Constructive conversations

7554741094I recently had the opportunity to use World Cafe for supporting conversation and action with a fine group of educators at the Bucks-Lehigh Edusummit. Ross Cooper was my co-host. Our goal? To discuss how to break from traditional professional development practices to more meaningfully engage teachers in their learning.

I know. We talk about PD and how it doesn’t meet teachers’ needs. We talk about it a lot.

But do we listen? Do we act?

A single conference session is not enough time to fully engage in the World Cafe method, but by modeling its use, we hoped administrators and teacher leaders would leave the session inspired to try the process in their own schools and better engage teacher voices in planning professional learning opportunities.

World Cafe was born in the United States through the work of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in the early 1990s. From World Cafe’s About Us page:

The World Café (TWC)
Using seven design principles and a simple method, the World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter, offering an effective antidote to the fast-paced fragmentation and lack of connection in today’s world. Based on the understanding that conversation is the core process that drives personal, business, and organizational life, the World Café is more than a method, a process, or technique – it’s a way of thinking and being together sourced in a philosophy of conversational leadership.”

The essential elements hosts should include in a World Cafe experience include:

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Image via www.theworldcafe.com

After a brief introduction to World Cafe, it was time to identify a question. Defining a “question that matters” is an essential element of World Cafe. A good question has no right or wrong response, evokes emotion, invites inquiry, opens up new possibilities, and perhaps even makes people feel a bit uncomfortable.

Our question for the day:

How do we break from traditional methods of professional development to engage teachers in more passion-based, purposeful professional learning?

We divided into three groups. Each table identified a “table host” who would remain at the table throughout all rotations and inform the next set of participants what the previous group discussed. Timer went up, and the conversations started.

Documentation of learning is important in World Cafe. In our abbreviated version we used digital means to document. One table started a set of Google Slides to share their reflections and others contributed to a shared Google Doc. Given more time in a more formal World Cafe, I would cover the tables in chart or drawing paper and provide markers and other types of artistic media for those who wished to document their learning through doodling or other creative means. Each table’s documentation is then shared out at the end of the cafe in a process known as the Harvest.

Conversations emerged quickly and passionately. Ideas emerge organically from community voices using World Cafe. World Cafe hosts do not facilitate or provide protocols for discussions. World Cafe operates under “recognition of conversation as a core meaning-making process”. I noticed nearly every participant in the room sharing openly in their table groups. It took some longer than others to open up and be comfortable with the format. As I introduced World Cafe, I definitely got a few incredulous looks from teachers who showed up to the session and were perhaps annoyed I wasn’t going to be providing any concrete materials or ideas.

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Some of the conversations included stories about negative experiences with PD, and while I would have preferred things were framed in a more constructive light, I think when we ask people to share their experiences and speak from the heart, they aren’t going to censor out the difficult experiences they’ve had. From one such conversation, a teacher expressed her frustration with being asked to implement initiatives that were hastily rolled out, without teacher input or consideration of whether the new initiatives were really worth teachers’ and students’ time. During the Harvest, she very passionately stated that traditional methods of professional development “do not allow teachers to be creative risk-takers”, and yet that is a quality we seek to instill in our students every day.

Tony Sinanis, my friend and the conference’s keynote, addressed the group as we wrapped and said that he heard everyone discussing the importance of involving teachers in the professional learning process, and in his school, he actually involved students and parents in the process too. Could you imagine if more schools asked children what types of learning experiences they should design for their teachers?

Overall I felt this was a successful session thanks to the willingness of participants to contribute. We received positive feedback from many participants. A middle school principal said he was looking forward to using the technique in his school and another participant said it was the best session she attended thus far. Sometimes our teachers need more than “150 tech tips and tricks” to help them think constructively and innovatively about teaching and learning.

“Talk is cheap”? Perhaps, but if you truly listen to what your constituents need and then you devise a plan of action to address it, that combination of acknowledgment of needs and a willingness to act will help organizations grow.

Resources shared with session participants can be found here.

