Helping Others Become Connected Educators

I’ve mentioned numerous times about how being a connected educator has changed my perspective on my personal growth and development as an educator. One of my goals this year is to show other teachers how to become connected educators, and the benefits from doing so.

It took me some time to figure out just how to do this. As an ITRT in my district, I am required to offer professional development sessions after school. I will be doing two a month. This will be in addition to my club that I’ll be hosting once a month, and any other after school meetings that I have to attend. I didn’t want to just add another PD day after school, as I felt this might overwork me, but also because it might keep people from attending.

Instead, I took the 1:1 route. I did this for a few reasons. The first I mentioned above. Another reason was because I wanted anyone who wanted to learn to be able to choose their day and time. They could choose either before school or during their planning, but it would only be done in half hour chunks. I also would be able to personalize the training to meet the needs of the staff member that I would be working with at the time. I would move at their pace, and they wouldn’t have to feel overwhelmed.

I sent out an email to my middle school and high school staff, seeking those interested in becoming connected through blogs and Twitter. I was very surprised at the response, and have ended up with about ten people from the high school and middle school that would like to give things a try. It doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when the high school has over 100 staff members, but it’s enough for me. It’s honestly more that I could have ever expected, and I’m hoping to keep these members wanting to be connected.

Now that I have some interested educators, it’s time for me to take the next steps. I’m going to have them decide whether they want to learn about blogging or Twitter first. No matter which tool they pick, in most cases we are going to start with a “watch first” approach and then work on taking action slowly. I have seen and attended sessions where users are happy to join Twitter or create a blogging account, but then it’s never used again after that session. It falls to the wayside and is abandoned.

My goal with this program is to avoid that abandonment by providing 1:1 coaching throughout the year. I am hoping that by providing support all year long that these folks will become active with at least one of the tools and continue to find ways to support themselves. We shall see!

Behind the Scenes: Building a PLN, Part 2

Last time we took a look at some behind the scenes steps to building a Personal Learning Network, aka PLN. This time we’ll take a look at some more steps to get a fuller look at what truly goes into building a PLN.

1.      Active participation: A PLN won’t just build itself once it’s been set up. In order for a PLN to flourish and grow, it needs you to actively be involved with it. For example, if you’re using Twitter, you’ll probably want to be tweeting at least once a week, and reading through tweets of those that you follow. If you’re a blogger, you’ll want to make sure you’re posting somewhat consistently. If you’re reading blogs or sites, make sure you set aside time in order to do so.

It’s easy to let things fall to the side. I’m just as guilty of doing it myself. Sometimes things just happen or life gets busy. I’ve made sure to set aside time so that I may focus on my PLN. It’s easier to start with one day a week at first, and if need be, add more time as your schedule fits. I may check Twitter throughout the day, but by evening, I’m rarely checking it, unless I get a notice about someone sending something my way. When it comes to reading blogs, I’ll try to catch up on my reading at least once a day. This doesn’t take too long because I only follow certain blogs, and they don’t always update each day. As for writing my own blogs, I write down my ideas on a Word document when I think of them. I aim to post one piece of content a week. I write when I am inspired and have the time. If I can write more than one post in a setting, I will. I’ll simply set it to post on a future date in my blog. This particular post was written in May, but it won’t have posted until sometime this summer.

Since most people will only start with one tool, they only need to sit down and determine how much time they want to sit aside to engage with the tool. It doesn’t have to be a lot at first, and probably won’t for awhile. As you become more comfortable with the tool, increase engagement as necessary.

2.      Give and take of information: Building a PLN works best when you’re engaged in finding new information AND sharing your own information at the same time. At first, you may feel as though you don’t have very much to give at all, but in time, you’ll find that there’s a lot of information that you can share. Don’t feel obligated to share right from the start if you’re just getting used to how to use the tool in the first place. Give it some time, and then jump right in!

For example, when educators look at others who blog, they might wonder how they can do it, or if they’d ever have anything worth sharing. The answer is yes. From class updates to reflections to lesson plans to opinions about what is going on in education today, educators will find they do have plenty to say.

