This summer I was lucky enough to be invited back to present at the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Getting Ready to Google! Summer Camp. Jim Jamieson and I spent 3 days working with teachers in Antigonish, Nova Scotia helping them Go Google! (You can see my sessions here.)
It’s was an absolutely amazing experience - from the moment we walked through the doors until the minute we drove away.
I have had the privilege of attending and presenting at many conferences throughout my teaching career and so I wanted to stop and reflect on why this conference stands out in my mind as one of my all time favourites. Why were teachers willing to give up three days of their summer vacation? Why was the conference sold out with a massive waiting list? Why would I return, if invited, in a heart beat?
Of course, the obvious was in place. It was well organized with a wide variety of sessions offered for a range of abilities and comfort levels and Jamie Casap was the Keynote. Food and snacks were provided (and we all know how important food is!) and the wifi worked without issue (vital to a technology conference). A solid foundation for success was in place. But lots of conferences have this - so what made Nova Scotia so different?
For me, not only did this conference have that relaxed “camp” feel (very much a goal of the conference), but the organizers went above and beyond to coordinate and build time into the conference to socialize, play, laugh, sing, build relationships, connect and share ideas.
How did they do this?
First of all, we stayed in residence at St. Francis Xavier (St. FX) University. There is something a little different about staying in a University residence that naturally brings people closer together. Even Jamie Casap, this year’s keynote speaker and Google Evangelist had to reflect on the experience. And the pride that St. FX alumni have in their University is beyond infectious!
All throughout the conference ICE (Inspire, Connect, Explore) sessions were organized. These were scheduled during the conference sessions but also long into the night in the lobby of the residence. If people needed help, wanted to talk tech, or just hang out, there were lots of opportunities to attend an ICE session and work with a facilitator to sort out some of those issues or questions that may have sprung up during the organized sessions.
Now this is where I think the organizing team deserves a massive round of applause. These events were not only fun, but they helped to build strong and lasting relationships - relationships that continue to last well beyond the 3 days of the conference. Eight different boards from across Nova Scotia came together for this conference and these social activities were the glue. And, even if you didn’t participate directly, you certainly heard about the activities and stories surrounding them.
These were some of the best social activities I have ever seen organized. The first night, we had to complete a series of challenges - we had to make a photo collage and solve an emoticon puzzle. Simple, yet effective! No established learning goals. No facilitated reflections. Just lots of laughter and fun.
On the second night, the Technology Amazing Race was organized. So much thought, creativity and energy went into this activity - but it was so worth every minute. A variety of clues, challenges and road blocks took us throughout the University campus and town of Antigonish. In teams we raced around campus interviewing tourists, taking photos, and racing to the finish line.
And of course, no conference on the east coast would be complete without a Kitchen Party. Getting together to play instruments, sing songs, and listen to music is a bonding experience that really can not be explained unless you experience it for yourself.
One of the biggest compliments I received personally was when Tami Cox Jardine said to me at last year’s conference
“You’re not like other presenters that fly in, do their sessions, and leave. You participated whole-heartedly in our conference and that has made the world of difference to us.”
This statement has had a profound effect on me as both a presenter and as a participant this year.
My first teaching assignment was as an grade 7 & 8 ESL teacher. It was there that I quickly learned the importance of atmosphere and community in the classroom. That without a welcoming, enjoyable, trusting learning environment, those students who have just arrived in Canada would have a more challenging time in the public school system.
It wasn’t really until I started to reflect on Tami’s comment that I began to see that the same is true for adult learners. Learning takes place in so many ways and it is about so much more than the sessions themselves.
It’s the participation in different aspects of a conference that makes it a success.
And so, the next time you attend a conference, I challenge you to participate in one social activity, say hello and introduce yourself to your neighbour, share your learning online through social media such as Twitter, immerse yourself into the culture of your community. I'm convinced that your participation in a range of activities & the connections you make with the people around you will enhance both your conference experience and have a significant impact on your professional growth.
Here are a few of the amazing tweets & reflections that came out of #nsedtech Google Apps for Education Summer Camp.