On Saturday morning, educators from across New Jersey and beyond were sipping coffee and exchanging names in a school cafeteria in Newark when a familiar sound caught their attention: clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. The teachers knew the signal — it was time to learn.

“Are you ready?” called out Juli-Anne Benjamin, a veteran teacher who organized the event. The educators cheered.

The event was EdCamp Newark, the local offshoot of a long-running conference series aimed at teachers. Begun in 2010, thousands of EdCamp conferences have been hosted across the U.S. and in more than 40 other countries.

Each conference is free and locally crafted — not by district officials or paid consultants, but by the participants themselves, who propose and lead each of the day’s sessions. The idea is for teachers, and the occasional administrator, to pitch ideas they’re desperate to share — from free online tools to strategies for tackling racism in the classroom to self-care tips — that seldom take center stage in the “professional development” workshops run by schools and districts, which teachers are often required to attend but sometimes find lacking.

“It’s top-down, it’s compliant — our voice is not there,” said Benjamin. “EdCamp becomes a space where it’s teachers teaching teachers.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
The day’s sessions were handwritten on note cards taped to the wall.

More than 400 educators registered for Saturday’s event. They hailed from district and charter schools in Newark, along with other cities across New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut (plus one visitor from Dubai). Some were EdCamp groupies; others had newly learned about the event from colleagues or Twitter, where many teachers swap resources and advice.

It was the third EdCamp to be held in Newark. The city has also hosted an alternative event for aspiring administrators, called EdCamp Newark Leadership, which a group of Newark Public Schools principals organized with the support of the district in 2017 and 2018.

Benjamin, who is from New Jersey but spent years teaching in the New York City school system, said administrators are welcome at her EdCamp — after all, she herself is now dean of academics at Marion P. Thomas Charter School PAC Academy, where Saturday’s conference took place. But the emphasis is on ideas for and by teachers, she said.

By 9 a.m. Saturday, the day’s schedule had been taped to the wall on neon note cards. The handwritten session titles promised strategies for teaching reading (“Do it for the love of literacy”), partnering with administrators (“It’s not about gotcha, it’s about ‘I got you’”), and maintaining motivation (“Feeling burned out? I can help!”).

One 45-minute workshop offered a crash course on brain science. Comparing the parts of the brain to different insects (an ant for the frontal lobe, a grasshopper for the limbic system), the facilitator tried to demystify the adolescent mind to a group of educators sitting at desks arrayed in a semi-circle.

“You have to keep up with research if you’re looking to be an innovator,” said Jorge Villaceres, an eighth-grade math teacher at South Street School, after the session. “This is exactly where you get that kind of information without having to go back to graduate school.”

Next came a session on New Jersey’s new law requiring that public middle schools and high schools incorporate the contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into social studies lessons. The presenters, who included members of a Monmouth County-based group called “Make It Better for Youth,” recommended student-friendly books on LGBT history and tips for disarming parents and colleagues who bristle at the new requirement.

Blanche Baggs, a retired Newark teacher who tutors children at her local church, said educators need to help parents understand why the law is necessary.

“This is a civil rights matter,” she said. “Children need to know that they’re loved and cared about and they’re human beings also.”

The next round of workshops included one on organizing for “race, social justice, and equity in schools.” It was led by a principal and teacher from New Brunswick Public Schools.

The principal, Nadine Sanchez, explained that she and a handful of like-minded colleagues began meeting last year. They read “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools” and “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.” The group gradually expanded as staffers from across the district started showing up at monthly meetings, where they explored their own biases and ways to support students of color in the classroom.

Speaking to the educators seated around her Saturday, Sanchez said the lesson to draw from her experience is not to wait for your bosses to provide the solutions you seek — a message squarely in line with the ethos of EdCamp.

“Movements never started from the top down,” she said. “Movements come from the front line.”