How mainstream are PLNs anyways?

Reflection

I have been building my personal learning network over the last couple of years with a more rigorous engagement in the last few months, and I have recently been asking myself a few questions about how widespread the idea of developing a personal learning network may be. I am planning on presenting on how teachers (ESL specifically) can use social media to network and build support networks outside of their immediate networks after graduate school at a local conference in April, and I’m wondering how obvious my ideas will be to those in attendance. Will everyone leave my talk shaking their heads, wishing they had gone to another concurrent session? My own insecurities aside, how mainstream is the idea of PLNs and using social media tools like Twitter and RSS feeds to facilitate continuing education really? I have only touched on the topic with a few other teachers in my program, and none of them seemed familiar with the idea. However, I am constantly receiving notifications via Twitter and Google Reader that new blog posts have been written about building your PLN and using social media for self-driven professional development. I’m inclined to think that the topic feels like a mainstream, paramount topic of discussion in the field because it interests me and I have built my online network around using technology and self-directed professional development. Perhaps it’s time to broaden my personal learning network to include voices that do not make PLNs their primary concern.

 

Self-Directed Professional Development

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I have become somewhat enamored with the use of digital media in relation to professional development. The idea that I can create a personal learning network that will allow me to connect and collaborate with teachers around the world from all walks of life and levels of experience using social media and other digital tools amazes me!

During my practicum experience last year where I was paired with a mentor teacher, I really began to appreciate the value of connecting with more experienced teachers within my field. I sometimes feel like teaching can be a pretty isolating profession, unless teachers reach out to others within the field and share their ideas. While this may seem obvious, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations of being in the classroom. Having the opportunity to teach alongside my mentor teacher and get valuable feedback from him was an awesome experience. However, engaging in a mentor/apprentice sort of relationship seems like the analog version of an experience that can be so much more fulfilling and enlightening within a digital medium. Having said that, I don’t think that one experience should replace the other, but that having a wider vision of what it means to develop professionally and collaborate with fellow teachers might be more beneficial than engaging in the traditional practicum experience alone.

If collaborating and expanding my ever-changing personal learning network is good for my own education, couldn’t it be said that such a network might benefit my learners as well? This is a line of thought I have yet to dive into, but with the hopes of cultivating learning and creating a space in which my learners can use English freely, I have created a class wiki. I’m sure there will be more meditation on this matter to come.

My mind has been buzzing with these ideas recently, and in an attempt to self-educate I have begun collecting some resources that address the topic of collective learning and self-directed professional development in the digital age. Here are a few of the books I’m exploring now:

Professional Learning in the Digital Age: The Educator’s Guide to User Generated Learning by Kristen Swanson

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking

From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey by Matt Levinson

 

#Edchat: Teacher Morale

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In an attempt to explore and participate more fully in social media driven professional development I took part in the #Edchat Tweetchat that took place tonight (Jan. 15). I have only participated in one other Tweetchat as of yet, but I have found that the quality and usefulness of any Tweetchat seems to depend entirely upon the quality and quantity of the participants. Thankfully the #Edchat group seems very enthusiastic and the discussion about teacher morale was interesting, and hopefully fruitful.

The topic tonight was:

The discussion started with some suggestions and words of wisdom that included….

and….

A few themes or ideas ran throughout the entire discussion. Perhaps most of the suggestions for maintaining teacher morale fell into one of three categories: respect/relationships among the education team in a school, teacher attitude, and teacher support. Many of the ideas touched upon during the discussion may or may not fall into one of these (or more than one of these) categories. This is simply my own summary of what I observed during the discussion.

Relationships/Culture (teachers, admin, parents, students, and everyone else on the team)

Here is some of what #Edchat had to say about relationships.

Teacher Attitudes & The Little Things

Teacher Support (PLNs)

In addition to some great insights into teacher morale, a few excellent questions were posed that might warrant further consideration and discussion:

Remember: you can visit the #Edchat wiki to see the full transcripts and other discussions of #Edchat Tweetchats.

Thanks for a great #Edchat session! The topic definitely applies in the ESL/EFL setting as well as the general educational system, and any teacher could gain some insight into what teachers around the world do to maintain morale.

Icebreakers and Planning for a New Term

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With the start of a new year comes the start of a new term. I am teaching the same class I taught last term (Intro Reading and Composition in the IEP), but this semester I will be teaching the course on my own. Every class I’ve taught has been with a co-teacher. While there is something nice about sharing the work load and having someone to bounce ideas around with, I’m looking forward to planning and executing every aspect of this class on my own. “On my own” will of course involve a certain amount of collaboration with teachers across the level and skills, but this single reading and writing course is mine.

While having taught this class before allows a certain insight into the potential issues that may arise over the term, there is still a great unknown blob hovering over the planning of the term. How many students will enroll in the class? We won’t know until after registration next week, and almost all the students will be new since the class is the lowest level offered in the program. Last semester we initially thought we would have about five students, so the plan was to do some one-on-one meetings with students during the first week of class. My co-teacher and I had grand ideas of getting to know each student personally during the first week and catering the whole term to their progress. About four days before class was due to start, another seven students enrolled and we were up to twelve. While twelve is still a fairly small class size, it forced our plans to change.

While writing my class syllabus this afternoon I got to thinking about the first week of class. I’ve always loved the first week of a new term. Everything is new and exciting! Students from different cultural backgrounds and first languages meet and try to convey the details of their lives in a foreign language (English). Meanwhile, the teacher tries to hold in her excitement just long enough to set some ground rules and get to know the new group of students.

Enter: the icebreaker.

What are some icebreaker activities that you have found most useful during the first day of a new term?

From what I can tell, a good icebreaker should:

  •  engage learners. Learners should feel engaged enough to participate in English with minimal anxiety. Of course there is a certain level of anxiety while using your second language, especially when you’re with a group of people you’ve just met. The icebreaker should help alleviate some of that tension.
  • create a comfortable environment. Along with learner engagement comes a welcoming, comfortable learning environment for the teacher and students.
  • promote language production. While the icebreaker activity can be all fun and games, and not all good icebreaker activities need to involve speaking, there is typically a certain level of communication required to create bonds among the group. Additionally, the language produced during the icebreaker can be a useful first impression of the proficiency levels of the students in your class. By focusing on meaning and the task instead of form, the students will perhaps create less moderated language that can give you a clue as to where they may be proficiency-wise.
  • be fun! While all the previous bullet points are benefits of using good icebreaking activities, it almost seems like any activity that wasn’t fun would be a waste of class time. By asking students to do something fun while producing language (or not), student affective barriers go down a bit, and everyone will get off to a good start to the new term.

While using technology and online resources may not be the most ideal option in every classroom situation, there are a couple resources/tools that I have come across in my search for online teaching tools that may be appropriate for icebreaker activities. As with any technology being used in the classroom, it is important to consider the tools that your students have access to. The opportunities and options change with the availability and abundance of technology and quality internet. Onward!

The first tool is eQuizShow. This website provides a template to create Jeopardy-like games. Perhaps this tool would be more appropriate for a review session than an icebreaker, but I think there could be potential for icebreaking greatness, especially with higher proficiency learners.

Another interesting idea is the photo scavenger hunt. This activity doesn’t require any particular online tools, but it does utilize a camera, whether it’s digital, on students’ phones, or one of those old one-time-use ones (remember those?!). With more advanced students, this activity could be created to include a presentational aspect in which students report their findings on some kind of wiki or blog created for the class. Come to think of it, this might be an interesting weekly or bi-weekly activity for students to engage with each other outside of the classroom (small groups).

Anyways, my quest for a fun, engaging, collaborative, team-building activity that involves online technology continues…