If you plan professional development opportunities for your organization, consider involving more voices in the process using World Cafe. Have you used World Cafe? Would love for you to share your experiences in the comments!

Coaching and feelings.

Photo by Peter Alfred Hess via Flickr CC
Photo by Peter Alfred Hess via Flickr CC

I’m developing online courses using an LMS I’ve never used to author anything before. I won’t name the LMS, you can probably guess which of those available might be the only one to frustrate me to the point of actual tears. For serious. Tears came out of my eyes.

I found it so counterintuitive, organized in a way that, to me, was overwhelming and confusing and redundant and alarmingly annoying and with every second I was forced to interact with it, I wanted to scream. My blood pressure raised, breathing became faster… I vented to my husband and yes, indeed, he agreed that the platform was frustrating to work with, that it wasn’t just me, and several in my PLN agreed.

But that doesn’t much matter, because I don’t get to choose the tool. The organization does. And the point of this post isn’t to say it’s the right or wrong decision or all instructors should be able to choose their platform because certainly that would create issues with continuity and what not.

For heaven’s sake, I’m a tech coach! I can’t be so easily frustrated by technology! Can I?!

What this experience made me realize is that, beyond having someone show me click-by-click where I needed to go to add elements to my course, beyond accessing the readily available video and screencast tutorials for the LMS, I needed someone to empathize with my situation.

I needed someone to care.

I needed a coach.

A skilled coach can sense that you’re struggling. Can look at the situation and try to understand why. What elements of the situation are causing angst? What skills, if acquired, will help reduce anxiety and lead to success? What strategies can the coach use to simultaneously calm your fears, address your concerns, and enhance your skill set?

Some teachers aren’t open to coaching, not because they wouldn’t appreciate the development, but because they’re not comfortable admitting they’re uncomfortable. They don’t want to let their guards down. We see a teacher who’s reluctant to innovate and we consider them stubborn, traditional, grounded in their ways. What they allow us to see isn’t enough to understand why. We need to know what they’re feeling.

If you’re a teacher struggling, whether it’s with technology integration or with a new instructional strategy, don’t be afraid to communicate honestly about your emotions surrounding the situation. That can only help your coach better design support strategies for you.

If you’re a coach and you don’t acknowledge the feelings of those with whom you work, you’re doing it wrong. The person comes first. Development won’t happen without essential relationship-building.

My increasing frustration working with a new LMS made me realize that when I coach teachers, I need to find out why they’re nervous or reluctant about tech integration, why they’re over-the-top zealous about it, why they display negative feelings about it. Everyone’s past experiences shape them as a teacher, as a learner, as a leader. I know I didn’t always put feelings first in my approach to working with teachers, and I would go back and change some of my strategies if I could.

The real value of a coach is having someone willing to be by your side when the learning gets tough. Whether it’s coach-teacher, teacher-student, admin-teacher, remember to acknowledge the fears, the needs, the aspirations of the person you’re learning alongside.

 

Reconsidering what’s “required”

Busy student bloggers. Blogging isn’t “required”… should we make time for it?

Recently I read a post by my friend Bill Ferriter titled Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Bill shares this article that states that instruction centered on facts has largely failed our students. Teachers are handed required curricula, complete with scope and sequence, and in some schools teachers are expected to teach lesson A on day 1 and lesson B on day 2 and continue onward and upward and they’d better make sure they cover everything that’s expected to be covered. This approach leaves some kids in the dust and fails to challenge others. And it completely overwhelms teachers. I tackled that in a post years ago.

The top form of resistance I encounter as an instructional technology coach when trying to urge teachers to consider the use of more inquiry or project-based, technology-infused activities in their classrooms is their fear of losing time and therefore not being able to cover the required curriculum.

