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Monday, November 2, 2009

My Virtual Staff Lounge

     If we accept the notion that schools function, in large part, as transmitters of knowledge to subsequent generations, then let’s also recognize that this transmission is in the throes of evolutionary change. I feel the change all around me. Computers are fast replacing textbooks; interactive whiteboards are supplanting static ones; email overtaking paper memos and on-demand Web-based video pushing aside those VHS tapes or DVDs.

Like many educators, I used to think I could choose what roll these new technologies would play in my professional life and classroom. Recently I decided that this was a false choice. I cannot selectively ignore technological change. I can isolate  myself, true, but I must always remember that I am not educating my students for today’s world, but rather, for a future world in which these technologies will dominate. Do I over romanticizing the paper past and under appreciating the digital future? I did not become a teacher to blindly support status quo 20 years ago and I summarily reject letting myself become one today. 

So how do I keep up? The answer is simple:  stay passionately involved with educators around the world on a daily basis. Thanks to technology, this is now a reality. I am convinced that I am the most effective teacher I can possibly be when accompanied by a diverse group of educational thinkers and practitioners. This article is the story of how my professional circles have evolved over the years and where I hope they will go in the future.

If you have not yet heard of this acronym: PLN, I will explain. It stands for Personal Learning Network. While the term might be new, the idea is not. Teachers have always had learning networks–people we learn from and share with. Teachers are information maniacs at our core. We are also intensely social beings. Put these two characteristics together and you have defined PLN.

The nature of my PLN has changed since I first started teaching in 1987. This evolution is part developmental and part technological. I tend to divide my career into three episodes that are characterized by what I was collecting at the time: paper, computer files or web links. Let’s start with paper.

In 1987 the Internet only existed for people I did not know yet. I was a new teacher, by far the youngest staff member at my school and the only man except for the janitor. I shared a kindergarten room with a veteran teacher who was polite but cautious about the new ideas I brought about literacy and numeracy. I was not quite sure if teaching was going to be my profession for the long term. Few staff members went out of their way to change my mind about this.

My personal learning network at the time consisted of the “New Teacher Project”, a teacher mentoring consortium run by the local university. They provided mentors and workshops for a cohort of 20 first and second year teachers. This cohort of teachers, along with our mentors, formed the core of my PLN. We met face to face in weekly meetings. Most professional information we shared came from articles or books we had read as well conference or workshops we had attended. We bought books in bookstores and the conference handouts came back in suitcases. Anything we thought was valuable was photocopied and filed for future reference. Our goal was to fill the file cabinet with enough interesting material to cover the school year. I spent many hours coloring handmade books, glueing together math kits and drawing little student versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where The Wild Things Are.

By the mid 1990’s I decided that I loved teaching. My PLN had expanded considerably. I had a bursting file cabinet, overflowing collection of books for my classroom library and I was on my 3rd personal computer. I was intricately involved in District curriculum committees. I worked as staff trainer for a textbook company and I was studying for my masters degree. I regularly met with fascinating teachers from all circles. Perhaps it was 1996 when I sent my first email to a colleague at my school. We shared little secrets from our classroom experiences. We also share information about books we read, though we still had to buy them in a store. I saved bookmarks for website I liked, but still printed out pages for my files. However, no matter how large my PLN had grown, it was still comprised of educators I met in person.

This started to change just about the time I realized how important the personal computer had become to my entire teaching style. No longer was I struggling to figure out how to “teach technology. Rather, I was writing lesson plans, developing materials for my students and colleagues, creating elaborate graphic organizers and publishing student work. The computer had stopped being an exotic toy. It was now my tireless work horse. I was reading web pages like I used to read magazines in a library.  I stopped filling my file cabinet with paper and instead collected computer files, first on floppy disk and later on hard drives. It was my purchase of a laptop in the late 90’s that spelled the eventual end of my two file cabinets and the reams of paper held within. 

My PLN started to evolve in unexpected ways. Emails would arrive to my inbox from people who had heard of me through word of mouth. I worked for a different textbook publisher, but never actually met my contact until the very end our working relationship. I completed my National Board Certification with the support chat rooms and web-based bulletin board forums. I started noticing teacher created websites, called blogs, where a huge variety of opinions   were being expressed. On occasion, these same blog postings had commentaries written by other people, not always teachers. Sometimes the debate was trivial, but at other times, it was heated, intelligent and enlightening. I was honored to even be able to read them, much less comment myself.

In many ways this new world of teacher written blogs became my therapy for my growing frustration with the intense professional pressure to “teach to the tests”. I could identify where similarities existed not only across the country, but the whole world as well. I could also identify important differences that allowed me a greater perspective on the state of education. 

Interestingly, when I moved over to an independent school, the possibilities for creative instruction and project based learned exploded for me, but my physical PLN shrunk dramatically. I was no longer a part of a large school district, which while often much maligned, always guaranteed me a large, vibrant community of dedicated educators. My current colleagues are also a vibrant group of educators, but I am the sole 7th and 8th grade math teacher. I continually run the risk of becoming an insular, out-of-touch teacher.

