Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Unplugd12 - Trying to Process

I’m not really sure what happened this past weekend as I took part in Unplugd12.  Here I was across the country at the edge of Algonquin Park, separated from internet access, in an environment that had me sharing with people I either knew via the internet only, or not at all.  Prior to my arrival the longest face to face connection I had was with David Truss as we had met just a few weeks earlier for about 15 minutes.  Second to him I had conversed with Kathy Cassidy through my iPad screen in face time interactions.  The rest, well some I follow (and I’m inspired by) on twitter, but most I didn’t know at all.  So what was I thinking?

To be honest it took me a long time to actually commit. I first heard about the event back in late Feb/early March when I saw a tweet from Kathy Cassidy inviting people to apply.  I was curious but the dead line to apply was approaching far too quickly as I was about to venture off to Vietnam. I had to let it pass.

Back in town, and after a few months had passed, I was still thinking about the event and noticed that applications were still being accepted.  After some discussions with my brother in New York about possible visiting dates I realized that I could do both. I fired an e-mail to Rodd Lucier and the conversations began.  I was in, committed and attending. An airplane ticket across the country was purchased.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that signing up brought me a lot of stress. Who was I, someone only in the connected world for not quite a year, playing with such incredible people. Would I fit in? Was I stepping just a little too far out of my comfort zone?  While it's true that I am on a mission to meet face to face as many Twitter people as possible, was attending  Unplugd just a little too presumptuous? I guess it didn't matter, because  I took the leap and would deal with the consequences.

Since I signed up so late I missed the first organizational on-line meeting so I listened to it after the fact.   It was then that I learned about my homework. I needed to write a letter about something important in education, and have an oral story to go with it. Yikes! What was I going to write about?

(Before I let you know what I wrote about I think it's important for you to know why I had to write in the first place.  One of the goals of Unplug'd is to end the weekend with a collaborative piece of writing.)

I had so many issues running through my head but in the end the story I wanted to share most was about how important it is to become a connected educator and that even though you may feel alone in your school ( a black sheep perhaps?), being connected allows you to realize that you are not alone at all.   My letter was addressed to a black sheep, someone just like me.  My oral story was inspired by one of my students. Because I became a connected educator this past year I learned about blogging with students, which in turn allowed one of my students to finally have a place that was comfortable and safe enough for her to share her voice. Without going into details blogging was transformational for this particular student. I would never have known about blogging with grade one students if I hadn't connected on line with like minded teachers. 

My Amazing Nieces
Jump forward to last Thursday. I arrived in Toronto after almost a week and a half with my amazing nieces in and around the NYC area.  I was excited and nervous as I checked into the hotel and waited for my roommate to arrive. Meeting Erin Little was great.  The connection was easy.  She and I headed to the lobby to look for others.

While in the lobby Kathy Cassidy noticed me. What a surreal moment. Here was a lady I highly respected and learned from that I really wanted to meet face to face.   I must say I was very nervous at this point although in hindsight it makes me giggle that I was so nervous.  We chatted for a bit and then met up with some others.  It was great to talk and get to know these complete strangers.  I can only assume that most were feeling the same way that I was excited to be there but a bit afraid of the unknown. 

In the evening I officially registered, received a wicked swag bag (complete with LiveScribePen and paper, flashlight, and water bottle), and had a group meal.  Following dinner we all moved to another room for a  presentation by Joix Taylor and his very special Six String Nation guitar Voyageur.  This presentation was not just for Unplug'd participants it was also billed as a tweet up for people in the Greater Toronto Area.
Kathy Cassidy, Karen Lirenman, Angie Harrison

Lucky for me Angie Harrison along with several other people I follow on Twitter attended this tweet up. Unfortunately Aviva Dunsiger , an educator I highly admire and chat with regularly, was very ill  and  not able to attend.  I did get the chance to meet Royan Lee which was pretty cool too however there were a lot of people I did not know. At this point I was feeling very overwhelmed being in the same room with people I highly admire, yet knowing very few others.  I was most definitely out of my comfort zone.

Joix's presentation was fantastic. He shared  stories of the many different pieces that made up the special guitar. These pieces came from all across Canada. When he was finished Bryan Jackson, an Unplugd participant was given the honour of playing the special guitar. It was a very moving moment.

Conversations continued for a bit after the presentation before I finally retired for the night. The next morning after a wonderful breakfast we headed over to Union Station to catch our train to South River, Ontario.

