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For LI educators, ‘Nerd Camp’ a spin on professional development

Dave Roman, author, speaks about storytelling, art, and

Dave Roman, author, speaks about storytelling, art, and games as the Jericho School district is holding its 'Nerd Camp,' which takes a less structured approach to professional development, on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 in Jericho. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It’s called an “unconference”: There’s no schedule of classes provided in advance and attendees can feel free to leave if they’re bored.

Teachers on Long Island and across the United States are signing up in droves for a structureless professional development program known as “Ed Camp,” or the literacy-focused “Nerd Camp,” that has disrupted what educators describe as a staid staff development model.

Development sessions for teachers traditionally have consisted of outside experts hosting hourslong lectures, but frequently are transitioning to shorter, social media-fueled sessions led by districts’ own teachers.

A total of 320 educators came to Jericho Middle School Saturday for “Nerd Camp,” an offshoot focused on boosting enthusiasm toward literacy. In October, the Massapequa School District hosted an “Ed Camp” that drew 400 people.

Professional development events have come under the increased scrutiny of reform-minded experts who advocate training that is tailored to a district’s staff and needs.

“Very often, professional developments are dog-and-pony show days,” Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools, said of staff training days scattered throughout the year. “It’s sit and listen for half a day.”

The Nerd Camp on Saturday consisted of three, 45-minute sessions led by educators from 30 districts on Long Island, New York City and elsewhere. Some educators traveled from other states, including Maine, Massachusetts and Ohio, to attend the camp.

Educators filled the lobby of Jericho Middle School at 9 a.m. Saturday. On the wall, class titles were scribbled on pink sticky notes, most in the hour before the seminars started. They ranged from “Crafting with Picture Books,” to “Teaching 9/11,” to “Will Boys Read That?”

In a discussion of teaching approaches, subjects as sensitive as teenage sex and mental illness provoked frank exchanges. Some teachers admitted to their own teenage struggles, such as shoplifting and overcoming depression.

Such conversations are in contrast to traditional professional development, educators said.

“Often you feel like you didn’t get to have the conversation you wanted to have,” Donald Gately, principal of Jericho Middle School, said.

Ed Kemnitzer, an executive assistant for technology integration of curriculum support and development for the Massapequa Public Schools, said the sessions can influence classroom policy.

At last month’s event in Massapequa, teachers debated the merits of grading, and answered whether homework “should even be assigned.”

“Those discussions where educators take a stand has seeped their way into instruction,” Kemnitzer said.

After the sessions, educators promised to have students collaborate on projects through Skype and assign them pen pals.

“Students don’t get a chance to talk to other students in different school districts,” said Sheilah Jefferson-Isaac, an assistant principal in the Uniondale school district. “Students may meet through sports, but those are competitive venues.”

Jericho’s Grishman said his district has used fewer outside experts for professional development sessions, with district staff facilitating 95 percent of them.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who serves as Long Island’s representative on the state Board of Regents, attended “Nerd Camp” at Jericho and said the board has been reviewing new approaches to professional development.

“We’re going to be emphasizing professional development opportunities,” Tilles said. “So much professional development is done without a whole lot of teacher involvement in developing it.”

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