By Mike Marsee
Short sessions that get right to the point, ample opportunity for interaction and just enough organization to keep things from going off the rails.
TeachMeet KY is a day of professional development unlike any other, and that’s what so many teachers seem to love about it.
About 300 teachers attended the sixth annual TeachMeet KY in October in Bowling Green, where they learned new ways to use technology in the classroom. It’s a fast-paced, interactive information buffet in which educators get to pick and choose what they want to learn about in sessions taught by their fellow teachers.
“It’s teachers coming together to say, ‘How can we better ourselves for our students?’” said Jennifer Emberton, a social studies/language arts teacher at Franklin-Simpson Middle School (Simpson County). “It’s the best type of professional development, because you get to choose which sessions really drive your passion the most and then go to those sessions and contribute and learn from others.”
TeachMeet KY is an organized “unconference,” in which teachers share practical ideas and insights about technology they have tried and found useful. It is adapted from a model born out of an informal meeting in a Scottish pub 10 years ago.
The TeachMeet KY sessions last only 20 minutes.
“I love that you get a lot of information that you can immediately use in the classroom. When I came here last year, I was just typing notes the entire time and it’s in short little bursts,” said Megan Marcum, a 3rd-grade teacher at Potter Gray Elementary School (Bowling Green Independent). “The other thing I like about it is you’re taught by teachers, you’re not taught by some person trying to sell their product to you, so you get honest feedback. It’s taught by the people who use it, who know it well, so you know you’re getting good information about it.”
The Kentucky event was created in 2010 by two technologically savvy educators in the Bowling Green Independent district. Allen Martin, the district’s technology resource teacher, and William King, the principal at Bowling Green High School, attended the first TeachMeet in the United States in 2010 and decided they needed to stage one of their own.
“We didn’t know what we were walking into. The model of professional development, the way teachers were collaborating and networking and sharing information on good teaching, we had never seen that before in our careers,” King said. “Every 30 minutes or so, we were each learning new things and taking notes and interacting with people.
“Sometimes we sat out a session and met in the lobby and interacted with educators. People were Skyping in from other parts of the country, so on the way back we were saying, ‘We need to do this.’”
King said the first TeachMeet was held in 2005 in Scotland by a group of educators who had met through Twitter but never in person. They were in Edinburgh for a conference and got together in a pub to talk about educational technology.
“Every table was a different session, so every two to seven minutes, they switched tables and talked about something different. Then they talked about that concept, they tweeted about it, they blogged about it and that kind of spread across the United Kingdom,” King said.
The first U.S. TeachMeet was held in Nashville, Tenn., in 2010, and King and Martin learned about it on “this new thing called Twitter.”
“Will and I both had sat through a lot of trainings, and we’ve had 6-hour trainings on one topic. By the end of the day you’re thinking, ‘How much more of this can I listen to?’ and it may not have even been relevant to what I taught. So when we saw this we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible, because I want to learn about that and I want to learn about that and I want to learn about that.’”
Jennifer McFadden can relate. McFadden, a 7th-grade history teacher at Daviess County Middle School, said she liked the fact that TeachMeet KY allowed her to sample a number of ideas.
“It allows you to get a taste of things,” she said. “With technology, you want that immediate gratification of clicking on a link and finding what you want quickly. It’s kind of like that here, where you can get a quick taste of what something is. If you like it, great; if not, you go on to something else. The only problem is there are too many things I want to see at the same time.”
Annette Sapp, a technology integration specialist in the Daviess County schools, compared TeachMeet KY to speed dating.
“I like it because I can get it and use it like that – just learning about the new things that people have tried and used and they like,” Sapp said. “I like that, but some people don’t. The people that are not as techy don’t like it because they want time to sit there and play with it.”
King said he and Martin considered the kind of shorter sessions the Scottish teachers used and experimented with 30-minute sessions as well, but they have found that “20 minutes just seems to be a good fit.” They have also found, however, that their attention span is more easily taxed now at other conferences.
“We can’t sit through an hour session now. It just drives us insane,” King said.
Martin said the TeachMeet KY attendees are a mix of technologically savvy teachers and those who just want to see what it’s all about. They can attend any session they choose and they’re free to leave the room if they find one isn’t for them, with no one getting offended.
“Well, I was a little upset when my wife left my session,” Martin said.
Feedback is immediate, both in the discussions that take place during and after the sessions and in the tweets from teachers who say they can’t wait to try something they just heard about.
“I think that’s our biggest compliment, when teachers hear something at one of our TeachMeets and then go back and use it,” Martin said.
There were almost 50 sessions on useful apps, programs and practices at the October session. King said perhaps 20 percent of the sessions were conducted by educators from the Bowling Green and Warren County districts.
“It’s exciting to be in a school district that’s this focused on moving forward,” said Bowling Green Independent’s Marcum.
She also said it’s easier to present at this event than it might be at a more traditional conference.
“I think it’s honestly really easy, because you’re talking about things you use in your classroom and you’re just talking to other teachers,” she said. “It’s like showing a friend how to use something.”
Marcum compared the TeachMeet to an after-school teachers’ meeting.
“Just more productive,” she said.
And Emberton said the interactive nature of the event makes it much more enjoyable.
“You get these short bursts of information that are going to help you out. But most importantly, while you’re in the session, you can speak up and collaborate. You can be just as much a part of the session as the leader is,” she said.
Teachers came to the Western Kentucky University campus for TeachMeet KY from as far away as Lexington and Louisville. The success of the statewide event has given birth to local TeachMeets in a handful of districts.
Sapp said Daviess County held its first local TeachMeet in August, with about 200 people attending and some 60 sessions – all led by educators in the district.
“That’s what we want,” King said. “We don’t want to be the flag-bearer. We want to tell people, ‘Here are the free resources. This is how we organize ours. Now go do it in your area.’”
MORE INFO …
Jennifer Emberton Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org
Allen Martin email@example.com
William King firstname.lastname@example.org
Megan Marcum email@example.com
Jennifer McFadden firstname.lastname@example.org
Annette Sapp email@example.com