Tony Parkin visits 'Last of the Summer Wine' country for a learning festival put together via Twitter
So they built it... and yes, everyone came! What started as a conversation on Twitter about criticisms of education conferences ended as CampEd12, a hugely successful open air learning festival in Bronte Country, taking place over the May Bank Holiday weekend.
The genesis of this event was one of those typical evening Twitter chats between educators, including Bill Lord (@Joga5), Tim Rylands (@timrylands), Dughall McCormick (@dughall) and Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) about the exorbitant costs of education conferences. Tim Rylands jokingly offered to host one for free in his shed – and lo, the Shedfest concept was born!
Interest spread and it quickly became clear that Tim's shed was not going to be big enough. In stepped Helen Daykin (@helendaykin) of I Am Learning, offering her mum Sue's picturesque farm above Oxenhope, right on the fringe of some of Yorkshire's finest moorlands. So the Shedfest concept, already needing to be renamed in the light of an existing wine festival, became #CampEd12… see what they did there?
CampEd12 'learning festival with more activities than you could shake a stick at'
Bill, Dughall, and Helen grasped the organisers' reins, portaloos were booked and walls demolished, and #CampEd12 became a reality. It was a learning festival over two days, with more activities than you could shake a stick at. In fact there were so many activities and learning opportunities that stick-shaking fell off the official list and became a solo guilty pleasure. Far too many activities for attendees to do them all justice – so there is only partial reporting here, and you are advised to check out the many blogs written to capture the full flavour of the many educational activities on offer.
Options ranged as widely as Sue's ubiquitous chickens, which also helped clear the tables after lunch, particularly where children had been eating crisps. Steam train riding, hill walking, geo-caching, den-building, science exploring, art creating, music making, astronomy (with both night and daytime variants!), mission exploring, paper snowflakes and origami maths were just some of the options.
On Saturday many families headed for the steam train, where Railway Children memories were revived and thanks to Joe Badge's (@jobadge) connections they had a good look behind the scenes. For others, Ken Eastwood's wonderful walk across the moors certainly provided the highest highspot as we reached a cairn overlooking the impressive landscape in all directions. Ken had also made sure campers could keep in touch with the world by furnishing the barn (aka plenary centre) with wifi. And for some city dwellers there was surprise that the local 3G was actually better than what they were used to.
The stroll did turn into something of a route march towards the end as walkers realised that the pub was still further than we thought, and the Cup Final kick off time approached. And there was an incredibly steep hill between the camp site and the Waggon and Horses at the end of the lane. Many a thigh and buttock complained at that last climb, but the Theakston's sign drew the thirsty on to their goal.
The Waggon and Horses earned a special mention, a lovely family-friendly pub that welcomed the CampEders with open arms. As well as furnishing a great offsite breakout facility, the pub team produced an enormous barbecue on-site on the Saturday, and then closed the pub to give CampEders the run of the place on Sunday evening for a great final dinner.
It would be hard to think of a better venue for all those professional discussions, debates and friendly arguments that formed the networking backbone and major learning opportunities so important to all education conferences. Anyone planning a similar event is strongly advised to ensure that a similar pub with such wonderful friendly staff is within walking distance of the chosen venue!
Focus much wider than educational technologies
Early in the planning conversations on Twitter, Pete Yeomans had made a plea that the festival should focus on wider activities, and not just be about educational technologies. Indeed, though technology was much in evidence for recording and monitoring the fun, very few of the official activities required any technology. True to the spirit, the 'Twitterfall' in the barn was done with chalk, and included an impressive if non-functional chalked QR code.
One exception, and one of many weekend high spots, was James Langley's (@lordlangley73) geocaching workshop, using Garmin handheld GPS devices. Under watchful eyes junior people could be seen charging round the site in crocodiles, through virtual mazes, or leaping up and down vigorously to stomp on an unexpected invasion of invisible geckos. Actually it only needed a press of the button to de-gecko, but somehow the jumping up and down on the little varmints seemed important, and everyone joined in.
Once these games had familiarised people with the devices they were off in groups finding the cunningly-concealed geocaches scattered across the site. Confession time: at least one team ignored the health and safety advice and ate the sweets that had been out all night, but any ill-effects later were probably down to beakers of Ribena rather than frozen Haribos (all will be revealed).
