“Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

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Participants discuss digital learning communities in our #educon session.

At Educon this weekend, my friend and colleague Andrew Marcinek and I wanted to talk PLNs. Personal learning networks. Professional learning networks. In conversations together over the past year or so, it had become apparent to us that it was time for a change. Anyone who has participated in learning networks for a significant period of time has likely noticed the “echo chamber” effect or have perhaps found the seemingly identical streams of tweets and links shared on a daily basis relentlessly ungratifying. We felt compelled to discuss how to critically examine, deconstruct, and reinvent your PLN in order to become and remain contributing members of meaningful learning networks.

I was inspired to develop a conversation around this topic by many posts regarding the demise of Twitter, specifically this work shared by Bonnie Stewart about all that is “rotten” in the state of Twitter and one of my favorite posts in recent years from George Siemens who declared his PLN “the most awesomest thing ever!“, asking us to truly think about the ways in which we engage in learning in digital spaces.

The session was live-streamed, so our attentive SLA student assistant, Miriam, kept us posted about the backchannel conversations emerging in the streamed space. One of the earliest questions was from Lisa Durff, who quite frankly inquired at the start of our session:

“Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

Andy summarized the highlights of our session in his reflective post here, so I will spare you that account from my perspective, however I’d like to share some of my own reflections and struggles with PLNs and the strategies I will use to be a more engaged participant in my networks. This, perhaps, will help answer the “why” posed above.

I need to think critically about who I follow, and why.

One of our participants asked me how I keep up with the stream of information since I follow 3,000 or so Twitter users. Simple: I don’t keep up with it. Early in my connected experience I was told, you will never read every tweet that comes through your stream, so don’t even bother trying. While I’m not at the point where I will reset my account to “Following Zero” as I know others have done, I will take some time to weed through my following list and unfollow accounts that aren’t adding anything to my learning. Because, as Scott McLeod reflects after Tony Baldasaro’s choice to unfollow folks:

Tony’s post reminds us that social networks are like gardens (thank you, David Warlick). They require some nurturing and, yes, some pruning now and then. Sometimes they may even be like prairies, requiring a full burn to nurture new, positive growth.

Twitter, Google+, Facebook… who I add to my circles, who I connect with, how and with whom I engage in conversations… these are the decisions that will have great impact on my learning. There are people who, when I first followed, seemed to share a lot of information relevant to my work. I now see them as posting mostly self-promotional material and/or pie-in-the-sky quotes and things that honestly make me cringe. I seek to engage with a more diverse network, with a group of people that question and challenge my assumptions, and who inspire me on a daily basis.

I need to consider which platform will help meet both my needs and those of the engaged audience. 

Do I tweet a request for help? RT someone’s shared link? Start a new post in Google+? Use a service like IFTT to cross-post to all of my spaces? Since delving into our comprehensive Google+ tech coaches community for questions, answers, and to share ideas and resources, I can honestly say I’d recommend new users make a relevant Google+ community a major component of their PLN. In fact, during our Educon session, while social media services were not an intended focus, many of the participants wanted to learn more about workflow options, tools like Tweetdeck to make organization of the info a bit easier, and the benefits of using Google+. We somewhat veered from our planned discussion topics at that point, but it’s what the learners wanted to learn.

I need to acknowledge that there are educators brand new to “connecting,” and that my advice to blow up your PLN may not be applicable to newbs. 

I hear that. But, I would be doing those new users a disservice if I wasn’t frank about the time commitment involved in developing a strong PLN, or the truth that inevitably, they will need to reinvent the ways in which they engage. It is important not to sugarcoat this experience because someone just sent out their first tweet. I don’t want new users to be deluded into thinking their PLN will a) grow quickly and effectively and require little effort to get started b) last forever exactly as is and c) offer the same quality of resources and support day in and day out. It’s not going to happen. If your engagement with your PLN is exactly the same as it was three years ago- if your relationships with those in your network haven’t evolved or the platforms you use haven’t caused you to reconsider how you contribute and when – then kudos to you, you don’t need to reinvent your PLN. I don’t think many of us can claim that’s true. So while I will continue to support and hopefully inspire those new to the experience, I will also be honest about what lies ahead, the good and the bad.

How about you? What challenges do you face as a connected educator, learning in networked spaces? The more we discuss the dilemmas surrounding quality participation in learning networks, the more meaningful our contributions can be for one another. Thanks for learning with me.

Connect to win.