The train ride was about four hours long and during that time we were encouraged to change up our seats and talk with as many people as possible.  One of the first people I met was Iain , a new teacher graduate.  He was awesome as he spent some time showing me how to use my LiveScribe pen.  I loved his enthusiasm for teaching and I feel confident that he will be an awesome educator.

As we travelled through Ontario countryside I had many conversations.  I must admit I was surprised by how easy I felt moving from seat to seat learning a little bit about the other participants one conversation at a time. I took in some quiet time too to just soak in the experience.

At last we arrived in South River and boarded a school bus to take us to Northern Edge Algonquin, our home for the next two days.  On the school bus there was a competition to see who could get out the last tweet before we lost internet coverage completely.  If I'm not mistaken Jenny Ashby won that contest.  And did I mention Jenny along with Jess McCulloch travelled from AUSTRALIA to be at Unplugd.

The Edge
The Edge by aforgrave  
Upon arrival I was impressed by how tranquil the environment was. We were given a quick tour and then settled into our accommodations. I was rooming with Giulia and Michelle two awesome roommates.  Shortly there after we met for our first recreation time.  You see throughout the weekend we had small group. large group, meal, and recreation times.  Some of the recreation activities we were offered included but were not limited to bike riding, canoeing, paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, and yoga. I chose to bike ride during the first activity time although over the course of the weekend I did canoe, paddle board, swim, and hike.

Sharing our Rocks
Our first group meeting followed our recreation time.  It is here that we shared the rocks that we brought from our homes by making connections to the stories that people were sharing. It was very cool as each person introduced themselves and shared a little piece of themselves with the rest of us.  I was nervous listening but eventually felt confident enough to share my story, and add my rock to the map of connections.

The Connections Map

After the group meeting I was introduced to my small group (Kelly, Alan, Erin, and Rod) as we shared our first meal together.  Speaking of food, Greg, the cook (among many other things at the Northern Edge), prepared us the most incredible fresh, local meals.  Just by looking at him, and seeing his smile that so obviously was connected directly to his heart, you could tell that he loved what he was doing and that his food reflected it.

Greg the nourisher
Greg the Nourisher by Guilia.Forsyth 
With a full belly my group found our private place to meet. It is here that we began sharing our narratives that inspired our letters.  It is here where our connections really started to flourish. Everyone in my group stepped out of their comfort zone to share their personal stories.  We were all vulnerable yet safe which made the process a lot more meaningful.  I had worried so much about this moment and in hindsight I had nothing to worry about.  Everyone was feeling some what similarly to how I was feeling yet the collective support made it easy to share. I left the meeting feeling in a really good space, with real connections to wonderful people.

The Discover others to discover yourself team
My Group - Rod, Kelly, Me, Erin, and Alan by mrmuzzdog  
Although it was raining I headed to the bonfire and spent the evening singing and chatting with my new friends.

The next morning I was up early for a morning paddle board followed by a swim with Aerin. It was great to be out on and in the water. After an another incredible breakfast we met as a whole group again before splitting off into our small groups.  It is here that we shared our letters.

DSC02980 - 2012-08-11 at 11-20-33
Peer Editing by lisaneale cc
I volunteered to go first because as much as my letter was important to me it did not hit as emotionally deep as some of the other stories shared in my group.  I read my letter out loud  a couple of times while they followed along with their own copies.  And then we started to discuss.  Why did I write that sentence the way? How could I better relay my message? The dialogue went back and forth and in the end I was left with a piece of writing that was edited with love by my colleagues.  It was a very powerful, supportive process and I really appreciated the feedback my group provided me.  

After that we peer edited the others.    We had a break mid morning and while Kelly our fearless facilitator had a facilitator's meeting Alan, Erin, Rod and I went off on a hike. After having such an intense morning peer editing it was so nice to be in nature with these incredible people.  The lake at the end of the trail didn't hurt either.  
Karen's Black Sheep Shirt
My black sheep shirt at the lake by cogdogblog  
Upon our return we continued peer editing until lunch time. For our group it was a slow process, but the time spent was meaningful and powerful.  I wouldn't have wanted to rush the process and I'm really glad we didn't.