Bill, a teacher in practice, tells it like it is:

If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

As a former principal, I’d prefer to stumble upon those moments of “genuine discovery” in my classrooms rather than check a teacher’s lesson plans to ensure they’re on track to cover required curriculum. Not all leaders share that mentality, however. Because standards and testing and accountability. What if a teacher gives her students the freedom to spend time blogging in class, but her students’ mid-term reading proficiency scores aren’t any better than any other students’ scores? Should they carry on? Do we stop to consider the “untestable” impact of their blogging practices? Their connections to other classes and cultures worldwide? Their constantly improving writing practices and the digital citizenship skills learned? Perhaps the principal is concerned because due to blogging, these students are losing time completing the lessons of the prescribed language arts curriculum. But if we’re not inspiring and challenging our kids and allowing them to make important discoveries leading to enduring understandings, then “covering” curriculum doesn’t much matter, does it?

The comments on Bill’s post also made me ponder our ready access to information and how we find it and use it. We’ve all heard the “If you can Google the answer, it’s not a good question” argument and “If kids can look up the answers online to cheat, then it’s not a good assessment” line. Perhaps, although every question and every assessment has its own context worth considering. David Jakes goes on to reply that he uses Google to answer questions every single day, which allows him to better understand the work he’s doing. And, as David says, they shouldn’t be the only questions we’re asking, but they help us make connections that lead to bigger understandings.  I have to agree.

Sometimes I think teachers quickly email a colleague or submit a help desk ticket to tech support or their instructional coach without pausing to think, The resources I need to answer this question are readily available to me. I can find the answer to this. 

I want to tell them: Google it. Seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I received a query for help, I typed the exact question into Google, and seconds later the answer was listed for me in step-by-step format. Next I’d relay this information to the inquirer either by linking to the answer online or by summarizing it. In the time it took the staff member to compose an email with their question, they could have conducted online research to find the answer themselves.

Would the learning be more powerful if the teacher or administrator conducted the search on his own? Struggled through the process a little? Discovered new venues through which to answer questions?

I think so. And we’d be modeling something powerful for our students. I hear teachers complain constantly that our kids stink at Google searches… are we any better?

Would it take more time? Perhaps. What I think many don’t realize is that “tech savvy” folks aren’t tech savvy because they are born that way. They devote themselves as learners first. The learning is hands-on and minds-on. They’ve Googled. They’ve trial and error-ed their way through developing blogs and learning the ins and outs of Google Drive and have connected with other educators to make sure they surround themselves with people who are smart and willing to share. And much of these learned content and skills are not “required.”

The freedom to veer from the required curriculum requires administrators who believe in their teachers’ abilities to learn alongside their students and to roll with it… to identify students’ needs and passions and provide them with the FREEDOM to learn. A curriculum is great, it’s neat, it can serve, when well-written, as a guide for teachers to help students know and understand important content. But we can’t expect our teachers to innovate given the constraints we’ve placed them under. It’s very possible to provide this type of freedom while still maintaining high expectations for learning. I’d wager you may even have some happier, less-stressed teachers and students on your hands. #eduwin

I will continue to ponder how we can best free teachers and students from the constraints of what’s “required” to provide conditions better suited for innovation… would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve made this happen in your schools!


P.S. I’m on leave from my tech coaching position this semester, blessed with the opportunity to keep a new, tiny human nourished and entertained while simultaneously giving her older brother the exact same amount of love he had in his pre-baby-sister-days and maintaining some semblance of an organized household. #supermomma

Given those responsibilities I still can’t stop reading and connecting and learning, it’s a curse. I’ll also continue consulting and presenting and webinaring so be sure to contact me if you and your organization are looking for an energetic, passionate learner and leader!

Blogs and Smores and Texts, Oh My!

This summer I worked on solidifying the ways in which I communicate with my staff to support their learning. As an instructional technology coach who works in three elementary schools with 100+ staff, digital communication is essential. I can’t be in every school every day, and I certainly don’t have the luxury of face time with all of my teachers on a consistent basis. Now in my third year of coaching, I feel like I have established a communication plan that is going to work well for us. I will keep tweaking and evaluating the effectiveness of what I share, but here are some ways I’ve going to reach out and stay connected with my staff this year:

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Elementary Instructional Technology Blog – This Edublogs site (our district uses Edublogs K-12) is my main hub for communication. A place where I share resources weekly, house content provider and device tutorials and must-knows for teachers, and link to other important spaces and places like our @elancoelem Twitter and Pinterest feeds. Whenever I receive an email question re: “How do I do this?” or “What are the login credentials for that?”, the answer is almost always found in this space. I encourage teachers to subscribe by email, and although I don’t email blast every post I write, I do, on occasion, email the elementary staff en mass with a link to a blog post that I feel is beneficial to everyone.