Many of the activities were so successful that they were oversubscribed and had to be run more than once. Richard and Jo Badge, resplendent in lab coats and safety specs, led on science, which included everything from microscopy to Coke and Mentos fountains that ensured several children became suitably damp as well as excited. John Sayers (@johnsayers) and Emma Dawson (@squiggle7) introduced many to their first taste of Mission:Explore. Nighttime astronomy was offered by Tom Briggs (@TeaKayB) who had carted telescopes safely down the precipitous track, but only for the very hardy who were prepared to brave the extremely cold first night.
It also clashed with the music workshop that took place after the barbecue in the barn, led by Kevin McLaughlin (@kevmcl) and Dan Bowen (@dan_bowen), where Bev Evans (@bevevans22) came into her own, not only because she knew all the words, but because she could actually sing in tune while playing a mean tambourine. Bev also led daytime workshops which showed that everyone could be an artist, and they produced some beautiful pieces.
The intriguing daytime astronomy session, again from Tom Briggs, was hugely popular as, with a space hopper standing in for the sun, attendees had to guess the size and distance of the various planets. They then had to model this across the field. Children took the role of the nearby planets, clutching pins and marbles, but adults took over as the planets got further from the sun. It wasn't clear whether Dughall took the role of Uranus purely for the comic opportunities it offered, or because at the scale Tom was operating it looked that to represent the correct distance he might just end up in the bar of the Waggon and Horses. Paper folding was also much in evidence, as Lois Lindemann (@MorethanMaths) led an origami maths workshop, while Kevin McLaughlin had some of the older children producing beautiful paper snowflake sculptures. Indeed, something for everyone.
So what was the mood like? It is hard to convey just how instant and warm was the rapport, with both adults and youngsters relaxing immediately into socialising and debating. Imagine a great big gypsy wedding without any family arguments. Crossed with the vibe of a TeachMeet lasting for two days instead of two hours.
Twitter 'an excellent tool for bringing like-minded educators together'
Some people had met one another before, but many had only met via Twitter, which yet again showed what an excellent tool it is for bringing like-minded educators together, and helping cement professional and personal relationships. As Alex Bellars tweeted after the event, “My personal highlight of #CampEd12: meeting people face to face whom I already 'knew' on here... and getting on just as well in real life.” And the attending partners of the Twitterati certainly fell into different groups, from fellow-tweeters to Twitter-sceptics, from enthusiastic fellow-campers to "no way will you get me camping" factions. But everyone melded into one of the warmest and friendliest crowds imaginable, and it was nicer to find later that the normally shy felt equally relaxed. No-one cared whether you camped or bed and breakfasted, or even nipped home to your own bed. It was a genuine warm and friendly festival spirit. Indeed the only real competitiveness on display was the friendly rivalry over the bake-off organised by Helen on the first evening.
Though there were no prizes for the campers, John Sayers definitely took any award for the largest tent, while Alex Bellars was undisputed winner of the smallest. Yet Alex still managed to include a full cooking set-up and created scrambled eggs to die for as a final breakfast, fresh from Sue's bantams of course. Not many campers had seen their breath condensed and frozen on the inside of their tents before - especially on the same day that they got sunburnt; few will forget the “supermoon” that lit up the site on the same night.
Humour, euphemism and innuendo were rife: “A beaker of Ribena” was Chris Mayoh's (@chrismayoh) subtle disguise for the excellent red wine that failed to prevent him becoming a #Camped12 legend among the youngsters with his never-ending enthusiasm for joining the perpetual game running in the 'football field'. Though alcohol and red meat featured heavily, vegetarians and teetotallers had an equally good time.
Monday morning saw everyone striking camp, mucking in to clear up and heading off in all directions. By evening the first #CampEd12 blogs and photosets were emerging online and these have continued to appear. All tell a similar tale of a successful learning festival. But firmly in the spirit of the occasion, Matt Pearson (@mattpearson) did challenge everyone all again over the cosy middle-class nature of the occasion, and whether as educators attendees should be seeking opportunities to extend this sort of event to others who were perhaps in greater need and would benefit even more.
A great idea, but I for one hope that #Camped13 retains its essential nature, and that other opportunities are sought to extend the concept through other events. Indeed this is already happening, Pete Yeomans was unfortunately unable to attend #CampEd12 but already has a parallel event – Peleconjnr – being planned. As with TeachMeets and 'unconferences' there is plenty of opportunity for variations to be tested, and hopefully there will be a multiplicity of low-cost learning festivals springing up across the country inspired by #CampEd12.
But what of #CampEd13? It is still early days, but on the Monday evening, after everyone departed, hostess Sue turned to Helen Daykin and said “When we do this next year?” So the signs are looking good!
Thanks to Bev Evans for photographs