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Growing a professional learning network (PLN) requires reaching beyond the known to connect and reflect with fellow educators around the world.
Essentially, no educator should be teaching in a vacuum, asserted Shaelynn Farnsworth and Steven Anderson in their Sunday afternoon session "Cultivating and Growing Your Professional Learning Network."
"Teaching is hard—it's one of the hardest things we can do as adults, and imagine trying to do that alone," said Anderson, coauthor of The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning. "But there are millions and millions of educators who do teach alone every day." Instead, Anderson suggested applying an educational shift to platforms teachers use every day—like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat—to connect to others in the field in a meaningful way.
The goal for educators is to use technology to stay relevant among their students, and the way to maintain relevancy in today's connected world is to connect with one another, Anderson asserted. "The kids that we teach are connected to each other more than ever before." Anderson continued, "As adults, if we want to create kids that do that in the best way possible and provide a rich learning experience, then we ourselves as educators and teachers and learners need to connect with each other."
Farnsworth, a literacy and school improvement consultant, added that becoming a well-connected teacher involves seven key tasks: collaborating with others, sharing understanding, asking for feedback, seeking out experts, applying new learning, admitting mistakes, and reflecting. "Through that reflection at the very end is where you find your strengths and your gaps and figure out where to find different resources, not only for yourself but for your kids or teachers you support," she said.
Farnsworth and Anderson presented several tactics for using social media platforms to help grow a professional learning network and become a well-connected educator.
Farnsworth used Twitter in her 12th grade classroom in Iowa to bring lessons from Albert Camus's existential novel The Stranger a little closer to home.
"I knew that I wanted my kids to connect outside of four walls," she said. Farnsworth took to Twitter and posted a public tweet asking for help teaching the complex concept of existentialism to her class.
Farnsworth said she received a response from an International Baccalaureate philosophy teacher in Sweden named Mr. Noonan and ended up forging a relationship with his class from the other side of the world. What began as virtual lectures on existentialism via Google hangouts eventually manifested in a nine-day trip with her students to Sweden in 2012 to meet students in his class in person, Farnsworth said.
Anderson also suggested that teachers follow trending education-related hashtags—like #STEM or #EdChat—and start leveraging Twitter's chat feature to gather with fellow educators online by using the Educational Twitter Chat Calendar.
One of the biggest barriers when it comes to starting a blog is figuring out where to start, Anderson noted. "People think, 'Oh, I have to write about something people are interested in,' he said. "Just write—write about something you're good at."
For instance, Anderson noted that an instructional coach who interfaces with teachers constantly could use her expertise to write a simple post consisting of four pointers outlining suggestions for how teachers could improve their content areas. "You have to think about your audience, but you have to think about what matters to you first," Anderson said.
Blogging doesn't necessarily require advanced WordPress or online publishing know-how, Anderson added. Educators can simply open a word processor, add their content, and make a post live through existing forums like the ASCD EDge. "You don't necessarily need anything extra," Anderson said. "It all starts with just writing."
"A lot of people don't see Snapchat as a tool for learning," Farnsworth said, but the video snippet?sharing platform can be just as effective for sharing learning as for sharing selfies. Farnsworth recounted the story of one psychology teacher she knew who had his students post brief clips where they discussed their biggest course takeaways to the class Snapchat story. The clips helped the students reflect on what they'd learned in a public way, and the videos could be downloaded and archived for later learning.
Anderson added that Snapchat's notorious 10-second disappearing feature makes the platform especially helpful in an age of information overload. "Some stories deserve to be saved, but other stories don't need to be told over and over again," he said. "We need to make room for the next thing."
At the end of the day, Anderson and Farnsworth cautioned, not every social media platform works for every educator or every classroom, but the goal is to find one or two that work and go deep. Ultimately, building a professional learning network is about finding value in the relationships and growing as a lifelong learner.
"Sometimes the tool itself doesn't matter; it's who you connect with," Anderson said. "The tool is just the medium you use to do it.
Emily McCormick is a third-year student at UCLA with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Entrepreneurship and Music History. She is also currently the Music | Arts editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin. Contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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