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A little birdie told me it’s Connected Educator Month. If you’re reading this, and if you’re new to “connecting,” you might be curious about a day in the life of a “connected” educator. About how we find the time. About the tools we use to connect. About the time we spend communicating with others. About how we manage to do anything other than tweet, blog, and Hangout. You may be apprehensive about connecting and sharing digitally.

Let me start this post by saying I truly believe there’s no right or wrong way to connect. Many folks are skilled collaborators within their local schools and districts. That’s important. One of our teachers started a writing club this year to discuss and explore best practices with teachers in our elementary schools. They meet face-to-face each month.

Those teachers are connected educators.

I’m going to make an appearance at one of their sessions and discuss blogging, its benefits, and how it can amplify the shared ideas of teachers and students alike. I’m going to push those locally connected educators to stretch a little further. Expand their reach. Encourage them to share their wisdom with others. But without the initial face-to-face connections this group has established, the opportunity to share about blogging would not have as easily presented itself.

Connected educators are vulnerable. They make their learning transparent and therefore are open to critique and criticism. They ask questions, they challenge assumptions, they create things and ideas, they get messy, they remix, and they support one another and their kids. It’s hard to put yourself out there. The good news is, you’re not alone.

A connected educator is never alone!

In our school district, have teachers who tweet. We have far fewer administrators who tweet. We have one former administrator who tweets a lot. We have kids who blog, parents who comment on blogs, schools that post news to blogs, and a superintendent who’s looking to expand our district’s use of social media to share the wonderful experiences and learning of our students and school community.

Fact: You can be a connected educator without using Twitter and without reading or writing a blog.

But the tools are available. Many are free. Most are easy to use. They bring ideas your way. They help you forge relationships with exceptional educators. They help you add nodes to your networks.

And they will broaden the scope of your influence.

On a typical day, I wake up early. After some quick mommy math, I calculate I’ll have approximately one hour of uninterrupted time before waking-up-baby needs snuggling.

What’s a connected educator to do?

Coffee. iPhone alerts. Facebook friends, tweets, and emails. Respond to a teacher’s concern about not being able to print a document. Mobile connectivity is key for me.

Twitter. Use Tweetdeck to check the #cpchat stream for articles and posts I can pin to the Connected Leadership board.

Feedly. Take the time to do something I don’t do enough: comment on a blog post. This one from Pernille Ripp, questioning, Where are all the connected female educators? 

LOL reading John Spencer’s post, How many teachers  does it take to change a lightbulb? Share to Facebook, because sometimes my teacher friends are really down on themselves about the state of our profession and they need a good chuckle.

More Feedly. This looks interesting. Save to Pocket. Share out later after reading.

Collaborate with a district and county colleague via Twitter, devise a new hashtag to organize what we share with our tech integrators group.

Baby awake. Family time. Get ready for work.

Long commute. Sirius XM, talk radio, and time with my thoughts.

Help teachers get set up using a math website with students, reference the tutorials on our Elementary Instructional Technology blog. Discuss administrivia with a colleague. Set up a new Twitter account for the district. Check out the latest being shared in our Instructional Technology Integrators and Coaches Google+ community and approve membership requests. Jump into a CEM event led by Scott McLeod for a few minutes. Work with third graders and help them sign into Google Apps for the first time.  Collaborate on a document together. Best practices in design. Google presentations. Communication with a connected colleague, Rachel (whom I met through our Ed Leadership in the Digital Age eCourse through PLP) about a Skype-in session later in the week. Kidblog tasks. Problem solving. Brainstorming. Comment on student work shared with me through GAFE. Create a tutorial to help out a teacher. Eat food. Check out the tweets being shared from #masscue2013. Think about the app a neighboring district created and how useful it is and how we want one. Contact the district for more info. Read the school app resources Eric Sheninger shared with me yesterday via Twitter. Share cyberbullying lesson resources from iSafe and Common Sense Media with district guidance counselors. Finalize elementary technology curriculum drafts. Start working on the new district Facebook page. Consult Diigo for my bookmarks on digital storytelling to share with a teacher looking for more information. Smile at as many kids as possible.

Long commute home.

Family time.

Evening now, baby asleep, finishing this blog post. Going to try to engage with #cpchat tonight which has been a source of inspiration throughout #ce13.

I could read some more feeds. I could tweet. I could check work email. I could pin tasty-looking recipes, get lost in a bunch of nonsensical Facebook posts.  I could install Mavericks.

Instead, I think I’ll play Dots. It’s pretty addicting. And it’s very simple.

Connect the dots.