Many educators find they get the most out of their network when they can discuss or talk with others in that network. This can spark impromptu discussions on topics and allow educators to see how others might feel about a particular topic.

3.      Using Tools to Build Smarter: Tools can help make managing a professional learning network easier. After all the saying goes “work smarter, not harder”. Twitter is an easy tool to keep up with at first…until you have a lot of people you’re following, or an edchat running. There are tools that allow users to break Twitter down into more manageable chunks.

TweetDeck is a great tool to use on Twitter. It allows users to create columns for certain users, hashtags, topics, and more. I can add the people I follow to lists. For example, I may choose to have a list of people who mostly tweet about Minecraft, and another who tweet about edtech. I might follow the hashtag for #stem at the same time. Tweetdeck allows users to customize to their heart’s content, making it much easier to sort through large amounts of data.

Another way your professional network can get out of hand occurs when one follows blogs. It’s easy to keep up with one or two at first, if you bookmark the site and remember to check every site that is bookmarked each day. Once you add more blogs though, it can be hard to remember to keep up with every single one. A good tool to utilize here is an RSS Reader. RSS stands for “rich site summary”, but is also known as “really simple syndication”. An RSS Reader allows a user to gather content from multiple sources into one location. Instead of me checking each blog individually, I simply add them to my RSS Reader, and then sync the reader each day. If new posts are up, they will appear in my reader immediately.

There are many RSS Readers out there, and which is best is all going to depend on personal preference, and the device being used. I use Feedly’s website to set up my Reader, and then use Newsify on my iPad because it syncs with Feedly. I like the layout that Newsify uses, so I stick with it. A quick Google search will provide many results, so make sure to narrow down your searches by using “RSS readers android”, “RSS readers iOS”, and so on. Try out a few options and then stick with the one that works best for you.

Now that we’ve gone through a look at some of the behind the scenes work, you’ll see that it takes work to build up a successful Personal Learning Network. It isn’t something that can be done quickly, or that will be successful right away. However, with the right amount of time and effort, it can grow and be successful.

Behind the Scenes: Building a PLN

Personal Learning Network. It’s a term you hear more and more often these days. Colleagues speak about it. Articles online speak about it. It’s toted as a great and wonderful tool that can connect educators and network them with others around the world. Others speak of their connections and how easy it is to connect with someone when they need to bounce ideas. It sounds so amazing that you go home, sit down, and begin setting up your network. Over the next few days, you find that it’s not as exciting or revolutionary as the presenter made it out to be. What gives? Did they lie?

The short answer: No.

When you’re attending a session on benefits of building a PLN, you’re not seeing the work that went into building it. What you’re seeing is the “final” product. I say “final” because one is never really done building their network, but it does get to a point where things are very active, and usually on the upswing. At the time of the presentation, the presenter has many examples to provide or people that they connect with. So what really goes on “behind the scenes”? What affects how your network prospers?

1.      Time and Effort: Nothing is going to ever be successful in just a few days. Your PLN is the same way. A good question to ask the presenter is how long it took them to get to a point where they felt their PLN was successful. It has taken me a year to really get to the point where I feel that my network is active and beneficial to me. During that time, I didn’t always work on building it. In fact, I would say that once I actively started, it took me 9 months to get to that point. I didn’t do everything I do now all at once either. I started slowly and added on as I could handle more items.

When building a PLN, you must realize that it will take time. Keep that in mind as you work, and make sure to put in the effort needed to build it. It won’t grow if you don’t do anything to help or keep it going. If your PLN is stagnant after a few months, step back and see what you could do to improve. Talk to others or research online.

2.      Key influencers: Key influencers are often some of the first people you follow or look up online. These are usually going to be popular names in your field, or someone you’ve heard colleagues talking about. Are they blogging? Are they using Twitter? How do they communicate with others online? To be very honest, my own network started out small, and I wanted to use Twitter as my focus. I only used key influencers that I knew from talking about our state’s edchat. Once I followed them, I looked for others that participated in the edchat, as well as who my influencers followed.

