No Unconferences Nearby? Start Your Own

This is the twenty fifth post in the Professional Development 2.0 series. If you have not already, I would encourage you to start with the first twenty four posts:

Sometimes, there may just not be an unconference near you that you can participate. Perhaps, you have a specific area of interest, such as ELL, that you would like an unconference to revolve around. There is a very simple recourse if you find yourself in one of these situations and still want to participate in an unconference: start one yourself.

The official TeachMeet, EdCamp, and BarCamp wikis all have general overviews of how to start a conference. This is my experience planning TeachMeet Nashville; hopefully it can help if you endeavor to start your own.

At the beginning of January, I was just a library media specialist; I was not a conference planner. Between all that my job entailed, my second job, and being a husband and father, who would have time for such things? The honest answer is one that surprised me greatly: anyone. I say this because I, with help from other educators and sponsors, managed to pull together a 2-day conference filled with great educators. If I can do it, so can you. Don’t believe me? Read on to hear my story and find out how you can do the same.

I first heard about the idea of a TeachMeet Conference in the second to last week of January. I spent part of my free time that week investing what TeachMeet is and kicking around ideas with other teachers on Twitter, most notably Melissa Smith, who lives 3 hours from me and has been a great help throughout the process. There was another great group of educators planning the first EdCamp at the time, EdCamp Philly; that helped give me confidence as well. By the end of that week, I decided I wanted to make the idea a reality.

My first step was to find a venue. I lived in Clarksville, TN; while there are about 100,000 residents. I didn’t feel it was a large enough city to hold a successful, statewide conference, although it probably could have if it was marketed well enough. So, I started looking at venues in Nashville, TN, which is only an hour from away. Nashville is a well-known and fairly central location. Most of the conference venues are astronomically priced. I decided to hold it at the Nashville Public Library. I had been there for conferences in the past. It is intimate and everyone I had dealt with there has been accommodating. As sfellow librarians and a non-profit organization, they were able to give me a discount, so both days of the conference cost only $750 to host. Other planners have had great luck getting colleges to donate space freely.

Once we had a venue in mind, I created a website on Wikispaces: http://teachmeetnashville.wikispaces.com. I wanted to buy a domain, but I didn’t have the funds for hosting at the time, so I built a site on Wikispaces which has grown steadily ever since. It is vital to any conference, particularly one involving educational technology, to have an online presence.

The next step is where things get a little tricky. I’m a school librarian. I don’t have $750. I tried for two weeks to call and email anyone I could think of. Finally, I got a $150 sponsorship from Abc-Clio and a $500 sponsorship from Ingram Library Services. That is not enough money. Tom Barrett, an influential educator from England who has been involved with successful TeachMeet conferences in the past, found out about what I was trying to do. He offered his support and offered to help if he could. I was literally two days from returning my 2 sponsors’ money and cancelling the conference when I got an offer of a $1000 in funds and $1000 in prizes from Techsmith (makers of Jing and Camtasia Studio). From that point, sponsors could see that other sponsors saw value in the conference and they started to as well. I appreciated the risk they took on a first-year conference with a first-time presenter. All told, we ended up with a budget of nearly $4000. The key here is being thorough in looking for sponsors and being very clear about what the sponsors get for their money.

My next big hurdle was finding good speakers. Since my major goal was to give teachers a place to learn and share, I expected most of my speakers to be other educators. However, I wanted a great keynote to draw people in. I had the perfect people in mind. First, I called Deron Durflinger from Van Meter, Iowa. He agreed in principal to come down with his superintendent John C. Carver and the district wide library media specialist Shannon M. Miller. They are doing some really amazing things in their district and I know that they will be a positive influence on the participants of the conference. Then, as time progressed and I had a little more sponsorship money, I realized I might be able to afford a closing keynote speaker. For the record, by afford, I mean cover travel costs. All the presenters are volunteers. No one, especially myself, is paid anything. I started looking at other teachers I respect on Twitter and I came to Steven Anderson. He had two main advantages: he is an outstanding educator and the influential founder of the #edchat discussion, and he lived in nearby North Carolina, so he might actually be willing to come. It turned out, he was enthusiastic and agreed almost instantly. Now, some unconference planners do not like the idea of paying travel costs because it may put presenters above other participants. I had not thought of this at the time; both keynotes were excellent, but it is still something to consider for the future in regards to what message you want to send.

