Monday, September 29, 2014

New School Year Resolution: Build a PLN

Photo: DafneCholet via Flickr
In August and September, many educators make resolutions for the new school year. They resolve to try a new instructional practice, integrate a new technological device or program, or refresh their classrooms with new decor. Some of these resolutions last all year; some fizzle out by October. But there is one resolution that can keep your teaching fresh all year long, for many years to come: building a PLN.

What is a PLN?

When I first joined Twitter back in 2011, I saw this acronym everywhere, defined in two ways--as either a Personal Learning Network or a Professional Learning Network. It’s a group of people connected by common interests, who use these connections to improve their professional practice. They may not know each other personally. My PLN consists of current and former colleagues in public and private schools, as well as educators across the United States and around the world whom I’ve never met but know through Twitter and blogs. These educators share my interests in teaching World Language, using technology to enhance instructional practice, and discussing the future of education.

Here’s an example of the beauty of a PLN: My contact Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish) wrote a blog post about using a short story by Julio Cort├ízar for an advanced Spanish class. I used her ideas and resources in my own AP Spanish class; my students even posted comments on a Glogster Glog that she created for the story. Laura then used those comments for her National Board certification portfolio. Tadaa!

Why should I build a PLN?

Before discussing how to build a PLN, I’m going to get on my soapbox about why you should do it. On Twitter several months ago, @mitchellsensei posted a photo of a quote by @NMHS_Principal that I find incredibly inspiring: “I don’t find the time to learn and get better. I make the time to learn and get better.”  

Most likely, if you’re reading this post, you are already motivated to improve your instructional practice, but it’s a good idea to articulate goals for your PLN so you can make it work for you as effectively as possible.

First of all, your PLN should be a reliable source of high-quality information about your field. With the click of a button or the tap of a key, you should be able to access current, relevant and interesting ideas from people who know what they’re talking about.

Secondly, your PLN should give you inspiration every time you access it. Teaching demands creativity around the clock, and we all know how difficult it is to come up with creative, engaging, and meaningful lessons and assessments on a near-constant basis. Your PLN can make this process much easier by putting you in contact with people who face the same challenges as you do and meet them in different ways.

Finally, your PLN should make integration easy. That is, when you find real-world resources through your PLN, you should be able to use them in your classroom without excessive amounts of adaptation. (Your PLN should make your job easier!)

How do I build a PLN?

Your PLN will probably by a patchwork of educators that you know in person or through the Internet. Twitter is the ultimate PLN, but you can also connect with educators through Pinterest, Edmodo, and blogs. If you’re a social media newbie, here are some tips to keep in mind to help make the process easier.

Tip #1: Start small. Choose one tool (Twitter, Pinterest, Edmodo, etc.). Give yourself time to play and explore. Don’t open a Twitter account and immediately start engaging in Tweetchats or following a thousand other users. And don’t create a Pinterest profile with the goal of finding resources for every unit you’ll teach this year. If you can set an objective of finding two new users to follow a week, or implementing one or two new resources a month, managing your PLN will be a much more enjoyable process.

Tip #2: Observe, then do. I can’t stress this enough. Pay attention to how your chosen social media network works. Don’t be pressured to start “contributing” to your PLN right away. Watch what others do, and then do how they do once you feel comfortable. Does everyone have a profile picture? Then post a profile picture. Do you see the same hashtag over and over? Find out what it means (just Google it!). Do people cite or “mention” their sources in their posts? Then so should you. Every system has its own etiquette, especially Twitter; you don’t want to drive away potential contacts through ignorance or insensitivity.

Tip #3: Set time limits. Developing a PLN can be like drinking from a firehose: so much information at once can drown you if you don’t have a plan. I don’t even remember my first month on Twitter, because I spent several hours a day sucking up every stream of information I could find. It was overwhelming, time-consuming and, ultimately, counter-productive: I was stimulated by so many new ideas, but paralyzed by the sheer number of them. A smarter way to make my PLN work for me (instead of making myself work harder) would have been to limit myself to 30 minutes a day. You can still find tons of ideas in 30 minutes a day, and you don’t have to read everything! A teacher asked me once if she was going to have dozens of unread tweets waiting in her inbox, like emails. Not at all. Social media is constantly moving and changing; it would be impossible to absorb everything available on it. Instead, think of your PLN as a stream into which you can dip your toes whenever you feel like it.

