.
During the Smackdown, nametags were pulled for prizes. Thank you to Judi Paradis who came home from ALA with gobs of free stuff to give away to our participants! Free stuff makes everything better.
Before participants left, the organizers provided a survey to gather feedback on the day. Some things will need improvement like the noise level in each of the discussion spaces but, overall, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Many found the format effective and would participate in another one again.
Don’t forget! The MSLA Conference 2015 will host a mini unconference on Sunday, March 1. Here’s your chance to participate again or try it for the first time.
On behalf of the MSLA Unconference organizers, Kathy Lowe, Judi Paradis, Anita Cellucci, Karen Sekiguchi, and myself, we look forward to seeing you at MSLA Conference 2015 or at the next MSLA Unconference!
Laura Beals D’Elia is the librarian at the Oak Hill Middle School in Newton
@ldelia on Twitter