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The Google – This summer I published a 2015-16 Elementary Tech Updates Google doc, shared internally via GAFE. I utilized Google Doc’s Table of Contents feature to allow teachers to jump to topics of interest and it helped better organize the updates. Did every staff member read it? I’m not sure, but there’s pertinent information there that they’ll definitely need to know before starting the year. If I receive a question that’s answered on the doc, I’ll reference it and make sure teachers know how to access it and to read it as soon as possible. I’ve used Google Drive shared folders to share unit or lesson resources easily with teams, teachers, and administrators, and I’ll use Google Classroom with staff to support some asynchronous professional learning opportunities this year. In addition, since our elementary schools run on a common schedule, we’re going to to utilize Google Hangouts during common planning times so I can meet virtually with two schools while I’m physically meeting with the third, allowing a PD session to expand to all three buildings and not limit the learning to where I am physically stationed. We’re hoping this platform inspires our teachers to reach out to one another across building lines more often! The secondary tech coach and I also use Google Forms to ask teachers to self-evaluate on the Spartan Digital Competencies we’ve developed, and to set goals for the year in instructional tech integration. This allows us to better focus our coaching efforts.
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Smore – I fell in love with Smore’s easy to use interface and designs for creating interactive flyers a few years ago, and I’ve been using them to create Tech Tidbits to share on the elem tech blog and through social media channels. I plan to continue using Smore to share resources I find while browsing online. Its ability to easily incorporate text, photos, videos, and links, as well as share via link or embed code, makes it a no-brainer choice for me to spice up my communications!

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Remind – My first experience with Remind (then Remind 101) was about five years ago when I was elementary principal, and we signed up for the service to announce weather-related closings and delays to staff, eliminating the need for a clunky phone chain. (No one wants to answer the phone at 5 AM on a potential snow day!) I loved that it was opt-in, that there was no exchange of phone numbers or email addresses, and that it was dead simple to communicate quickly with a large number of people. I didn’t consider using it to support professional learning until Kyle Pace shared his strategy of connecting with conference participants to continue sharing resources with his Kyle’s GAFE Tips & Resources class. What a great idea! I love receiving Kyle’s updates via text. I read a lot on my mobile device, and it’s simple to access his shared links, be inspired, and save them to spaces where I can access later.

This year I’ll use the Mrs. Hilt’s Tech Tidbits class to share resources, tips and tricks via Remind. Join us! Here are the instructions to join my class:

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 9.05.18 AMHere’s the full set of directions if you’d prefer to subscribe via email. I plan to start sending updates once the school year begins later this month, and I promise not to bombard the system!

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Wired Wednesdays – This year I’m offering after-school, hour-long professional learning sessions on a variety of tech topics. Since the elementary has a limited amount of common planning time devoted to instructional tech PD, I’m hoping teachers will take advantage of these sessions and join me for some fun Wednesday afternoons!

Along with face-to-face team meetings and check-ins with teachers, I’m hoping these digital communication strategies will help inspire my teachers and provide them with the resources they need to successfully use technology to support student learning!

How will you communicate with staff and your school community this year?

What’s changed for you?

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In 2011, I attended my first ISTE. Shortly thereafter, I wrote this.

It was a post about a list and Klout scores and who’s who and what I learned from my experiences at ISTE. How I most enjoyed seeing student displays, how exciting it was to meet members of my PLN face-to-face, how I was honored to be part of the Connected Principals panel moderated by Scott McLeod, and how irritating it was to witness adult social interactions mirroring those of immature junior-high school students.

