Monthly Archives: July 2010

Why Go to an Unconference?

I have now been to two unconferences for educators, edcamps, and I want to encourage any educator who has the chance to attend one. First let me explain what an unconference is for those who have never heard of one. It is a free conference that is organized to give the participants an opportunity to share their ideas and questions with the other people who attend. It is not about keynote speakers and major presentations; it is also not about vendors and big name sponsors.  It is a conference that is based around the idea that teachers teaching and sharing with each other can be a very powerful way to learn. An unconference usually starts with 1-2 hours to socialize and to plan presentations. It is an opportunity to catch up with friends and to make new ones. It is a time that allows teachers space to pull together ideas that they might want to share or questions that they might want to frame a conversation around. It gives all those who attend that wonderful commodity of Time.

As people decide that they want to share a new idea or tool that they use, or that they have a topic for a conversation that they want to facilitate, they go and sign up for a session, choosing a time slot that works for them. The board slowly fills up with the variety that is represented amongst the educators at the conference. It can be anything from “How to Build a Classroom Website and Why?” to “Is it Possible to teach creatively with the demands of testing?” Each educator then chooses what he/she wants to learn about and discuss and heads to that session. One of the primary rules of an unconference is “The Rule of Two Feet.” If you get to a session and it is not meeting your needs or is too easy or complicated for what you are after, you simply move to another. The point of the day is for everyone to learn and grow. It is not an insult to whomever is leading the session if you vote with your feet; it is simply a sign that they need something else at the moment.

There is an amazing power and energy in an unconference. Teachers are giving up their free time to come and talk to one another. Those with something to share, offer it and those in need of help, ask for it. As those who attend collaborate, there is a powerful energy created. The isolation of the classroom teacher is broken. There are suddenly lots of people who want to help and support what is going on for other teachers. The first edcamp was in Philadelphia last May. There are now many more popping up around the country. Check out the edcamp website, for a location near you or to get information on how to start one. There are lots of people who have been involved who would love to help.

Summer Can’t Be What It Used To Be!

We all remember those summers of old, when we were kids or when we first started teaching. We counted the days until the end of the school year, eager for the peace and quiet, with no assignments to complete and no deadlines, just hours and hours of time. When I first started teaching, summer was a wonderful time of dropping all of the balls that I juggled during the year. I walked away from my classroom, having refiled all of the papers and organized all of the book shelves. I was done until I started again in the Fall. I closed the door and didn’t look back. Summer was for refreshment, to reenergize after the months of focusing on kids and their needs. It was time for myself, for reading books that captured my imagination but had little intellectual value; for gardening and pruning; for spending time with friends and talking over tall glasses of iced tea. I am not sure where that summer went, but it has flown into a distant past.

In today’s world of 2.0 learning and change, summer is a time to catch up on all that I need and want to learn before it is time to start back in the classroom again. I have lists of articles to read, dozens saved in my Diigo files that I bookmarked all year. There are tools to experiment with and websites to build. I have two week-long conferences to attend, 3 workshops to teach, an online course to complete and a new curriculum to develop, all before Labor Day. And I do not think that I am unusual.

Teachers in today’s world have to use their summers for professional development and enrichment. It is imperative for us to stay abreast of the latest thinking about how to educate the students in our classrooms. We do not know the world that they will look for jobs in, because it does not exist yet. If we want to give them our best, we need to be constant students ourselves, modeling active learning so they will know how to grow and adapt to their changing world.

If we take off a year or two from learning what is out there for education or if we simply stay with what is already familiar, we will not be able to provide what is the best for our students. As Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century are not those that cannot read or write, but those that can not learn, unlearn and relearn.” We need to commit ourselves to being active learners, pushing beyond our own boundaries, unlearning the parts that no longer best support our students, and adding what will accomplish it. We need to stop allowing ourselves to teach our students skills of the 20th century, because we were not willing to learn the ones of the 21st.

I used to struggle in August with how I would pick up all of the balls that I had so eagerly let fall to the ground when I left school in June. From the 1st of August on, the task loomed over me, knowing that somehow I had to get them all flying again. Now I am finding that I have to find time to say “Stop,” to carve out time when my hands aren’t flying over my keyboard, communicating with people around the globe on how we can best do our jobs. Summer has become my designated time to be a learner, a student once again. And now part of my task is to remember to take the Down Time, because the learning and sharing is exhilarating work! I hope you will all join me in it! Please, let me know how you grow and learn in your times off!

So Just What is a PLN?

One of the ongoing questions when I was in Denver at the ISTE conference was “What is a PLN? ” and “What is its value?” The conversation started on Saturday with a discussion about what does it mean to say that you have or are part of a PLN. What is “personal” or “professional” about it? Are people who use the term actually “learning”? And what does it mean to say that it is a “network”? This conversation was followed up by one  on how Twitter is used by educators. He is looking at the different Tweets and whether or not they are social or professional, and whether or not they are valid and informative. All of which got me to thinking about what PLN means to me.

I use Twitter almost daily to listen to the conversation and to share my ideas. In my experience, it started out simply as a forum for learning. I used it as a means of professional development. I found educators to follow who were sharing resources that I would never have seen. When I read an article that was informative or insightful, I retweeted it, sending it on to the people who followed me. I have Google Reader set up, but I do not use it anywhere as much as I use Twitter. That is partly because my Reader is more intimidating – even though I am the one who set it up! There are always more articles there than I can face reading. On Twitter, I can just pause for what grabs my eye. I know that this means that I am in charge of my learning, rather than having it be more objective, but I find that I am reading more than I ever was before from professional resources. I think that many people start on Twitter for this reason. They want to learn and grow in an ever-changing world, and Twitter is a known resource for helping that growth.

Is it truly professional? Past of the discussion was that much of what happens on Twitter is social, rather than professional. While I initially questioned that, I am beginning to understand what he means. After two years or so on Twitter, there are many people that I interact with there who have become my friends. They are not simply small Twitter photos but are unique individuals, many of whom I have now met and shared face-to-face conversations. Those that I have not met face-to-face are people whose ideas I could easily identify. I care about them as people, rather than as simply sources for my own learning. This has turned my time on Twitter into a social experience. I am still learning from it, but I am learning from people that I consider colleagues, not simply people to follow. It has changed my sense of my time on Twitter, adding weight to what I learn there. I know who I trust the most among the people I follow. (When I have time, I will actually take the time to review whom I follow.)

The final issue was about the use of the word “network.” Is it a network or is it a community? “Network” was being used to describe an impersonal connection that simply was based in professional interactions. For me, that is exactly what Twitter was when I started. I went there simply for my own growth and took from it whatever interested me. It was not about developing relationships. Over time, however, those relationships grew. There were people who responded to me and shared their ideas and work with me. Through those exchanges, we made tentative and then deep connections. They responded when I asked a question, and I responded when they did. Impersonal connections turned into relationships, which are at the heart of community. Some of those are still very slight, but there are others that have become rich and deep.

While some of the conversations about what a PLN is were simply about semantics, it is worth the time to consider what it is that we are talking about when we use the term. Are we using it in a way that will draw others in or simply to make them feel left out? Do we want to open our community or keep it exclusive? When we talk about Twitter, are we opening doors or making ourselves look exclusive, part of a slightly odd “In Crowd”? That part of the conversation is very important, if we believe that the best education for our students comes from reaching beyond the walls of our classrooms and interacting with educators around the world. We need to make the doors to this group wide open and inviting. Are we doing that?