Postcards from Nerdcamp: PD gets fun in a grassroots unconference on literacy

Nerdcamp is "the grassrootsiest of grassroots and ground zero for the “free-range” reading movement, writes Travis Jonker. "And it has the potential to revolutionize professional development in your school district."
Authors Erin Soderberg, Jess Keating, and Debbie Ohi dress up as book characters. All photos by Justin Keating (a.k.a. The Nerdy Photographer); Nerdcamp logo by Laurie Keller.

Authors Erin Soderberg, Jess Keating, and Debbie Ohi dress up as book characters.
All photos by Justin Keating (a.k.a. The Nerdy Photographer); Nerdcamp logo by Laurie Keller.

Now that you’ve started reading this, I should probably decide what to write about. Don’t worry, it’s not for a lack of material—quite the opposite.

You see, I spent two days this summer at Nerdcamp, a literacy-focused “unconference,” where no sessions are planned until all the attendees show up. And the spontaneity seems to have rubbed off on me.

In a quiet little town off the beaten path in Michigan, I experienced one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in education. Picture this: It’s the middle of July, and hundreds of educators are flocking to participate in something akin to a professional development jam session. Everyone comes with their skills, ready to collaborate, share, and learn from one another.

It’s the grassrootsiest of grassroots and ground zero for the “free-range” reading movement, in which students select their own books based on their interests. And it has the potential to revolutionize professional development in your school district.

OK, now that I’ve had a moment to reflect, here’s what we’re going to do. This article is going to be a mini Nerdcamp. I’m going to lead four sessions. Head to the room—er, paragraph—you’re most interested in:

Room #1: The Birth of Nerdcamp Room #2: How Nerdcamp Works Room #3: Nerd Appeal Room #4: Start Your Own Nerdcamp in Six Steps

1508-FT_NerdCamp_logoRoom #1: The Birth of Nerdcamp

While the “unconference” concept has been around for a while, the idea to bring it to K–12 education was born back in 2009, when a group of Philadelphia educators got together and experienced the power of attendee-led professional learning. They decided to take the unconference to the education world, and the Edcamp Foundation began. Since then, Edcamps have popped up all over the world.

Nerdcamp was founded in 2013 by husband and wife teachers Colby and Alaina Sharp. Colby, who teaches at Parma (MI) Elementary School, observed that most Edcamps had a technology focus and wanted to attend one with a literacy spin. He talked to the Edcamp founders—they hadn’t heard of a literacy-based Edcamp. So he started one with the help of his wife, who teaches at Western High School in Parma.

It has grown quickly, in large part through the reach of the Nerdy Book Club, a thriving online community of readers of which Sharp is a cofounder. In a way, Nerdcamp feels like Nerdy Book Club come to life. Attendance has grown by nearly 100 percent each year, with over 900 registered in 2015, its third year.

If the Sharps provide the vision and heart for Nerdcamp, Donalyn Miller provides the soul. Miller has been with Nerdcamp since the beginning. The former teacher and Nerdy Book Club cofounder is best known for writing the 2009 professional title The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass). Since the book was published, her ethos of “free-range” reading (allowing students to choose their own books; providing them with time to read; encouraging educators to practice what they preach and read widely) has inspired a common-sense revolution in the way many teachers view literacy. Students are the focus,

Author Jess Keating and fourth grade teacher (and Nerdcamp organizer) Suzanne Gibbs dueling during Nerd Run.

Author Jess Keating and fourth grade teacher (and Nerdcamp
organizer) Suzanne Gibbs dueling during Nerd Run.

inspiring readers is the goal.

Room #2: How Nerdcamp Works

This is where the amazing happens. At the beginning of the day, there is nothing scheduled.

There are librarians and teachers, there are authors, illustrators, bloggers, administrators, and reading specialists—and a wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm. There are balloons that spell “NERD” in the lobby.

But, I repeat: nothing is scheduled. It’s up to the attendees to figure that out.

According to the Edcamp Foundation: Unlike traditional conferences, which have schedules set months in advance by the people running the conference, Edcamp has an agenda that’s created by the participants at the start of the event.

So here’s what happens: Everyone meets in a room. The plan for the day is completely blank. Someone says: who wants to lead a session? People volunteer, step up to the mic, and describe their idea, and add it to the board. When the morning agenda is filled up and voted on, everyone chooses sessions and breaks off to get started. After lunch, repeat.

The overall vibe is low stress. Some attendees arrive with an idea of a session they might want to lead; many are inspired on the spot. Either way, the difference between Nerdcamp and traditional conferences is immediately noticeable. Rather than hourlong programs with featured speakers, where the learning is largely one-way, the sessions are more akin to workshops, with everyone encouraged to share ideas and experiences as the conversation moves along.

The sessions range from cutting edge—maker spaces and gender issues in books—to evergreen ones such as how to engage struggling readers. There were sessions on using picture books with every grade, creating student Nerdcamps, nonfiction mentor texts, genius hour, booktalks, and writing with students.

Sometimes an attendee simply wants to gather ideas about a particular topic and proposes a session to learn more from others. During Nerdcamp 2013, I attended “School-Wide Literacy Projects” and came away with a list of great, practical ideas to bring back to my district.