With lunch in our bellies and our final story edited we set down to make the official changes to our letters.  This was harder for me than I imagined it would be because with the edits came changes I hadn't thought about making.  But I struggled through, and with the support of my peers got it done. Thank goodness.
Karen intensely edits
Final Editing by Kelly-Ann's Pic!  
During the afternoon break I met up with Giulia. She attended Unplug'd last year and one of the things she wanted to do was swim out to an island that had a very special tree on it - a tree that was inspiration for one of Tom Thompson's paintings.  We had talked about possibly making the swim trek the day before and in the late afternoon the timing was perfect.  Just our luck Alan was paddle boarding and came along for our swim.  How incredible it was to arrive at an island about 1 km away.  I am so glad I was able to help Giulia fulfill her dream.  It also allowed me to get to know her a bit better too.

From the swim it was dinner (more awesome food prepared by Greg), followed by another whole group meeting.  This time we shared a small synapses of our letters.  Alan represented our group and did a fantastic job relaying our messages.  We then found out about a secret activity.  All we were told was that we would be canoeing and we were highly encouraged to bring our bathing suits.  If any one has been counting this would be the THIRD time I was putting that silly suit on.

Anyhow the secret paddle (at dusk) ended up being to a large sauna and a wonderful bonfire.  For some of the night the sky was clear and we could see a sky filled with stars. Here I listened in on conversations, and spent a fair bit of time chatting with Heidi.  In the end Heidi and I were the last boat to paddle back to the Edge in the pitch black.  It's too bad the clouds had come back again.

When we returned to the Edge, after a delicious dessert, there was talk that the clouds had blown off again and that the sky was clear.  A small bunch of us headed to the dock to watch the meteor shower.  Giggles were shared along with a lot of excitement over what we were seeing in the sky.  It was a fantastic way to end an incredible day.

On the final day we had morning activity time followed by breakfast and the final closing meeting. The final closing meeting was a sad one.  Here we all shared a little something about the weekend and we were encouraged to write a post card to ourselves which would be sent by the organizers once we headed home. Many tears were shed and the poor tissue box was passed around the room.  Even though I had know many of these people for a little over three days the connections we made were strong and real.

The last thing we did before we headed home was Minga Time.  The philosophy behind Minga is giving back to the community.  We all took part in doing one thing for the community.  I was involved with a group that was building a trail, and once the dirt was in place we planted seeds.  If I am able to return for Unplug'd next year there will be a part of the property that I helped cultivate. If I can't there will be a spot for others to enjoy.

As you can imagine the bus ride back to the airport was exciting but sad.  Many were involved with a live broadcast on public radio network (which I later found out is where many of them connected) .  If you're curious you can find this radio network at . Google ds106 Radio if you're curious to find out more about it.  I'm still trying to figure it out myself but I loved hearing Andrew, GNA, Guilia, and Jesse on it last night.

So if you've read this far you're probably wondering what I took away from the weekend. In no particular order I learned:

  • There are incredible people doing incredible things for completely passionate reasons
  • Being vulnerable in an environment that is supportive and caring is a powerful way to make changes within yourself
  • Listen. Really listen. We all have something important to share.
  • Your stories matter and not just the happy ones  the tough difficult stories too.
  • The on-line connections I have made are real and true, and have only gotten stronger because of these face to face connections
  • And most of all we are not alone in our struggles and our successes. Being a connected educator is a powerful support network.
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to chat and get to know several incredible people that I can't thank enough for making my experience way better than I could have imagined.  They shared their heart with me, their fears, their worries. They shared their message. So thank you Aerin, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Betsy, Brenda, Bryan, Danika, David, Donna, Erin, Gail, Gilles, Giulia, GNA, Guilaume, Heidi, Iain, Jackie, James, Jenny, Jess, Jessica,  Jowi, Kathy, Kelly, Kim, Lisa, Lorna, Marci, Matt, Michelle, Rob, Rod, Rodd, Todd, Wesley, and Zoe. It was an incredible weekend and I can't thank you enough for your caring,  kindness, and conversations. I will be forever grateful to have been touched by such incredible people.

The Incredible Unplug'd 2012 Crew

#unplugd12 Whole Group Shot
Photo by benhazzard

*Reflections from the Large Group Meetings illustrated by Giulia Forsythe
UnPlug'd 2012 Visual Notes
by giulia.forsythe

*If you look closely you can see Giulia and I with our hands in the air on the island with the special tree.

Once our final publication and products are ready for the world I will share the link here.


  1. Karen, this sounds like an absolutely incredible experience! I'm so glad you blogged about it here. I almost feel like I'm a part of it now. I'm so sorry that I missed out on meeting you, but it sounds like you still had a most wonderful time!