Stronger, wiser, more numerous connections yield better outcomes.

Connect to win.

The 3Ls of #Edscape

Yesterday was a very enjoyable day at New Milford High School, where principal Eric Sheninger hosted The #Edscape Conference. My takeaways:

Laufenberg.

Chris Lehmann‘s travel woes detained him in Chicago, so he was unable to open the conference, but to our great pleasure, Diana Laufenberg stepped up to the plate. Opening with the need to transform learning due to the shift from an information-deficit environment (students went to school to get information from their teachers) to a world where information-overload is the norm, it becomes necessary to embrace a “Less us, more them,” perspective in the classroom. At Science Leadership Academy, students and teachers explore, “How do we learn? What can we create? What does it mean to lead?” through the core values of  inquiry, research, presentation, reflection, and collaboration. Diana’s enthusiasm for empowering her students was evident. “We teach kids, not subjects.” She shared with us examples of inquiry-driven student learning experiences. It was powerful to hear how her students spend countless hours (outside of school) ensuring they submit high quality projects and assignments, because they “just don’t want to put crap on the Internet anymore.” Students need meaningful tasks and an authentic audience. They must ask questions, research, share ideas, and be reflective in public spaces. She spoke of the need for transparency and relevance, as well as developing collaborative learning environments that embrace risk-taking and support failure. “If you want innovation and creativity, create a space that allows failure in the learning process.”

Here’s Diana’s TED talk if you have not yet had the opportunity to hear her speak about 3 surprising things she has learned from teaching, including learning from mistakes:

Learning.

Teq helped sponsor the event and offered a variety of Smartboard-related sessions, which I heard were well-attended. Too often schools outfit their classrooms with a specific type of technology, yet fail to provide adequate support and professional development for teachers in order to help the tool be used in order to truly impact learning. I am sure the Smartboard sessions were useful for many. During the first session, I had the pleasure of facilitating a Skype-enabled conversation led by Patrick Larkin and Andy Marcinek from Burlington High School, who shared their experiences implementing a 1:1 initiative with iPads, and also shared strategies for developing ePubs for student and teacher use. They shared a Google doc chock-full of resources: Building a Collaborative ePub.

Over breakfast, Tom Whitby, Adam Bellow and I had a great conversation about how presenters are often fearful they’re sharing the same ideas over and over again, and what if no one learns anything new from what we have to share? I think each of us felt a certain pressure to provide new (or at least tweaked) material at the next conference/workshop/meeting. Then Tom brought up a great point about the amount of educators there are in this world (he threw out the number 7.2 million?) yet, when you stopped to consider the group of teachers & educators that are “connected,” we guesstimated anywhere from 200,000-500,000. So, chances are good that as more people become connected, any ideas you have to share will be new and beneficial to someone just embarking on the connected learning journey.

For that reason, I so appreciated the many folks who stopped by my session. It was wonderful engaging in conversation about the need for educators to share, ideas on how to become a more connected educator, tools to try, and ways that my teachers and students have become connected learners. Afterwards I enjoyed talking to a few attendees with some follow-up questions about Google docs, Wikispaces, and Twitter. I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to touch base with other educators in face-to-face learning environments! Later in the evening I received a tweet from Katelyn, who attended my session and decided to give Twitter a try. She’s a 5th grade teacher – reach out and connect with her! And that’s why I love sharing what I do.

Another great element during my session was the amount of open dialogue. First Aaron Eyler interrupted me (mid-sentence) by broaching the subject of the “virtual high-fiving” in certain Twitter communities. He cautioned the group not to get swept up in retweeting things just because someone who is “high profile” sends it out. He encouraged everyone to read for themselves and determine the value of ideas before freely sharing them. This was an excellent point, and I’m glad he raised it. We discussed that as relationships build via Twitter exchanges, commenting on blogs, etc., it’s important to respectfully push others in their thinking.

Here are my session slides:

and here’s a link to related resources.

In session 3, Brian always-dressed-to-kill Nichols led a conversation about leadership in the age of mobile learning. He shared examples of student work, admitted freely that he was the kid that always got in trouble in school, and he shared some great apps for mobile learning. Check out his Twitter stream for the great resources he always shares.

I ended the day in a session about innovative teaching and learning. I struggled a bit with the use of the word “innovative” to describe some of the resources shared, and I’m not certain it’s necessary to decipher the differences between technology integration and technology infusion, but I think the fact that these conversations are starting to happen across our schools is an important first step. My final comment to the group during that session is that we have to stop focusing on the tool, and that we have to stop insisting teachers become the experts with technology. We have to focus on pedagogy. Teachers need to be partners in learning. We have to get tools in kids’ hands. We have to help students ask questions, dig deeper, work together to solve problems, and create evidence of learning. And we have to get out of their way.