Once I had this set up, I was now able to read conversations being held between my influencers and other people. For a time, this was all I did so I could get a feel of the wide world of Twitter. After I became comfortable though, I then started looking at the hashtags that my influencers were using. I would check them out if they intrigued me, and I learned to search for my own as well.

From here, I began getting involved in edchats. Edchats on Twitter are conversations held between groups of people, using the same hashtag so everything is easily found. Usually there is some kind of moderator, and a list of questions that will be asked during the
session. Participants respond and discussion ensues. I started with the edchat for my state, as that was the one most of my key influencers participated in. From there I added a second one. I have yet to add any more, but it is something I plan to do in the future.

3.      Exploring avenues, one at a time: There isn’t just one right way to build a professional learning network. Some educators use tools that other educators don’t. It all depends on the needs and comfort levels of the educator. The important thing is that you build slowly. Trying to incorporate a variety of tools all at once will be overwhelming and spell disaster. Just as with anything else, try one thing at a time.

First, determine the different options that interest you, and what would be easiest for you to start with. Also note the options that you are interested in, but may need some assistance in learning how to use. Many educators start with Twitter because it’s a very easy way to get in touch with other educators. However, it can be hard to learn if you’ve
never used it before. Other educators will start with blogging. They will either seek out blogs in their content areas that interest them, or they will begin writing their own experiences and ideas into a blog. Some educators seek out teacher friendly groups on Facebook, and others look for websites that include forums or message boards.

Once you’ve figured out the tools you’d like to start with, it’s time to jump right in. Pick one tool to start with. Of course, it’s easier if you can get assistance from someone you know, but oftentimes, you’ll have to research the tool and how to use it on your own. Once you’ve figured out how to use the tool, it’s a good idea to also research how other educators use the tool as well. There may be a chance that others have thought of something that you haven’t.

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at 3 more steps that go on behind the scenes when building a personal learning network. AS you can see from where we just started, there’s more than meets the eye!

Reflection: Building My Personal Learning Network

It was just over a year ago that I started working to build my personal learning network and get more connected with other educators around me. At the time, I was just starting to attempt blogging again. I was also just learning about using Twitter more, as well as #wvedchat. What amuses me most is that I was so excited about the concept of a PLN that I even submitted a session idea for the West Virginia Statewide Technology Conference
to talk about. I knew what it was, I knew it was great, but I wasn’t actively using it myself.

One year later, and things are quite different.

The desire to build my own network got me through the summer, and the conference. I presented on my topic, and I did well, but I couldn’t really add much personal experience. I simply wanted to share this great concept. I knew that my humble start was a good idea when I had my best conference ever, and connected with others I had only known online. I was actively socializing and talking with people, and I didn’t feel alone at all, even though I had traveled by myself and was staying by myself.

As the new school year started, I slacked on blogging. I didn’t keep up with it, and I didn’t try to. I simply let it fall by the wayside, though I tried to keep up by reading other educator blogs. I used the Newsify app to keep up with my reading, which synced with my Feedly account. For that time, it was good enough.

Even though my blogging slacked, my social networking improved greatly. I wasn’t just using Twitter, I was actively participating, and trying to do the same with others I met online. I began being an active member in the biweekly #wvedchat sessions, and still am, unless I’m sick or have a prior engagement. I eventually found a chat for Minecraft in Education, and joined that one as well. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with both, since
they run the same days and times, but I make it work. On the days that both chats are running, it’s often a race to keep up and respond to both, but I’ve done so, and feel accomplished for it. I did host one of the #wvedchat sessions, and I would happily host another if I had a good topic and could come up with a good set of questions for it.