Once sponsorship checks started to come in, I needed a place to put them. For several reasons, I did not want to mix sponsorship checks with my own personal bank account. I did not even want a separate bank account in my name. After some research, I called the IRS and in 15 minutes had the conference setup as a non-profit organization. After some arguing and three trips to the bank, I was able to setup a business checking account for the conference so none of the money was actually ever in my account.

Another non-negotiable item for me was providing free lunch. Teachers generally are not millionaires. In addition to a great environment, I wanted to provide both free admission and free refreshments. This brought about its own problems. Every catering company in Nashville would have charged us between $2000-3000 for 300 people (I am budgeting for my attendance ceiling). After two weeks of having myself and my wife investigate, I called GFS Marketplace. It is actually a partner in education with the school where I was working. They were amazing. Between donations, discounts, and insight, they managed to help me provide breakfast items (coffee, tea, and some pastries) and a full lunch to 300 for 2 days for about $1000. My wife and I will have to do quite a bit of work to setup during the day, but we are able to provide free lunch to everyone who wants to come. It was nice, but I have realized in going to other conferences that it was not strictly necessary. It saves a lot of money and hassle to talk to local restaurants and see if any will give a discount to participants. The networking is just as enjoyable and it removes a barrier to running the conference.

Another important draw for any conference is door prizes. This is not strictly necessary; people are going to come to learn. It does not hurt to have another draw if you are able to though. When I started planning for the conference, I had the vision of giving away an iPod Touch and a netbook, as they are tools a teacher can use right away in the classroom. Until a week before the conference, it didn’t look like I was going to have the budget to do all that, so I started asking sponsors if they would like to donate a prize along with their money. The amazing thing is, some sponsors even sought me out. The prizes I have below are all donations or bought with donated funds:

  • An Acer 10.1” netbook with Windows 7
  • An iPod Touch
  • An Amazon Kindle
  • A Flip Video Camera
  • A Wiimote Interactive Whiteboard
  • 5 copies of Camtasia Studio for Windows or Mac
  • 1 school-wide subscription to Starrmatica
  • 2 subscriptions to Soundzabound’s volume 5 database
  • 1 subscription to Mackin’s database Journey Back in Time

Everything seemed to be coming together at this point. There are only two things missing: speakers and participants. Those things are actually fairly important to a conference, so I started to get to work. While I am narrating this in linear fashion, everything you are reading was all being taken care at the same time. To find speakers and presenters, I started advertising on Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere else I could. I emailed every teacher I know. I invited anyone within 4 hours of Nashville on Twitter and many who were much further out. I asked influential teachers I know to help advertise about it. I called and/or emailed nearly every professional development coordinator, IT director, and superintendent in Middle TN. I also called and emailed districts in east and west TN, as well as parts of KY, AL, and GA. This was the most time consuming part of the whole process.

Some people declined, many ignored, some agreed to come, some even agreed to give small presentations. Even if you want people to sign up the day of the conference to give presentations, it is still a good idea to try to see how many people will be interested. There are 4 people who I considered part of my inner-circle in regards to this conference: Melissa Smith, Nancy Blair, Sweetie Berry, and Philip Cummings. These four people agreed to take on a variety of roles and help with ideas and presentations as well. I may have tried to put the pieces together, but they’re the glue. Many of them have even worked together to plan TeachMeet TN, which takes place on October 2 in Memphis. If I were to give any advice, it would be to find people who you can work well with early on and share the load with them. It will make life easier and the conference better.

I would greatly encourage anyone toying with the idea to give it some serious consideration. Then, when common sense gets the best of you, I encourage you to do it anyway. I would love to see this idea propagate. If you look at http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/, the listing of all the known TeachMeet conferences, they are very common in England. England is a relatively small country compared to the US (In terms of sheer size.), yet they are successful with this format of conference regularly. We can have these annually in every state and still have full attendance at all of them. If you need any help or a presenter for your conference, I would be glad to help if I can since this conference only happened because of all the help that I have received and because they are such amazing learning experiences.