This article is from MassMatch.org
Author: Eliza Anderson is a writing consultant for disability services, industry, and non-profits and is the editor of AT Program News.
Last month, 85 people attended the second annual EdCamp Access Boston held at Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington. The participants included special and general educators as well as assistive technology specialists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and students. They came from both public and private school settings motivated to learn from one another in the rapidly growing “unconference” tradition.
Participant-driven Professional Development
EdCamp “unconferences” are free professional development (PD) events with no set agenda but a focus on education and, often, technology. They depend on the willingness of whoever shows up to participate and lead discussions on topics that interest them. EdCamps are not a way to earn continuing education credits; instead they’re a grassroots approach to PD that take advantage of the participants’ passion for learning from one another. They are democratic, non-commercial affairs without keynotes, vendor tables, or sponsored sessions.
EdCamp Access focuses on technology solutions for students with special learning challenges (although not all session topics conform). The event was organized by Karen Janowski, an AT specialist working in Newton public schools (and long-time MassMATCH AT Advisory Committee member), and Patric Barbieri, Executive Director of LABBB Collaborative. In the school’s open central stairwell, they mounted a large paper schedule with blank time slots for break-out sessions corresponding with different rooms in the building. Markers were available for participants to offer sessions.
Topics on this day emerged to include: “Let’s Talk About Text-to-Speech,” “Assistive Technology in the IEP,” “Overcoming Limited Access to Technology,” “Twitter 101,” “MCAS and Struggling Learners,” “How Do We Help Without Teaching Helplessness?” and “Clicker + Application.”
“We follow the rule of two feet,” Janowski informed attendees during her opening remarks. “If you want to get up and check out another conversation, you are welcome to do so.” At day’s end, every EdCamp concludes with an “Apps Smackdown” in which all attendees gather to share apps that they admire.
Powerful Student Panel
The most powerful moment of the day came right at the start. Janowski kicked off with a panel of five students who spoke of their own experiences and answered questions from the group as a whole. The students ranged from 5th graders to a 1st-year college student; most had learning disabilities and used assistive technology in the classroom.
The panel was an opportunity for educators to listen to students report on what has helped and what has hurt. One 5th grade girl, “Sarah,”* explained how she uses Voice Dream Reader, the text-to-speech reading app, to hear books and follow along with highlighting text. She has dyslexia, and prior to obtaining an iPad, she might read one book in four months. With the app, she reports, she has read six books in a month. Another panelist, “Dan,” an 8th grader, reflected on the challenge of using his apps in class, and the presumption that he isn’t doing work. “Sometimes it would be helpful if teachers would trust students more, and not just assume we’re goofing off.”
“So what do you think teachers need to know?” Janowski followed up. “This is an opportunity. This is a captive audience.”
Sarah: “That you are a normal person but you need technology.”
Dan: “Many teachers do not approve of it. But I think they should. It’s a good feeling to turn your education around.”
The students moved between making app recommendations–Paperport Notes, myHomework, Notability–to how it feels to be seen as different, even bullied. As time ran out, Janowski encouraged them to continue the conversation by leading a break-out session, and many attendees followed two panelists to a classroom to hear more. Before concluding, however, one member of the audience spoke up to thank them. “You are pioneers!” she emphasized with conviction.
Tapping a Need
The first EdCamp was held in Philadelphia in May of 2010. Since that time well over 200 events have been held and the movement is now international. The next general EdCamp in the Boston area is organized for May 3rd, 2014, but tickets were “sold out” (though free) within 6 hours of their availability. With 85 attendees in only its second year, EdCamp Access Boston will likely also grow rapidly. This year participants came mostly from within Massachusetts, but also from neighboring New England states. Mike Marotta, himself an EdCamp Access organizer, took the prize for traveling the furthest. “Karen Janowski came to our event,” he explained, “so I figured I should come to hers!” He drove five hours with his daughter from New Jersey.
Marotta is an AT specialist for Advancing Opportunities and, like Janowski, a well-known national presenter/trainer on assistive technology. Indeed, EdCamp Access may be a grassroots affair, but its attendees ranged impressively from new teachers to educators and others of national prominence (including Winston Chen, developer of the highly-regarded Voice Dream Reader app!)
“The day gave me a lot of ideas,” reflected Glynis Cooney upon leaving the event. Cooney is a 6th grade language arts teacher from Amesbury who’s been teaching for 8 years. “We don’t have a lot of technology at my school. But listening to the students, in particular, showed clearly where we have to go next.”