January came, and with it a desire to be a better blogger. I had plenty I could share, right? Every educator does. It just takes some time to brainstorm ideas and get them written out. I started actively posting again, and made it my goal to keep up with my blog. I wanted to be able to post at least once a week. Sometimes, I’ve even gotten lucky and been able to make 2 or even 3 posts in a week. I started a Word document to jot down ideas that I could possibly write about, and check it every now and then to remind myself. It’s hard to remember everything, and sometimes I get inspired, but not motivated to write, so I tuck the idea away in that file for another day.

To make sure I spread my postings out over a period of time on my blog, I track posts by time sensitivity and not. If a post is time sensitive, I’ll make sure it’s posted that very day it’s written, or I’ll get in posted in the coming days. Any other kind of post will be scheduled for a future day, sometimes a few weeks out. I do love this because sometimes I feel really inspired and write a lot, and other times I don’t. It provides consistency to my blog and my readers, and keeps the blog from not being updated for weeks on end.

Finally, I share Twitter transcripts from the chats that I participate in. I know that it can be very hard to keep up with the fast past of Twitter chats, so having a transcript is helpful to let others read the information, and view the information shared. It also provides an easy way for me to go back through my blog and see what chats I’ve talked about.

Building a Personal Learning Network isn’t easy or quick. It takes time and dedication, but the payoff and benefits are well worth it. I’m hoping to discuss more of the “Behind the Scenes” in a future post.

Twitter #edchat Compilation List

If you’re looking to get involved in doing #edchats on Twitter, this link below will get you started. Education tweeps work to compile it, and it covers the chat, a possible description, and the time it takes place. Check it out and get involved!

Technology and Professional Learning Networks

I teach in a district where technology is available, but not always used in ways that are above and beyond just doing the same things differently. Our teachers have access to SMART boards, but many simply use them as another form of a white board. We have computers, but most of our student labs are running outdated XP versions. The computers themselves are slow and clunky, big CPU boxes more suited to the early 2000s era than 2015.

Technology staff development also falls to the wayside. When it is offered, very few educators in the county attend unless it is a tool they are required to use for part of a daily task. This year I tried to offer some different PD sessions in this area. I’ve been working on my certification as a technology integration specialist, and wanted to try my hand at it. My best attended session had 6 participants. My lowest had 2. My PD fell in the line of
using different apps for iPads, how to use an iPad, and using QR Codes. Sometimes I had a teacher or two tell me they couldn’t attend due to a conflict, and hoped I would offer the session again in the future. It was disappointing to have so few in attendance, but I have found the same thing occurs across the state of WV from other TIS members who have been in my boat. They offer training, and very few attend.

We want to offer technology to our fellow educators. We want to embrace the new things being done, and have our students embracing skills for jobs that do not exist yet. However, the interest is slim to none. We cannot force these educators to attend sessions, and even if we did, what purpose would that serve beyond creating the attitude of “I have to be here, but I’m not going to use this so what does it matter?”

Are we simply stagnating ourselves when it comes to developing well-rounded students? What happens when we only have students using technology to complete assessments and follow along with guided scripts in desktop and web publishing books? Are we relying on these more than we should? Should we not instead be encouraging our students to be creative andinnovative? There are many options for ways to utilize technology and
incorporate the creation of new products and media out there. Everything from using one device alone to using a variety of devices to create one final product exist. Websites such as Graphite exist where users submit lessons that use more than one type of technology to accomplish a common goal.

Then again, what about ourselves? Technology is a great way for educators to connect and build a professional learning network. There are many educators out there who blog, create, and connect with one another to get advice, offer support and feedback, and to present new ideas. Teachers do not have to go it alone, or reinvent the wheel, but they do have to want to improve themselves as a lifelong learner. From Facebook groups to online communities to professional social media networks, there’s no end to what a teacher’s options are for networking. One simply has to have the drive and motivation to
accomplish this.

Set a goal for yourself this summer: I will build my professional learning network by ________________. Try to do at least one thing that will help you to improve yourself as an educator. Remember, you have to want to do it; don’t force yourself.

To get started, check out some of these ideas to build your
PLN: (specifically r/teachers and
r/teaching to begin) (if you are a WV educator, you have
an account already)

-Intel Teachers Engage