Due to some scheduling conflicts I was disappointed I didn’t get to hear Paul Bogush or Shelly Blake-Plock speak, as they are two educators whose blogs I read regularly and whose ideas I respect greatly. I regret not having the chance to say hello to Paul, but it was great meeting Shelly for the first time. I missed out hearing David Timony, which was sad, because I always leave his sessions thinking that my brain really is out to get me. (That’s a good thing.) I know there are others I missed…

Laughs.

This was a day filled with positive energy. I was able to share some virtual laughs with Patrick and Andy before their session started. Aaron and Brian kept me on my toes all day, and our post-conference debriefing with Aaron, Adam, Dave Zirkle, Dr. Timony, and Mike Ritzius was full of good cheer. I love these days because I can honestly say some of the most enjoyable times I’ve experienced over the past few years have been in the company of those in my PLN. I’m one lucky learner.

Thanks, Eric, NMHS & students, sponsors, and attendees for an excellent day!

Go. See. Connect.

CC licensed photo shared by creativecommoners via Flickr

Connecting with others through social media? Good.

Getting too comfortable in the same circle of colleagues and not taking the time to branch out into new networks or interact with new members of the virtual community? Bad.

Over the past few weeks I had the privilege to meet, face-to-face (what a luxury!) some new friends at Pete & C, #ntcamp Burlington, and Teach Meet NJ… I’ve also connected with some pretty amazing folks on Twitter as of late, and I would like to share the wealth.

You may already know and love many of the people on this list, and I can imagine that to be true, because of the fantastic work they’re doing for kids. I regret I can’t spend more time listing the names of the hundreds of educators that influence me daily!

Mary Ann Reilly – one of my biggest regrets leaving TMNJ is that I didn’t get to meet Mary Ann. I enjoy reading her blog, engaging in discussions with her, most recently our #FocusASCD discussions about Schmoker’s new book, and she develops and shares the most fabulously detailed lists of global books for kids.

Chris Lindholm – Chris is an assistant superintendent from Minnesota. He blogs about many facets of leadership and is a great supporter of the resources and ideas shared on #cpchat!

Corrie Kelly – Corrie has been quick to respond to many of my queries about integrating technology into our classroom activities with elementary students. She is a valuable resource!

Pete Rodrigues – Pete is, first and foremost, a great sport who allows me to bust on him several times per week on Twitter. Great sense of humor aside, he is an aspiring administrator who shares meaningful thoughts about learning through his posts and virtual conversations. And at one point in his life, he built a suit of armor. #enoughsaid

M.E. Steele-Pierce – M.E. is an incredibly talented assistant superintendent of schools in Ohio. I enjoyed meeting her at Educon and recently have had the chance to work more closely with her for our contributions to Powerful Learning Practice‘s Voices for the Learning Revolution blog.

Ryan Bretag– Ryan’s blog, Metanoia, is a must-read for me. I am always impressed with his well-articulated ideas and his continual focus on student learning. Sometimes his posts make me think so hard my brain hurts. In a good way.

Kimberly Moritz – Kim is a very inspiring superintendent from New York. I had the chance to meet her at Educon and respect her tireless efforts for kids and her thoughtful blog posts.

Justin Stortz – Justin is sparking “new fires” of thought in everyone that encounters his tweets and reads his posts. I enjoy his contributions, particularly the discussions several of us had over clarity vs. content in student blogging.

Lesley Cameron – Lesley is a third grade teacher from Alberta, Canada, who shares her wonderful ideas and classroom happenings on her blog here. I appreciate her positivity, her willingness to take risks, and her dedication to her students. She clearly is becoming quite a leader in her school and beyond.

Marc Siegel – Marc was a participant in the session at #tmnj11 that I co-presented with Eric Sheninger. He was vocal in sharing his concerns about how to best influence his school and district administrators to move in a positive direction with change. Marc seemed genuinely invested in his students and helping make a difference in their lives. Check out his blog, too.

Greg Stickel – wins the positivity award. He is very supportive, comments regularly, shares resources freely, and is a great contributor to our virtual conversations. Hoping he starts to blog soon. 🙂

Again, there are many people here I didn’t highlight… but I’m thinking this may be a regular post topic…. who has been adding to your learning lately? Share with us!

