How to Start a Nerd Camp

Colby Sharp, one of the creators of the first Nerd Camp, offers his advice for hosting your own version of the popular education camps with a literacy twist.

NerdCampMI went from 180 attendees in 2013 to 1,800 signed up this year.

A lot of educators ask for advice in starting their own Nerd Camp. There are a million things to tell them about this twist on traditional education confererences. (As a matter of fact, you’ll often see it written nErDcamp.)

In the spring of 2013, I was a part of a group of Michigan educators who were talking about all the Ed Camps that were popping up around the country. The attendees drive learning at Ed Camps. No sessions are planned. The conference attendees build the schedule around the things they want to learn more about.

As we started with an Ed Camp, our group in Michigan also wondered if we could put a bit of a literacy twist on the event. We decided that all of the sessions at our Ed Camp would be rooted in the Nerdy Book Club philosophy: Every reader has value and a voice in our community. The Nerdy Book Club is a community blog that has had more than 1,000 people blog about books and reading over the last eight years.

We decided to call the event Nerd Camp.

At our event now, the first day is much like a traditional education conference. We have scheduled speakers to get you fired up about teaching reading and writing in the classroom.

Day Two is an (un)conference with a focus on literacy—in every and all subject areas. A large, blank “session board” is displayed in a conspicuous area for attendees to post a topic they are interested in leading a session on. It could be just about anything.

Last year, our varied sessions addressed the imbalance of power in YA relationships; distilling memories in graphic memoirs with author Jarrett Krosoczka; the academic advantages of flexible seating; and classroom activities for a writing club; among other topics.

Nerd Camps have popped up nationwide in recent years. They can attract large crowds for prominent author talks and signings, as well as intimate discussions among local book creators and educators about subjects such as the importance of getting the right books into students’ hands and overcoming obstacles.

Thinking about starting your own Nerd Camp can seem overwhelming. Here’s just some of what we have learned creating NerdCampMI. I hope it helps you create the right Nerd Camp for you and your educators.


Start small and let it grow

We did not have scheduled speakers the first year, which makes planning much easier. You can focus on things like AV needs, lunch, and signage to make sure the event runs smoothly.

That year, 180 educators attended. We were blown away. Most of our attendees were from Michigan and the surrounding states, but we did have people come from both Florida and Texas. This year, 1,800 spots were filled in less than an hour, and within a day, the waiting list was over 1,000 people. Our goal with each camp is to help educators feel validated in what they do and inspired to take things to the next level.

The highlight from the first year came at the end of the day when attendees shared their thoughts. People kept saying they felt like they had found “their people.”

So often educators feel like they are on an island at their school, and it warmed our hearts to know that Nerd Camp helped book-loving educators realize they are not alone.

The one suggestion we heard repeatedly was that camp needed to be longer, so we took their advice the second year.

In year two, we made camp two days and added Nerd Camp Junior, where each attending kid gets a chance to go to three sessions led by authors/illustrators. We also feed them dinner, and everyone leaves with at least one book from a creator they learned from that night.

We had 280 kids and 12 book creators the first year of Nerd Camp Junior. Parents signed in their kids at the beginning of the event, and picked them up at the end. Kids from first through sixth grade learned how to draw characters, come up with story ideas, and make their writing more exciting.

Each camp we make minor changes, but it has run pretty much the same way since that inaugural year.


Make it your own

You shouldn’t try to re-create NerdCampMI. You should instead create your own Nerd Camp. We evolved from another’s approach ourselves.


Focus on what matters

If you need to raise a bunch of money, you are probably doing it wrong. It is not about the stuff or the big-name speakers. Nerd Camp is about educators helping kids fall in love with reading. A Nerd Camp with 25 passionate people who are there to learn is going to be much more effective than a Nerd Camp with 1,000 attendees who want cool swag. 

The thing that stresses me out most about other Nerd Camps is when I see them asking for things on social media. Each Nerd Camp operates independently, but I worry that people will see one Nerd Camp doing something that doesn’t fit our values, and think that we are cool with it. 

They often see the names of the famous authors we have coming to the Parma, MI, event, but that isn’t what camp is about. It is about teachers, librarians, and other educators who care deeply about kids.  If you are hosting a Nerd Camp because you want to get a bunch of authors to come, you are doing it for the wrong reason. (Did I say that already? I might say it again. It’s important to remember.)

Speaking of what matters, hosting the perfect event does not. Be cool with things going wrong. Nerd Camps are not hosted by professional event planners. They are hosted by passionate teachers. Don’t let things going wrong ruin it for you. We’ve misplaced notebooks for kids, dealt with a power outage, and had sessions filled beyond capacity. Things are going to go wrong. I promise.


What to avoid

Don’t add the stress of an unknown venue. Host it in a location where one of your team members has the keys. We host camp at the school where our team teaches, so we can get into any room at any time. Plus, we know the maintenance and technology staff, so we don’t have to waste any time trying to ­figure that stuff out.

And don’t overspend. It’s best to keep the budget simple. If you can host it at a school that gives you the space for free, you don’t really need that much money. If publishers send books, we put them out for people to take for free.

We don’t pay any of our speakers or cover travel for anyone, and we ask that ALL Nerd Camps do the same.


Best thing to happen at camp

For me, nothing is better than seeing someone come back the next year.

Going to a conference means leaving home and family. That is hard, so the fact that we have people coming back year after year means a lot. Nerd Camp will forever be free, so the main barriers to attend are time and travel expenses.

As more Nerd Camps pop up around the country, our hope is that the time and expense barriers are reduced for anyone who wants to attend.

Many of my students come to camp each year, too. I love being able to talk to them in the fall about the cool authors they met and the great books they got at camp. The fifth graders that I teach that go to camp each year have met close to 20 authors! How cool is that?


Worst thing to happen at camp

It was hard for me to accept that Nerd Camp isn’t for everyone. Our Nerd Camp is an intense couple of days in a crowded school with limited air conditioning. In a perfect world everyone will have the best time at camp, but that just isn’t possible. No event is for everyone, and coming to terms with that is hard.

Finally, make sure you go to a session or two. Chances are if you are on the Nerd Camp team, you are going to be super busy during camp, but you need to take a break from those duties and go to some sessions. It will help you see that all the hard work is paying off.

Colby Sharp teaches fifth grade in Parma, MI, is the ­co-founder of Nerdy Book Club, and serves on the NerdCampMI team. He co-hosts “The Yarn” podcast with Travis Jonker.

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