With ISTE 2015 only a few weeks away, it’s interesting how my thoughts about being a connected educator, integrating technology into teaching & learning, and engagement with social media have shifted over the past four years.

In 2011, I was newly connected. I had an emerging following and people read my blog. On the post I linked above? Over 15 people commented. Blog posts today? Comments are hard to come by. I’ve heard the same feedback from other bloggers.

How is it that I have 10,000+ more followers than I did in 2011, but fewer people engage with my content? I did reduce the amount of time I spent in these spaces after my son was born – my bad, I guess, for needing to be a mother to a newborn and an educator – and sadly I can say as a direct result of my hiatus, I received fewer requests to connect and work with schools over that time.

So, what’s changed? How was 2011 different than 2015? How does being a connected educator then compare with being a connected educator now?

Maybe my newer stuff is crap. Perhaps I was only interesting when I was a principal. I don’t blog as much as I used to. Sometimes I find it extraordinarily difficult to think of things to blog about. I don’t want to blog for the sake of blogging simply because at one point I was a more prolific blogger.

It’s easier to engage with others’ content in ways that are far less rewarding or meaningful. RTs, Likes, 1+s… it’s a click, a tap. An acknowledgment. It’s not engagement, though.

There are a lot more educators in the Twittersphere and social spaces discussing education. (I use the word discuss loosely.) What this means is that I have to more carefully craft the lists of people I follow to ensure my feeds aren’t getting bombarded with absolute nonsense. And lately that’s becoming more difficult to do. It’s why I appreciate our tech coaches’ Google+ community. People are there because they want to be. Because I moderate the posts. Because you have to be an approved member.

When Andy and I talked about the need to reinvent our PLNs, we did so because we’ve been noticing these changes. We see the same garbage shared over and over again, and we see people sharing and resharing it. And that’s frustrating. We see the same voices rise to the top, drowning out the voices that need most to be heard. We see Twitter chats. We look away. We see cats talking lifelong learning. And we’re okay with that. (Oh, and Andy and I are going to talk learning environments at ISTE 2015. You should come. Monday at 2:30! Oh, and I’m talking digital competencies and badges with my colleague Tim on Wednesday at 8:30! You should come!)

So, if you’re still reading, what’s changed for you? Since the start of your connected educator journey, to now… what’s different? What’s improved? What’s on the decline? What strategies do you use to make the most out of your experiences? How do you anticipate #ISTE2015 (or any ed conference) to be different now, than back then?

And don’t tell me I need to be gentle with educators new to these spaces, because I don’t want to hear it. It’s not fair to them. Let’s be real and honest about what these interactions mean to us, how they have changed us, for better or worse, and how to make their experiences worthwhile.

Would love to read your comments.

Or not. Just RT the post.

Don’t forget to include my handle.

I Remember.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons

I remember building with blocks. Naps on mats. Performing in a Christmas play.

I remember being asked to sit in my teacher’s rocking chair and read Charlotte’s Web to my peers sitting on the carpet while she stepped into the hallway to take a phone call.

I remember phonics workbooks. I remember the day I spelled “of” as “uv” on a spelling test, and I was utterly and abashedly disappointed in myself.

I remember walking to school with my brothers. I remember recess. We played by the trees, we dug in the dirt, we gathered acorns, we listened to Thriller on our “portable” cassette players, and we had pretend weddings.

I remember the Challenger explosion being broadcast on a television on a cart in front of the wall of windows in our cafeteria as we sat and ate lunch.

I remember field days. I remember three-legged races with my best friend, a full head taller than me. We won first place every year.

I remember moving to a new town and a new school at an impressionable age. I remember not having any friends. I remember sobbing at my desk. I remember teachers who showed compassion.

I remember when my teacher read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows and nicknamed me Little Ann.

I remember math facts fluency speed games and wanting to win. I remember the first time I got an F on a quiz. Early Explorers. I remember that was the day I stopped enjoying social studies.

