'Amazing resource' behind EdCampCU being honored by UI YWCA

'Amazing resource' behind EdCampCU being honored by UI YWCA

CHAMPAIGN — Early into her teaching career, Katrina Kennett took part in a unique professional development opportunity.

The relatively new EdCamp brought educators together for a day of learning. There were breakout sessions and lots of coffee.

But unlike previous conferences she had attended, this one was participant-built and -led.

"When the participants walked in that morning, they built the schedule on topics or things they were trying in their classroom or ... struggling with," Kennett said, adding the premise is "attendees have really interesting things to share and can help each other improve their practices, even when we teach in such different places."

"Because it's less formal than a presenter-based conference, you're able to engage differently and find opportunities you might not have otherwise," continued Kennett, now a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction and the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois. "I knew that (EdCamp) was an education community I wanted to be a part of ... and that if I went to a community that didn't have one, I wanted to find people to start one with me."

Kennett will be honored for co-founding EdCampCU at the UI YWCA's annual Women Achievement Celebration on Thursday. She was nominated for the leadership award in education by Kasey Umland, associate director of the University YMCA.

Umland got to know Kennett when the doctoral student received one of the YMCA's 2015-16 Bailey fellowships, which support graduate and professional students engaged in community leadership. She also attended two EdCamps.

"I know how much she puts into all of the things she does to strengthen opportunities for education," Umland said. "And I consider her to be an amazing resource for the work I do ... which is to teach and encourage people to think about social justice outside of the classroom."

Students take ownership

A New Hampshire native, Kennett credits her passion for education to her "amazing" teachers and desire to give others the same learning opportunities that she had.

She got some early practical experience. As a fourth-grader, she helped the teacher in her brother's first-grade class organize and prepare activities. And as a high school senior, she earned a French credit by serving as a teacher's aide in a French 1 class.

Kennett studied English at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., where she graduated in 2008 with a bachelor's degree and teaching certificate. She taught at a Chinese heritage school in Chinatown in Boston, through AmeriCorps, for a year. Then she taught 10th- and 12th-grade English in Plymouth, Mass., for four years.

She was teaching in Plymouth when she attended her first EdCamp. When she went to her third or fourth, she took some of her students.

"I realized we were doing a lot of talking about students, but not as much with them," she said. "They added this really great perspective about what worked for them ... and what they wanted out of the classroom that sometimes, teachers hadn't thought of. Their voices helped me go above and beyond what I was even thinking."

Kennett also adapted the program for her classroom. During their EdCafe, students chose the books they read during a unit and led discussions.

"They got to decide what they talked about and what questions they raised," she said, adding she saw them take ownership of their education.

'Amazing teachers' here

When Kennett came to Illinois for her doctorate program, she met Matt Fly and Todd Lash, local educators who had attended EdCamps as part of a larger conference. In 2015, they launched EdCampCU and added their own twist.

Instead of selecting topics, participants frame their ideas as a question. Past questions have included: What are strategies for engaging students in long-term projects; what happens when your view of what's good for kids conflicts with a district's; and what responsibilities do we have to make school a place of joy?

"It invites participants from a variety of perspectives to come into the conversation," Kennett said.

Another local take: Meet-ups are open to parents, graduate students, administrators and other community members.

"We have so many people who come from different places and have all different kinds of expertise, who are all thinking about and wanting to improve education," Kennett said. "This provides a different space and time for them to bring that expertise into conversations ... about education locally or in a national context."

While EdCamp groups typically host one meet-up a year, Kennett said EdCampCU has grown to where they're held three times a year. The goal is to partner with different groups and move them around to different locations in the hope of attracting more participants.

Organizers — which include Lash, as well as Urbana teacher Alex Valencic and Rantoul teacher Tonia Kirby — have partnered with the Pygmalion Festival, UI College of Education and Urbana school district in the past. The next one is set for June 10 in Rantoul.

While Kennett will likely move away to teach after she graduates — which could be as soon as this summer — she hopes EdCampCU will stick around and grow.

"It belongs to the community," she said. "There are really amazing teachers in this community ... and they want to continue to improve what they're doing. The camp just really helps build community around this shared interest."

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