    1. Aviva, it still hasn't really sunk in that I spent the weekend with such inspiring people. I wonder how I would have been if you were also there with Angie and Kathy. As it was I was TOTALLY over whelmed that evening. Thankfully things got better as the weekend went on.

  2. Karen,
    This post was such a beautiful and powerful reflection. Thank you so very much for sharing with all of us out there. Several of my Twitter friends were there and I wish I had been able to go as well. Sounds like such a wonderful experience.
    Thank you again for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your kind words I'm still in a bit of shock that I went but I am so glad I did. The people were all incredible with so many amazing stories to share. Really genuine people. It was incredible and I'm very thankful that i took the risk to attend with out really knowing anyone.

  3. Thank you so much for your amazing account of the conference! When I started reading it, I quickly decided that I wanted to read it aloud on #ds106radio. I was broadcasting to a handful of good folks and I just happened to archive it! Here you go. Thanks for the great read, and the invitation to experience it.

    1. Okay that's the coolest thing ever! Thanks tons for sharing with the ds1064Life radio crew and recording your broadcast of it. What a whole new world I'm learning about. :-) Karen

  4. Oh Karen! What an amazing experience! I really enjoyed reading about your journey through Unplug'd. What a unique, inspiring process you are sure to treasure forever. Connecting with people who raise you up is a priceless gift.

    Thank you for sharing,

    1. Thanks Celina, it was a very surreal weekend. As I find out more about the people I didn't know before I am blown away by what they are doing with their lives professionally. It was an incredible group of people and if I'm lucky I'll be able to attend again next year (maybe?).

  5. I wish that I came on the swim with you! But no regrets... it was a wonderful experience and I'm refueled and ready for a new school year. Hard to describe how amazing it was to connect with you and the other unpluggers!

  6. Wish you were with us too Dave but we can head to Sasamat Lake and "pretend" we are swimming out to the tree. It's funny that you were the only person I had met F2F before attending and look at us now with all these incredible connections. Looking forward to more F2F connections since we actually do live close enough to have them. Can't wait to hear about the adventures in your new school. -Karen

  7. Karen, thank you for sharing your reflections about #unplugd12! As one who was fortunate to be a participant in #unplugd11, your thoughts and feelings really touched me and brought back so many memories and experiences of our #unplugd11 weekend.

    I had lunch with Rob Fisher and Darren Kuropatwa on Thursday and we spoke about the connections that we made and how we need to connect the #unplugd11 and #unplugd12 people and their experiences. Rodd has mentioned it in a tweet and hopefully it will gain some traction.

    I came back from #unplugd11 truly inspired. It was a life changer and something we need to share with others. Maybe I can convince my daughter Julie to apply next year, perhaps with her dad in tow.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Thanks John for your comment. I think it would be great for Unplug'd 11 and Unplug'd12 to unite and share. It was interesting when I look back at the Unplug's 11 "stuff" and I see some familiar faces. I've also heard that it was some what discouraged to attend twice but I am really hoping I can go back. I'd like to go back feeling confident and far less worried. I think the experience would be quite different.

      And what a small world it is. Two of the teacher's I've been talking to on Twitter both have connections to Unplug'd. Your daughter Julie (who I'm excited to meet F2F next week in my part of the world), and another teacher from Ontario who will be working with Kim next year. It really is a small world and getting smaller every day.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.


  8. Karen, What a wonderful tribute to a super weekend. As I read this I was transported back to when we were all together. And I found out what happened on Saturday night while I was gone! I'm so glad we met in person and were roomies as the Westin. Hopefully we will meet again some day, maybe in Vancouver!

    1. First off you were missed on Saturday night but I'm glad my recap helped let you see what you missed. Second I am really glad we met face to face and yes we will meet again. It would be great if you came out to Vancouver although I have a feeling I'll be out in Ontario sooner than later to reconnect with some of you. What an incredible group of people.

  9. Karen, what a wonderful account of a truly exceptional weekend. Thank you for this! I, too, felt somewhat presumptuous about attending. There are so many exceptional educators whose work I admire doing such incredible things. I shall share your post on my blog - the joy of social media - you've described it better I could. Lovely to talk, listen and laugh with you and I look forward to meeting again.

    1. Thank you Heidi. I am still in awe that I got to know you at unplugd. I have been following your blog for a while (Aviva introduced me to it) and you are doing such incredible things with your students. Prior to attending It was people like you that had me thinking I was in way over my head. I am so glad I took that jump.