I remember falling asleep in class while my peers recited The Gettysburg Address. We all had to do it. I remember my teacher waking me up with a smile and telling me I could go to recess. I remember the next day, my teacher put a Peanuts comic strip of Lucy falling asleep in school on my desk as a clever way to remind me of that funny thing that happened.

I remember Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on an Apple IIE and relishing every day it was my assigned day to the computer.

I remember The Westing Game read aloud, which continues to be my favorite book of all time.

I remember my science log. We drew pictures and added captions to help us understand the concepts we were learning. I remember that I was a sketchnoter before sketchnoting was a thing.

I remember having the same classes with the same group of kids through all of grades 7 and 8. And how we developed as peers and friends and foes. I remember electives. I remember choreographing a dance routine to C & C Music Factory’s Everybody Dance Now in eighth grade PE.

I remember writing notes back and forth in a journal with my best friends, sometimes using secret languages, passing them to one another between (during?) classes or delivering notebooks to lockers. #thatwasoursocialmedia

I remember the smells associated with cutting open a frog. And freshly cut grass right before field hockey practice. And catcher’s equipment. And baking pancakes in home economics.

I remember sitting on a sidewalk with a stopwatch, timing cars as they pass to learn s=d/t.

I remember reading plays and comparing/contrasting them to contemporary musicals. I love musicals.

I remember a chemistry teacher telling his class to listen. To look at him, listen to his words, think, and then write notes. Listen.

I remember the Notre Dame fight song, note for note, because our Algebra teacher used it to signal two minutes remaining during test time.

I remember performing in plays and laughter with classmates. I remember journal writing in high school English and making up an entire book I then wrote a book report about and submitted it to a long-term substitute thinking I was the cleverest gal around.

I remember our U.S. Government teacher taking the small handful of students who didn’t ditch school to try to see President Clinton at the local university to a country store, a few miles from school, because he received a tip the President would be stopping there en route home. I remember shaking the hand of, talking to, and being photographed with the President of the United States.

I remember projects and teamwork. I remember my teachers’ smiles. I remember their stories and their laughter. I remember being able to feel which teachers were passionate about working with their students, and those that weren’t so much.

I remember learning how to be a teacher, and falling in love with the craft.

I remember my first class of my own. I remember loving those kids and that experience to infinite amounts and being grateful for the opportunity to serve them.

I remember the good in school because these memories shaped me to become the educator I am today.

These memories don’t happen without teachers. 

Here’s to appreciating teachers every day, everywhere.

What do you remember?

 

Why not?

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Scott McLeod has issued a #makeschooldifferent challenge and asks us to acknowledge 5 ways of doing business in schools and how to think differently about what it means to teach and learn to support today’s learners.

Instead of…. why not? 

Instead of teachers defining all intended learning outcomes for students and plastering them on whiteboards and in lesson plans, why not let the learners ask the questions, develop plans, research, dig deeper, question again, draw conclusions, and share findings? (Subjective outcomes? Worth exploring: #rhizo15)

Instead of…. why not? 

Instead of attributing a child’s lack of success to his home life or his chosen peer group or his refusal to do homework or his off-task behavior, why not sit with him during lunch and inquire more about who he is, what he feels, and what he needs from you as an educator in his life who cares about him?

Instead of…. why not? 

Instead of holding pep rallies and celebrations and hosting fun events for kids during standardized testing weeks, why not make every day a day in school a worth celebrating? Because feelings.

Instead of …. why not?

Instead of micromanaging every minute of teachers’ professional development time, why not ask teachers to lead the way? What are their strengths? Needs? How can you incorporate teacher-led learning opportunities through edcamps and innovation days and action planning cohorts and world cafes and other ways to transform professional learning? Why not build capacity within your organization by making teachers leaders?

Instead of …. why not?

Instead of saying to yourself, “Nothing I have to say would be valuable to anyone else” – “I have nothing interesting to contribute to online learning spaces” – “No one wants to read what I would tweet or blog about” – “I am comfortable being a lurker” – why not watch this and this, start surrounding yourself with inspiring educators who contribute, and become a contributor yourself. We will thank you. You will thank you. Your students will thank you.