For a taste of something out of the ordinary, I attended a session this year by well-known Wisconsin teacher Pernille Ripp (Oregon (WI) Middle School) called “Breaking the Rules Gently.” Ripp encouraged teachers to share ideas on advocating for change in their school districts.

The bedrock of Nerdcamp is the unconference, but as it has grown, other events have been added. A half day has been appended to the beginning of the event, with opening speakers and some planned-in-advance sessions like author panels and best books presentations. There’s a Nerd Run 5k (which wrought my first-ever professional conference blister) and a Nerd Dinner (my compliments to the chef on the mac and cheese).

But perhaps the coolest thing happens after all of the grown-up attendees leave in the afternoon of day two. That’s when 500 kids arrive and Nerdcamp Jr. gets started. Students in grades 2–6 learn from the authors and illustrators who have stayed to share their expertise and, in many cases, get energized by their young session attendees. “It made my heart very happy,” says 2015 Caldecott Honor winner Lauren Castillo, who led a session. “It was so much fun watching many sweet kids make art. They blew me away with their skills,” says the author illustrator. Colby Sharp was inspired by another Michigan reading event to involve students. “I attend ‘Kids Read Comics’ in Ann Arbor every year, which is all about kids,” Sharp says. “I felt they needed to be a part of Nerdcamp, too.”

Illustrators Aaron Zenz, Jerzy Drozd, and Debbie Ohi take part in the Nerdcamp Jr. Draw-Off.

Illustrators Aaron Zenz, Jerzy Drozd, and Debbie Ohi take part in the Nerdcamp Jr. Draw-Off.

Room #3: Nerd Appeal

I hope that I die during an inservice because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.—Original source unknown

If you’re involved in the field of education, you’ve likely encountered the above sentiment. Professional development has a bad reputation, and the format of Nerdcamp has proven to be a breath of fresh air for educators. This appeal stems from the fact that every participant brings value and has a voice, and everyone is responsible for driving the learning.

Miller agrees. “The smartest person in the room is the room,” she says. “There are no gatekeepers. It is educator-driven.”

Tony Keefer, a fifth-grade English teacher in Dublin, OH, has been attending the conference since the first year. “There are a lot of conferences out there, but this is the only one where it’s just about books and kids. That’s the focus. I can learn a lot at the larger professional conferences, but this is so straightforward. It’s the people.”

Many attendees leave with the confidence to make change in their schools. Sarah Ralph, a school librarian from North Carolina, was one such case. She attended Nerdcamp in 2014 and came away inspired to eliminate student checkout limits the following school year. She returned in 2015 to share her story.

People outside the education community have taken notice, too. Caldecott Medalist Erin E. Stead (and 2015 Nerdcamp attendee) found the event’s atmosphere uplifting. “Nerdcamp was born online but it’s a completely positive community. That’s rare,” she says.

Publishers have also caught on, sending authors and illustrators to the event, along with books and materials to distribute to attendees.

Amid declining budgets and PD that often doesn’t connect, the Edcamp model has gained steam.

Room #4: Start Your Own Nerdcamp in Six Steps

OK, you’ve reached the most important part. The part where this good idea spreads. Tell your principals, teachers, and fellow school librarians. Give it a try. Throughout the event, I kept hearing about educators going back to their school districts and starting mini Nerdcamps.

You don’t have to attend Nerdcamp to experience this form of professional development. You don’t need 900 people. You don’t need to have sponsors or award-winning authors or a Nerd Run. While larger Nerdcamps have started popping up around the country—in places like New England, Iowa, Washington, and Texas—the next one could be in your school district.

You’ve reached the end of our sessions for the day. Do you have a session idea of your own? Are you anxious to create a Nerdcamp in your neck of the woods? Would you like to join us for Nerdcamp 2016? (Mark your calendars: July 11–12 in Parma, MI.) It’s time to take PD into your own hands.

It just might renew your faith in professional learning.

Six steps to your own Nerdcamp

1. Visit the Edcamp Foundation website ( They have great resources to get started.

2. Locate a group of people who all have a vested interest in literacy. It doesn’t have to be a big group. Fellow librarians or educators in your school or district might be a good place to start. Or maybe just walk into a crowded room and yell “Anyone here like books?”

1508-FT_NerdCamp_NerdsRule3. Set a date. Tell everyone to come with all their good ideas.

4. Show up.

5. Have a blank schedule, and ask everyone to help fill it in by suggesting a topic.

6. Let the learning begin!

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Stephannie White

The more freedom & choices we give children - the more they are willing to learn AND take accountability for their learning. Kudos on an awesome program.

Posted : Jul 08, 2016 03:08

Rose Sgambelluri

Thinking of trying this on my own. I am a Library Media Specialist at a middle school. Love the idea!

Posted : Aug 19, 2015 12:42

Don Miller

Great write up. I just wanted to add another perspective. I am not an educator. I am not a professional writer. That being said, me and my 16 year old daughter were welcomed and treated like we had just as much to offer as any teacher there. Nerd Camp is just so egalitarian, every voice really is treated as an important contribution.

Posted : Aug 16, 2015 05:23

Colby Sharp

When you put kids first, good things happen. #Nerdy4Life

Posted : Aug 16, 2015 07:51




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