Tip #4: Separate the personal and the professional. Create dedicated accounts for work and play. For example, if you’re an avid chef and educator, avoid using the same social media account for both interests. It will muddle your information stream and confuse your followers, once you’ve made the jump to contributing to your PLN. I have just one Twitter account that I use exclusively for professional purposes, but I have two Pinterest accounts: one to use for education, and one for my personal life. Apps like HootSuite can help you manage the different streams.

A well-built PLN can be a source of fresh ideas and resources for years. The people you connect with, even if you’ve never met them in person, can have an immeasurable impact on your professional life and open up opportunities that you might never have imagined otherwise. Your PLN will outlive the latest app or device, give you new perspectives on the topics of interest to you, and challenge you to become a better educator year after year.

I originally wrote this post for Fractus Learning. See the original article here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cell phones during exams? YES!

All of my Spanish II and III students used cell phones on their final exams this year. And I was so proud of them!

They had been using their cell phones (specifically, QR code scanning apps like this one) all semester to access listening and reading resources. I wrote an earlier post about the benefits of doing this. The final exam, of course, had a hefty interpretive proficiency section as well as speaking and writing prompt, so the students were really just continuing to do what they had been doing for months in class.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What if we treat technology like a foreign language?

Photo by Roland O'Daniel license
Recently, I had a thought-provoking experience in my Spanish 3 class. The students had been struggling with using Explain Everything to make screencasts. They'd been frustrated with the app; they were saying things like "I'm not good at technology," "Technology hates me," "I suck at this," and "Why is this so hard?" I felt badly that the assignment wasn't going as smoothly as I'd anticipated, but I also wondered why some of my students were so anti-technology. Why did they lack curiosity about how the technology worked? Why were they reluctant to engage in trial-and-error as they created their screencasts? Why did they seem unreceptive to the possibilities that this technology made available to them? And then I thought that those qualities I wanted to see in them--curiosity, risk-taking, open-mindedness--are the same characteristics that I'm hoping to cultivate in them as language learners. Could we approach learning new technologies in the same way that we approach learning languages? 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Student portfolios with Evernote

It took me a while to become an Evernote convert. When I first made an account in 2011, I didn't touch it for about six months because I didn't know what to do with it. It's so versatile and easy to personalize that it seems like a blank slate at first, and if you don't have a clear purpose for using it, it can be hard to realize its utility. But once I began using it to develop unit and lesson plans (see my previous blog post), I became a hard-core junkie. I use the Evernote app every day, mostly to create lesson plans, clip useful websites and PDFs, and take notes at meetings and conferences. This year I've begun using it to create student portfolios, with some mixed results.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

How can we use QR codes to promote proficiency?

My students listen to authentic audio using their cell phones.
Ever since I learned about QR codes, I've been slowly adding them to my repertoire. If I create an interpretive task based on a web resource, I make a QR code of the website using a site like this one and insert the QR code right into the worksheet, which I then distribute to my students in print form. I've also projected the QR code onto the TV or projector screen, which students scan right from their seats using a QR code scanning app on their smartphones. Lately I've been using these codes to link to audio or video resources for listening comprehension activities.

How is this better than just playing the clip myself?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How do you teach empathy?

In a world where information is abundant and free, traditional teaching practices must change, as well as our conceptions of what to teach. For a foreign language educator, this means that the grammar drill-and-kill style of teaching has to finally die. Students can find translations and conjugations anytime, anywhere. The majority of our communication will most likely be virtual, instantaneous, and informal (and probably is already). How does language learning fit into this new paradigm? Grammar and vocabulary will always be essential. But there's an app for that! If you strip away everything that can be taught or learned via a computer program, what is the essence of learning a language? What's urgent about it? What is something that only I, a human being, can offer my students? I think that every teacher should be asking themselves these questions and answering them for themselves. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

So, do iPads really improve student learning?

Flickingerbrad via Flickr
For three semesters, from January 2012 to June 2013, I collected student data. I surveyed my high school students weekly or biweekly and kept a record of their responses. I analyzed midterm and final exam scores, both cumulative and by skill (speaking, writing, reading, listening, grammar). I compared yearlong averages for students in both the iPad class and the traditional class. Do you know what I found?