National PBS Edcamp | Supporting New Routines with Digital Tools and Media

When COVID-19 shut down schools and businesses in March, PBS stations across the country were also forced to cancel and postpone plans for in-person gatherings, including a dozen in-person PBS KIDS Edcamps. PBS KIDS Edcamps are a chance for educators of young children, many of whom provide service for families in their own homes and centers, to connect and network with each other and to learn of resources and local partner organizations in their neighborhoods. Through countless messages and phone calls, our PBS Station colleagues expressed concern about the lack of information reaching teachers and realized that coming together to talk would be more important than ever. But how could we do so safely?  

The answer was a virtual PBS KIDS Edcamp. In the past, some PBS stations had hosted online learning and workshops, but the need for connection in this moment felt urgent. We know all too well that the power of an Edcamp is to empower educators by tapping into their expertise,  giving everyone a voice, and the ability to share information and answer the most relevant questions. However, maintaining the integrity of the Edcamp model, particularly the ability to switch from topic to topic using online platforms, would require some forethought. We reached out for guidance, and were supported by PBS Digital Innovator Shana White and EduMatch founder Sarah Thomas. Shana and Sarah had developed online Edcamps in the past and graciously walked PBS Station representatives from across the country through all of the options, exploring multiple possible online platforms.

After stations jumped in to host a few virtual Edcamps via Zoom in the spring, a common response emerged from educators: There are lists of resources and lesson plans floating around everywhere right now, but I really just need time to talk with fellow educators about what’s going on. These words, paraphrased from a chat with educators in Idaho, echoed loudly. While we were delighted to welcome a total of 562 educators at various PBS KIDS Edcamps across the country, the chaos around stay-at-home orders, online learning platforms and isolation persisted. It seemed no one knew what to expect for the coming year, and in the absence of information, teachers were left scrambling. It was clear that this school year would require special preparation and educators were yearning for more time to talk to each other, learn new skills, and organize their thoughts.

With our Zoom confidence buoyed, the PBS team considered an idea that had floated around in the spring: what about a National PBS Edcamp? We called on our PBS Station colleagues to help moderate discussions with teachers from across the country, specifically about the ways media and tech tools can help. We called on translators, Spanish-speaking PBS colleagues and friends at Latino Public Broadcasting to make sure our materials would be accessible in Spanish.

The registration data alone gave us a glimpse of why Edcamps are so important. Some themes emerged in the ways educators responded to our registration prompts about what they wanted to learn:

Hearing from each other matters. As we know, Edcamps are about experience as opposed to experts. Educators on the frontlines have begun to emerge as experts on how to help children make sense of both a global pandemic and an urgent social movement against racism. What better way to support each other through these issues than to share knowledge and coping mechanisms through an event like Edcamp? This moment requires humility in the face of unknowable forces, and all we can do is continue to hold each other up.

Hearing from each other was mentioned by educators in other ways too. We recognized, for instance, that definitions of hybrid teaching were not matching across state or even district lines. We wondered what lessons could be shared between educators who were back in the classroom, with those who were just now being told to return.

Uncertainty and fear are rampant, and several educators expressed a need for reassurance, a reason to not retire or quit, and outlets for discussing fear around their own health and safety, and that of their families and the children they work with. In fact, the registration form became a platform for educators to send notes of positivity and courage to one another in advance of the sessions. “You are not alone” and “Progress; not perfection” were some of the ways educators responded to “What are you hoping to share with other educators?”

Equity is essential.  Many educators who attended were also laser focused on issues of equity. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re in different boats,” a sentiment first penned by author Damian Barr, was echoed by several educators throughout the sessions. Conversations made it clear that concern is at an all time high for students and fellow teachers who are experiencing these catastrophic events without the access to the basic necessities many of us take for granted. Access to this event itself required reliable wifi, a device to log in from, and a familiarity with Zoom (or at least a willingness to ask for help). Among the lessons being driven home this year is the understanding that we need to work harder to ensure that all students and teachers have the access to technology that they need. As we reflect on future events, these are issues we need to take into account.

The PBS Edcamp could not have happened without collaboration and months of testing and planning. We welcomed about 244 educators representing 30 states, plus educators from Romania, Spain and India. Additionally, we captured 48 pages of notes about what’s going on and what resources are useful (or not so) as we embark on this new school year. PBS looks forward to continuing to check in and collaborate with teachers in as many ways as possible, and to support in any ways we can.

Article written by Megan D. Kuensting | PBS Manager, Educator & Community Engagement