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“The Whooping And Cheering Was Overwhelming” – 8 UK Teachers Visit An Ed-Tech Conference In America

Us Brits are used to sitting politely and listening to speakers, so what happens when eight of our educators are thrown headfirst into the extravagant spectacle of CPD in the States?

  • “The Whooping And Cheering Was Overwhelming” – 8 UK Teachers Visit An Ed-Tech Conference In America

“Wow! This is crazy.” That was the initial reaction of Matthew Haydon from Greet Primary in Birmingham, one of eight teachers from around the UK who this summer were flown to Chicago for a six-day teaching and learning event.

Chosen for their enthusiasm for digital technology in the classroom, they were utterly unprepared for what enthusiasm looks and sounds like in the good ol’ US of A. “The whooping and cheering was overwhelming,” he says. “But it was such a positive experience that within hours we were completely absorbed.”

This event, in its 11th year, brought together educators from some of North America’s most advanced digital schools and over 170 teachers from across the globe. It’s part of Discovery Education’s Educator Network, and is called DENSI (pronounced ‘den’, then the letters ‘S’ and ‘I’ – Summer Institute). But what exactly makes it different from events over here?

“From the minute you walked in you were embraced by a warm, welcoming, loud group of people – I was absolutely mind-blown,” says Julia Elfred from Christ Church C of E School in Croydon. “It was incredible. If you said ‘I wish I knew how to do this’, you’d immediately have people showing you how, or introducing you to someone who could help. Overall, it’s a very hard experience to describe. I’ve talked about it several times as being life-changing, which sounds very dramatic, but it was life-changing.”

Have a nice day

Despite this very loud and welcoming sensory overload, the event’s charm was also down to its laid-back approach. The British cohort met at Heathrow and flew over on the Saturday, then on the first day of the event, six coach-loads of teachers were taken around Chicago to see a bit of the city, get to know each other and settle in.

“It wasn’t until the Tuesday that the actual training started, but I felt like I’d already benefited so much,” says computing coordinator and Year 5 teacher at West Hill Primary in Wandsworth, Christopher Goymer. “Then we had three days of workshops where every hour there was a choice of 10 different things to do, but they always said that if we ever wanted time out to reflect or get a group together, then we should do it. With the climate we’re in (in UK schools) that was really empowering - to be regarded as a professional who knows what they need to make themselves better.”

An extension of this attitude is represented by what DENSI calls ‘unconferences’, which flip the idea of typical meetings. “Rather than one person speaking, you would have an hour where anybody can stand up and say ‘I want to know about this topic’,” says Julia. “Then they’d take all those suggestions and plan the sessions around them. So we formed our own agenda, if you like.”

Even the tech itself was infused with fun, team-building activities that sound like something out of The Crystal Maze. “For one, we were shut in a room and had to solve a series of puzzles to get out,” says Matthew. “When we did, they had a load of these cardboard Google Cardboard virtual reality sets.”

Initially, however, Matthew wasn’t blown away by the potential of this new technology. “I’m looking through it and it’s a roller coaster and I’m thinking: ‘This is great, but how does it relate to me in the classroom?’ But then attending the VR session the next day, it was put into context for me. They had a class where a Syrian refugee arrived, and through virtual reality the children could all visit her homeland and emphasise with her. They were also talking about how Google Maps is integrated with Virtual Reality so you can go and view anywhere in the world – how trainee doctors use it to go through operations and so on. Then I saw how it could be the next big thing in education.”

Picture this

Another teacher who saw the possibilities presented by the VR resources was assistant head Gemma Clarke, from Grangehurst Primary in Coventry. “After they’d showed us how you can use the headsets in lessons, I knew it was something I’d want to use in our school,” she says. “So this week we’ve had a Google Expeditions demonstration for our children where classes looked at the Grand Canyon, and volcanoes from around the world.” Another year group at Grangehurst got to study animals by tracking their habitats and looking at pictures close-up, while one group had a World War II focus.

“We’ve also used the Discovery Education VR app,” says Gemma. “That let us virtually swim with sharks underwater, which the kids loved as it makes you jump when all of a sudden one swims in from the side.”

Green-screen workshops were a hit too, and this was where Julia found an abundance of ideas for her class. “With the Year 6s, I made them think about what qualities make them who they are,” she says. “Then they made a word cloud of their list, and when children were filmed in front of the green screen, we put their word cloud as a background. So they’ve got a nice display saying ‘I’m a miracle, I’m fun, I’m pretty, I’m geeky’. I’m also going to use it in reception when they do minibeasts by having them draw a butterfly and take a picture of it. Then I can use the green screen to put the two together so it looks like the pupils have wings.”

But each teacher also brought back much more than apps, ideas and lesson plans, as staff at West Hill Primary pointed out. “When I returned, people in my school said ‘You’ve come back a little bit different. You’re way more enthusiastic about certain things’,” says Christopher. “And I realised then that it was a week where we did didn’t talk about things like tracking government policy on changing curriculums, we just talked about damn good teaching. And that’s why I think we all came back so enthusiastic, because it reminded us, if we needed reminding, why we do this job in the first place.”

Further information
The Discovery Education Community connects teachers who are passionate about ed-tech and is gaining a strong following in the UK. Find out more at discoveryeducation.co.uk/what-we-offer/community and densummerinstitute.com.

TRAVEL WRITING

Our teachers offer tales and tips they’ve brought back across the pond

Christopher Goymer
“The first evening I was talking about a project where my class had written their own song, made a music video and put it on YouTube. It’s the sort of conversation I’ve had here in Britain and teachers will say ‘that’s interesting’, but this table of Americans I’d never met before all got their phones out asking where they could find it. Not only that, they then got me to share it in front of the whole conference hall.”

Gemma Clarke
“The Discovery network, DEN Friends, is a Facebook group where there’s always somebody who can answer your question. It’s incredible. But because of the time difference we’ve found it a bit harder to take part, so we started our own UK version on Thursday evenings which is slowly growing.”

Julia Elfred
“Every session started off with ideas, then you had lots of opportunities to toss these around and create lesson plans. Usually with CPD, you come back brimming with ideas, but turning them into something concrete is quite time consuming. Here, I’ve come back with loads of lessons plans, not just concepts.”

Matthew Haydon
“I’m running a training day for schools across the Birmingham area next week so I’m trying to re-create that laid-back atmosphere, and that choice over sessions, which will be a brand new thing for nearly all our staff – to have freedom in their professional development.”

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