Living on the edge.

Shared via Imagebase

Since much of the most relevant knowledge on the edge is tacit knowledge, edge participants naturally place a heavy emphasis on building diverse networks of relationships that will help them to collaborate more effectively with others in the creation of new knowledge. For this reason, conferences and other gatherings where participants can share stories and experiences, learn from each other, and identify potential collaborators become particularly prominent on edges. The Power of Pull (Brown, Davison, Hagel)

Do you live on the edge? Are you an educator who uses the power of pull to access, attract, and achieve in shared, passionate-filled learning spaces? Having recently attended Edcamp NYCEducon and Pete & C, with ntcamp Burlington to follow next weekend, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the educators involved in the passion-driven organization of these events harnessed the power of pull to make these learning experiences a reality for attendees. What’s so great about gathering together in these types of learning environments? Why do so many of us count down the days until the next Educon, Edcamp, Ntcamp, ISTE…  what’s in it for us?

As our passions become our professions, we begin to see how social networks can provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to achieve our potential by allowing us to access resources and attract people who can help us while we help them. We construct our own personal ecosystems, an interesting blend of local relationships and global relationships, and a mutual leveraging occurs.

Not long after arriving in Philadelphia for Educon, I was surrounded by familiar faces. How was that possible, considering I had never before met most of those with whom I interact in the Twitterverse? Because we’ve spent the last few months…years… connecting. We’ve reached out to one another in times of need, shared our excitement and successes, and revealed personal tidbits of our lives to help connect with one another. Throughout that weekend, I was able to engage in meaningful discussions about learning (and sometimes nonsense), breaking free of the 140-character limits to really get to start to build relationships with the educators in attendance. There was much laughter, camaraderie, and a little karaoke. Once the connections are made, they require attention. Forming meaningful relationships requires time and a lot of hard work. Those of us in attendance benefited from face-to-face interactions that provided a whole new insight into the hearts and minds of our colleagues. These interactions allowed us to identify those with whom we could exist “on the edge” and continue learning from.

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers.

Would you describe your school as a “fertile ground for innovation?” Most would not, although I think some of us are starting to see glimpses of what is truly possible! This is because in many organizations, businesses, and schools, push is the preferred mode of operation. Teams of administrators or policy makers forecast needs based on past performance, then design efficient systems using a standardized method to ensure that the right people and resources are available to meet system goals. We push standardized curriculum, lesson plans and strategies, and learning materials onto students and teachers. Push models treat consumers as passive recipients of information, and can lead to boredom and stress among program participants. These conditions are necessary in a push environment because they yield somewhat predictable results that can then feed into the cycle of forecast planning. Push programs are important when explicit knowledge is valued over tacit knowledge. But I do not believe any of us want our students to be passive, bored, and stressed recipients of information that may or may not be relevant to their lives and learning.

Pull differs from push in that it escapes institutional boundaries, seeks to help individuals realize their fullest potentials, and values knowledge flows and experiential knowledge more so than standardized bodies of unwavering factual knowledge. The authors of The Power of Pull examine three powerful levels of pull: access, attract, and achieve:

At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. At a second level, pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you were not even aware before that they existed. Think here of serendipity rather than search. Finally, in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull—the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential.

Pull also requires awareness of trajectory (what’s your vision?), sufficient leverage (how will we best use the passions and abilities of other people?), and the best pace (how fast will we move with these changes?) to make meaningful forward progress a reality in a world that’s constantly changing.

Sometimes it truly amazes me how I managed to assemble such a powerful learning network of educators in such a short period of time. Serendipitous encounters definitely played a role, facilitated by social media, as I know others have also experienced. We can’t be satisfied with the connections we’ve made, however, and not continue to branch out and bring new people to the edge. A comment that has often been made following an Edcamp or Educon is, “Well we’re all just preaching to the choir. Everyone here gets it.” Let’s get new people on board so they, too, can connect, build relationships, and contribute to the tacit knowledge flow that we all seek to learn from. As we increase the number of people we connect with, our ability to pull from that network grows. Doing so will help us all achieve the third level of pull, where we reach within ourselves to achieve our fullest potentials.

The subtitle of this book is How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. And isn’t that what we’re constantly discussing, debating, and detailing? The educational reform movement is a “big thing” that we are starting to put in motion with each one of our smartly made, small moves. We have to continue to connect, build relationships, share knowledge, and live on the edge to make our collective ideas the new reality for today’s students.

Cross-posted on Connected Principals