Why not?

 

I’m not going to tag 5 specific members of my Poetic Ladybug Network, but I’m going to insist some of you who read this write your own response to Scott’s challenge. 🙂

About a community.

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Last week at IntegratED in Portland (a conference filled with crazy-inspiring people, blog post on that coming soon), I had the chance to facilitate a session about developing digital learning communities using Google+.

We explored driving questions such as, What are the essential ingredients of a strong learning community? Of a digital learning community? Are they one and the same? Can they be? Should they be? Participants shared their thoughts on communities here, and together we summarized the responses into five essential components of a powerful learning community:

  1. Active participation
  2. Trusting culture
  3. Openness to new ideas and new learnings/willingness to learn by participants/risk taking
  4. Purposeful, goal-driven
  5. Connecting out to a wider community -outreach

So, how can a digital learning space like a Google+ community help support these ideals? The goals of the participants were varied. Some wanted to join pre-established Google+ communities to grow professionally. Others wanted to set up their own communities to promote sharing among their local colleagues and beyond. We then considered some key questions when both searching for communities to join and creating new spaces.

“Is it a place you want to spend your time?”

Two years ago I started the Instructional Technology Integrators and Coaches community, with the intent of finding support among other educators in the technology specialist/coaching roles as I transitioned to a new position in my district. Full disclosure: I created this community out of pure selfishness. I wanted to surround myself with people that were smarter and more resourceful than me to support my work in schools.

Now, with over 3,500 members (and yes, I realize they’re not all contributing members), the community has blossomed into an active space where educators can pose questions, share resources, provide feedback, and search through archived conversations on topics ranging from collaborative learning activities to account management to digital citizenship to best practices in a 1:1 classroom.

It is a place I like to be. I enjoy reading each and every post and the responses that follow. Moderating duties do not exhaust or irritate me. (Although as more members joined, I did seek help moderating- thankful for Doug and Susan who also devote their time to this community!) Which brings me to more questions to consider.

“Do you believe in the community’s purpose? Is it moderated by people who care? How can you tell?”

From the beginning, I did not want this community to become a place where people simply linked to their blog posts or shared their edu-events or plugged their stuff without engaging other members of the community. Do people occasionally do this? Yes, they do. I miss the boat sometimes and maybe should remove more promotional posts than I do. But if a post is flagged as spam, even from a reputable educator, it’s usually because the post was shared out among several communities. And, if there was no other content added to the post aside from the link, I typically choose not to post it in our community. All members have to be approved before they can post. I look at the profile of each member who requests to join, searching for some sign of an educational affiliation. I don’t approve requests from companies or vendors, even those with an edtech focus. I block people who take advantage of their memberships, and remind people of our community’s purpose via comments on their posts and in posts I write.

In a digital learning community, just as in a real time, face-to-face community, purpose matters. Intent matters. Etiquette matters. Respect matters. Members in our community freely give their time, ideas, and feedback to others. They deserve to learn in a space that honors what they give as professionals.

To make the most of your experience in a Google+ community, find (or create) a community that has a clear purpose, is well organized, has moderators that help make the learning experience streamlined and meaningful, promotes opportunities for discussions, has a variety of resources shared around the common purpose, displays evidence of respectful participation and engagement among a diverse membership, and openly accepts and encourages members’  critical questions, thoughts, and ideas.

Google+ communities as well as Hangouts and other community tools can help create spaces for “intellectual collisions” that can promote sharing and innovation in your organization. But the success of this type of community has little to do with the technological aspects of the shared space and much more so with the people involved. While Google announced earlier this week that Google+ was undergoing some changes, I don’t believe Communities will be leaving us anytime soon. But, even if they do, I know there are a band of people who will come along with me to whatever space we inhabit next.

Find yourself some good people. I am thankful each and every day for the voices that contribute to our community.

Here are my slides from the session and here’s the link to the page where participants accessed resources.

How are you using Google+ communities in your teaching, learning, and professional growth?