Fighting Teacher Isolation With Technology
Our students' everyday lives include plenty of opportunities to learn from peers. Group projects, seating arrangements, and class discussions push our students to interact and learn from those around them—like it or not.
But what about teachers? It's easy for us to become isolated in our classrooms. Many of us engage in professional learning communities to learn from colleagues and push ourselves to improve. But crowded schedules can make it difficult to schedule face-to-face meetings—and sometimes, it's difficult to find a PLC to meet our goals and current needs.
So what else can a busy teacher do? Build your own professional learning network and/or use virtual tools to facilitate your PLC's work, of course! This may seem like a daunting task, but fear not. Instead, check out these four free platforms and tools that can help you jumpstart your own professional learning.
Twitter is a great solution for the on-the-go educator who needs updates in bite-sized servings. Twitter allows for info-sharing and collaboration in 140 characters or less. It can seem overwhelming at first ... how can you streamline information, clearly delineate your PLCs and PLNs, and organize colleagues you follow? Hashtags and lists to the rescue!
A hashtag is a pound sign (#) in front of a word or phrase (no spaces!) that signifies a topic. You can make up your own—but you may want to start by exploring and using hashtags that are more established. For example, if I want to find tweets related to 4th grade education, I can plug #4thChat into my search box. For tweets about iPads, I check out #iPadEd. I can contribute new items to these topics by using hashtags in my own tweets.
Hashtags not only help Twitter users label their tweets with a topic, but they are also used to facilitate live conversations at certain times. For example, every Monday night at 8:00 p.m. ET, #KinderChat has a discussion. At that time, kindergarten educators around the world hop online to talk about teaching, tagging their tweets with #KinderChat. When I search for the #KinderChat hashtag at that time, I can follow (and take part in) the conversation. (Want to learn more? Take a deeper look at hashtags or check out a schedule of regular Twitter chats for educators.)
A list on Twitter is a curated group of users that you follow. You can group people based on your relation to them (family/friends/coworkers) or the topics they regularly tweet about (math/science/educational technology). By using a third-party Twitter program such as TweetDeck or HootSuite, you can view Twitter using multiple columns showing Twitter feeds from each list. For example, you could have a column that includes only tweets by science teachers you follow. This can make it easier to absorb and respond to information, issues, and questions.
Many of us use Google for searching, emailing, scheduling, and mapping. But you may not have tried one of Google's most powerful platforms for professional learning: Google Hangouts. At first, Hangouts seem very similar to Skype and FaceTime. All are video-conferencing platforms. ... But Google Hangouts offers a myriad of added tools and tricks.
Do you have an educational Google account (an email address issued to you by your educational institution that operates in a Google environment)? If so, up to 15 individuals can join you in the same Hangout. (Even with a personal gmail.com email address, you can invite up to 10 participants.) This makes Hangouts a great venue for virtual meetings.
Additionally, Google Hangouts offers screensharing and productivity tools to leverage during your meetings. Screensharing—the ability to show your computer's screen to other Hangout participants—is especially helpful when supporting a colleague to use a new website or computer program, or when troubleshooting an issue. Productivity tools, such as embedded Google Documents, presentations, or YouTube videos, allow you to drive an entire meeting from your couch—with participants joining in from the neighboring seat cushion or a different continent.
In the past, when a teacher had a great idea, others might only find out about it by visiting his or her classroom, or hearing about it in the teachers' lounge. For example, I remember going to a vertical grade-level meeting in a colleague's classroom and jotting down ideas on the back of my students' homework. Now Pinterest makes it easier than ever to "visit" other teachers' classrooms.
Organized like a set of bulletin boards, Pinterest allows users to "pin" great photos and ideas they find anywhere on the Web. Teachers are taking this site by storm, pinning novel ideas for anchor charts, classroom library set-ups, and even lesson plans. One of the reasons this site becomes so addictive is that it's a visual way to organize information. Pinterest also encourages users to follow one another (much like on Twitter) to see each other's pins and learn from others' discoveries.
All of these tools and sites can help to facilitate collaboration amongst a PLC or PLN, but none are overtly designed for teachers to connect with and learn from one another. The Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, on the other hand, was built from the ground up as a virtual community for educators. This platform unites teachers from around the globe to discuss, learn about, and collaborate on a wide range of issues in education. Topics include everything from tips for changing grade levels to big-picture questions like whether traditional grading patterns are harmful to students.
(Editors' Note: Education Week Teacher partners with the Center for Teaching Quality to publish a regular column by teachers who are part of the CTQ Collaboratory, formerly the Teacher Leaders Network.)
The site offers a searchable member directory, member profiles, and a "suggested connections" feature to help you find others, as well as tools for communication and collaboration (including group chat, wikis, and more).
Moreover, you can join "Content Labs" (smaller communities) for mentorship and support in key areas. Many teachers hunger for support and struggle to find it in our own buildings—it can be easy to feel lost or alone. These labs can expand your network of professional mentors, supporters, and cheerleaders. (Some people use online dating sites to meet others beyond their immediate circles. Similarly, teachers can leverage online networking sites like the CTQ Collaboratory to meet like-minded colleagues to push their practice.)
So How Do I Get Started?
Now that your school year is winding down, or your summer is gearing up, this is the perfect time to recharge your batteries and learn new skills. So while sitting on the beach, hop on Twitter and connect with some new colleagues. After an afternoon barbecue, invite your grade-level partners to a Google Hangout to plan for the fall—and share a Pinterest board with them to collect your ideas and inspiration. Meanwhile, join the CTQ Collaboratory to discover and discuss big ideas in education. You'll be surprised by how fulfilling it can be to kickstart your own professional learning—especially when learning is anytime and anywhere.