Lucky for me, this has not been the case.  These past couple of years have seen a tremendous international expansion of my PLN amazing. While I still share and collaborate with my school colleagues, I am also sharing ideas with amazing teachers from all over the world.  Information is waiting for me each morning in my inbox from discussion groups.  To be honest, the sheer volume of information available can be overwhelming at times. But technology has give me the tools to be selective with this information.

One of the most important evolutionary changes in my PLN has been how I meet and communicate with people. This is where the technological advances of the modern Internet, sometimes referred to as Web 2.0, come into play in ways that are controversial to many teachers. I attended a workshop called Math 2.0 in which the presenter informed the (mostly) over 30 crowd that “email is so last century, now it’s about Facebook and Twitter.” It was thanks to that presenter that I finally took Twitter seriously and it has been a saving grace of my career.

Twitter is like some huge, noisy teacher’s lounge, like the type I always imagined  I would find in one my schools some day. Everyone is talking at once. I might be talking with one or two teachers in the lounge, while catching bits and pieces of other conversations around me. People come in and out of focus in this lounge. Every once in a while I share a good piece of info, perhaps a website I visited, or a lesson that went particularly well, or a posting on some bulletin board (virtual) I saw. If I have a question or doubt, I put that out as well and often receive responses very quickly.

I have control over who I allow to enter my virtual lounge because unlike chat rooms, I choose to follow (or if the offend, to unfollow) people. Twitter is a web based social networking site, like Facebook, but I use a program called Tweetdeck because of special features such as lists that allow me to create an elite group of contributors I find particularly enriching. I sometimes think of Twitter as a huge magazine rack in some international book store. I can browse around the covers, notice headlines and stop when something particularly catches my interest. Most people I follow on Twitter are educators like myself, but I also follow educational psychologists, brain researchers and political wonks who I find thought provoking.

The power of Twitter lies within its simplicity and its dynamism: unlike other Internet forums, topics are set on the fly and don’t dwell in linear pathways. The cap of 140 characters per “Tweet” enforces brevity and actually encourages spontaneity. Much of what goes through my Tweetdeck are links to blogs and websites recommended by people I respect, much like the articles we photocopied for ourselves 20 years ago.
Here is a sample of Tweets from people I follow:

Reading "A Math Paradox: The Widening Gap Between High School and College Math" 

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"
~ Albert Einstein

New blog post: "My Students Are Visual Learners, Maybe Their Parents Are, Too" Fighting fire with fire.

Nuclear Accidents and the Origins of Superhero Origins:

"Stay the course, light a star, change the world where'er you are" Richard Le Gallienne

The types of discussion I have and the information shared in my PLN has not actually changed very much over 20 years–what works in class, how are my students learning, how can I become a better teacher. The medium is not longer paper exchanged in face to face meetings. What has changed, and dramatically so, is how I meet other educators and thinkers, where we discuss ideas, and how we share information. I meet them online. I learn from them online. I share with them online. And therein lies the dilemma. Whenever I mention an idea I have gleaned from Twitter to a colleague, there is a funny sort of silence. Twitter is such a new phenomenon that there is a lot of misunderstanding of its true power. From afar it can seem like 140 characters sent off anonymously would only spell trouble. But it is really like paper and pencil which create amazing works of art as well as scribbling those horrible notes during class. Twitter, like most all human communication, is dependent on human intention. The nearly 600 people I follow on Twitter show the highest professional standards I have ever seen. And if someone slips, I simply unfollow them.

My challenge to anyone interested in exploring the potential of Twitter to envigorate their professional engagement is to try it for a month. After that month you can reflect on the relative benefits and make a better informed decision on whether you will adopt this technology.

You need to create a list of interesting people to follow. Once you follow them, you can look at their lists and decide to follow those people. You’ll need to understand a few basics of Twitter communication style:

@ – when placed in front of a twitter name, it allows the person to see a reply to them under Replies

RT: – you this to retweat a tweet that is worthy of sending again

# – hash tags to track specific conversations (try #ascd in Twitter Search to see what I mean)

Post several Tweets a day: something great (or a struggle) from your teaching or learning, a question for the day. When you see an interesting Tweet, reply to it. You might find yourself engaging in a fascinating conversation in no time at all.

This is a great website to find other, like-minded educators to follow:

These are some particularly interesting people I follow closely on Twitter.

Angela Maiers  @angelamaiers :excellent thinker about education
Larry Ferlazzo  @larryferlazzo Amazing provider of resources
Vicki Davis  @coolcatteacher : one of the most followed teachers on Twitter
Mr. Tweet  @ MrTweet - provides you with personalized recommendations
Russel Tarr: @russeltarr History Teacher: incredible, web-based resources 
Ira Socol: @irasocol  Deep thinker of educational policy

My PLN has evolved in interesting and unpredictable ways. The virtual staff lounge I currently sit it in loud, rambuctious, irreverant and exciting. I invite anyone reading this join me as in the joyful cacophany of professional growth. You can find me on twitter as @pepepacha. Let the rumpus begin!


Jim Sutton said...

I thought this was a great summary of the changes that have come about.

ERKO said...

It's not what you know that counts anymore; it's what you can learn. ~Dan Tapscott

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