If you’ve attended a conference in the last couple of years, you may already be familiar with the word “unconference” — a relatively new type of informal meeting at official conferences, where individuals who share a common interest in a topic get together for a conversation. No need for a formal presenter. No stress to create posters, hand-outs or slide decks. Just individuals, a common space, and a conversation. This sounds a lot like the impromptu discussions that spring up when a student asks a particularly interesting question or, if you are a project-based-learning teacher, the “need to know” discussions you have after an entry event. So why not bring this format into the classroom and let your students participate in their own student-led unconference (StunConference)?
Now you may be thinking that a student-led unconference is an impossibility. How are you going to ensure that students actually talk about the topic at hand? Where is the accountability? I don’t have a magic answer, but I can share what I’ve done to prepare and lead StunConferences in my middle-school classroom, and how it led to developing empathy in our Global Goals project.
Setting the Stage
A successful StunConference does not just happen. As with many other classroom activities, success comes from advanced preparation by the teacher. The students need some structure and explanation of the expectations. Based on the lessons I learned from my first attempt at un-conferencing with students, as well as from the work done by my colleague Samantha McMillan, I created a StunConference website. This website can be used to teach students not only what a StunConference is, but also to provide details regarding the expectations at each step. Once students understand that they are in charge of the conference, and they will be able to develop their own sessions and conversations, it is time for the big topic reveal.
Although a StunConference can be done with almost any topic, one of the things I’ve learned is that the topic needs to not only be loose enough to engage all your students but also deep enough to allow for thoughtful conversations. That’s why I decided that the UN’s Global Goals would be a good match for a StunConference.
I knew the depth of the topic would engage my students, but I also wanted to inspire them to go beyond the usual surface conversations. I was betting that their participation in a StunConference, where the conversation is the product, could help them develop empathy for the problem and make their thinking visible.
Around that time, I participated in a photojournalism workshop by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, which gave me the idea of having students develop images that illustrated their thoughts on the topics they would discuss.
A week before the StunConference, I introduced the project using the video embedded on the website and discussed the unconference format. Understandably there were some questions, but once I was able to clarify that the purpose of the StunConference was simply to have a meaningful conversation and that they were completely in charge the results, they became intrigued by the idea. They began exploring the resources I had included on the website, and soon became engrossed in the Global Goal topics that captured their interest. After a couple of days, I invited students to start posting their topic ideas on our session board and told them that I would organize the sessions by topic right before the unconference.
On the day of the StunConference, I showed the students the organized session wall and invited the session leaders to sit at one of the tables I’d set up. The rest of the students then joined the topic they wanted to discuss. I quickly went over “things to do while at a StunConference,” took a deep breath and let the students go. Of course, I didn’t leave the room, I simply became a participant alongside them. It soon became evident that the format was a success. I witnessed students engaged, on task, keeping each other accountable for the conversation and learning from one another. At the end of the first 20-minute session, there were students making appointments with each other to continue the discussion later!
After the StunConference
By definition, the purpose of an unconference is to have a meaningful conversation. There is no product attached to it. However, rarely does one engage in a great discussion and never speak of the topic again. We go to conferences hoping to get useful information that we can use later. I wanted my students to have a way to express what they’d learned from each other. But since no one wants to attend a conference and then have to write a paper about it, I attached an empathy-through-blended-images element to this StunConference.
I asked students to create images that told the story of their thinking — based on their StunConference conversations — using their own devices and free blending image apps (DianaPhoto or Fused). Yes, they loved the idea of being able to take pictures, but more than that, the idea of using their conversations to help create a visual, elicit an emotion, and invite others to take definitive action struck a nerve. Their passion for their topic became evident as they discussed how the images they created were a way to make their voices heard, and loudly they spoke!