The World’s Largest English Department

By Elizabeth Rich — September 21, 2009 8 min read
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This spring, 10 days after completing her bachelor’s degree in secondary English education from the University of Tampa, Laura Abercrombie was hired to teach 8th grade language arts. Anxious about what might be awaiting her in the fall, Abercrombie did what any self-respecting digital native would do: She took her troubles to the Web. She searched “language arts” and stumbled upon The English Companion Ning, whose tag line read, “where English teachers meet to help each other.”

See Also

Teacher and blogger Donalyn Miller will lead The English Companion book club with her book The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child starting October 4th.

Having created a Ning network in ed school, Abercrombie was familiar with the social networking platform and excited by the materials and ideas on the site. “I saw all these amazing YA literature resources, which I needed to know for my job,” says Abercrombie, referring to books for the young adult market. But staring at pages of groups, forums, curricula, and multimedia resources, she also started to panic. Without the benefit of any guidance, it was like being dropped in a foreign country without a map. “I didn’t know who to talk to or who could help me,” she explains.

In an “act of desperation,” during which she shed a few tears, Abercrombie decided to join The English Companion Ning in hopes of finding direction. Around 10 a.m., she posted a picture of herself, listed her credentials, and started a discussion under “New Teachers.” She titled it “HELP!!!” In her short message, Abercrombie was blunt about her situation—she would be starting her first year of teaching and she needed support. Her students would be reading Walden over the summer and responding to questions online, and then there was the issue of a “rustic, outdoorsy” trip with students in the fall. She wrote, “I am in the overwhelming process of preparing for the year and I am STUCK. There are no instructional materials for the class and the last teacher isn’t too keen on sharing. I have NO CLUE where to start. Any help would be great.”

Less than 12 hours later, there were roughly 60 responses from novice and veteran educators from across the country. Teachers offered book titles to help her bridge the gap between Thoreau and the class trip; professional development resources on reading strategies; an inquiry about the “essential question” for the year; and a healthy dose of encouragement. “It might seem scary that your school is giving you so little direction, but this really can be a gift to you,” offered one commenter.

“I cannot believe the help and support I got on the Ning. It’s really been an incredible resource,"she says.

‘Huge Ramifications’ for PD

Web 2.0 Tools for Teacher PD

The following are some of the free online tools that teachers are using to expand their professional knowledge and collaborate on projects.

A free Web-based “reader” that lets users capture and aggregate up-to-the-minute feeds from blogs and news sites of their choice. Users can also clip and save items of particular interest.

A social-reading tool that helps you organize and share bookmarks, as well as highlight and annotate portions of Web pages.

A prominent social-bookmarking site that lets you organize and share Web pages and find out what Web sites others are using in topics of interest to you.

A social-bookmarking site that caters specifically to educators. Funded by Harvard University.

A free blogging platform exclusively for educators. Includes a discussion forum for member interaction and idea-sharing.

An online classroom-management tool for teachers that features an assignment calendar, grade and attendance books, and a private messaging system for teachers to communicate with each other as well as students and parents.

Good Reads
A social-networking site that lets users share book lists and recommendations. Includes a “groups” feature for users to discuss books around particular interest areas.

Google Docs
Allows users in different locations to share and work on the same documents. Works with Powerpoint, Word, and Excel document types, among others.

Learn Central
A new social-networking site for educators launched by Elluminate, known for its online-learning platforms. In addition to asynchronous collaboration tools, it offers “virtual meeting rooms,” and the availability of free webinar and presentation tools.

Library Thing
Enables you to catalogue books, as well as rate and review them. Also provides extensive library and reader information on all catalogued books, and connects you to users with similar reading selections.

Lets you create and join social networks formed around specific areas of interest (for example, “The English Companion”). Features include blogs, forums, and status and events feeds.

Using the popular “microblogging” tool, you can share ideas and observations, follow the progress of other educators, and report on conferences and presentations. (See: “Teachers Take to Twitter”.)

The teaching profession’s very own version of YouTube lets educators upload and share video clips.

An online presentation program that allows users to post slideshows using a variety of media, while providing audio or text narrative. Viewers can also comment on the presentation using audio, text, or a doodling tool.

An audio-based collaboration tool that enables you to create and participate in virtual, members-only discussion groups. All messages are recorded, so discussions can be asynchronous.

Software that allows users to make free phone and video calls over the Internet.

Survey Monkey
An online survey tool that helps you to collect and tabulate responses from a project group. Basic option, allowing up to 100 responses, is free.

Easy-to-use platform that allows users to create basic Web pages that group members can collaboratively update and edit.

That social networking has the power to attract educators should come as no surprise given the precedent—the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have joined the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Steve Hargadon, the creator of the popular Classroom 2.0 Ning, believes that social networking portends dramatic changes for teachers. “There are huge ramifications for teacher professional development,” he says. “It is hugely positive. Social networking creates an easy place to enter and use, and literally within five minutes you’re up and running with a community.”

Anne Jolly, an education consultant and the author of Team to Teach: A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams, cautions that it’s important for teachers to come to the social-networking experience with a degree of healthy skepticism. “Remember none of [these resources] has been vetted,” she says. Even so, Jolly agrees that social networking can bolster teacher learning and inform instruction. “It can help to familiarize teachers with the ease of using the Internet to stimulate more acceptance, more ideas, and to think about how to use these tools appropriately in class.”

Both Hargadon, who has served as an education consultant for Ning and other social-media ventures, and Jolly feel that social-networking platforms can complement more formal, credit-giving online professional development. In fact, they see the hours teachers spend engaging and networking with each other online as time spent honing their practice.

And the day for getting credit for those hours may not be too far off. Jolly notes that schools’ treatment of teacher professional learning communities may serve as a model. “In my work, with PLCs,” explains Jolly, “there is no one documenting, no one grading teachers, and yet, they get credit. They turn in a list of their big ideas, any decisions they made, and where they want to go next. By getting evidence that learning and growing is occurring, there’s grounds for credit.”

‘Fascinating and Scary’

The English Companion Ning, launched by acclaimed English teacher and author Jim Burke in December of 2008, is a prime example of social networking’s potential to galvanize teachers. Burke, who has taught for almost 20 years and is the author of 20 books (including the one from which he drew his Ning’s name), was hoping to attract members like Abercrombie: young, recently graduated, and embarking on a teaching career. In conducting workshops and attending conferences around the country, he’d noticed that younger teachers were tethered to the Web, but not a part of “The Conversation"—the meat-and-potato discussions that take place around the table with veteran educators.

“The younger generation is just not automatically oriented towards any awareness of professional books and organizations,” Burke says. “They’re so Web-oriented, they’re not likely to ask for recommended resources.”

Burke’s Ning exceeded his expectations for a virtual meeting ground. In roughly six months, The English Companion Ning, which Burke refers to as “the world’s largest English department, without the meetings,” catapulted to close to 6,000 members of all ages and levels of teaching experience from five continents. “What’s kind of fascinating and scary about Web 2.0 and Ning is that you can create it quickly and before you know it, its got a huge following,” he notes.

Nings have borrowed the tools of Facebook and MySpace—the ability to post a personal profile, upload media, and have multiple asynchronous and synchronous conversations—while allowing for the customization around a particular subject. Members contribute content, while the administrator can meddle as little or as much as he or she wants. Members return not only to post, but also for the opportunity of discovery. “People are committed to the site and the community because they know there will always be new content,” says Burke.

Making Connections

The English Companion Ning, launched by teacher Jim Burke, attracted 6,000 members from five continents in just six months.


To date, there are close to 7,000 Nings under the category of “K-12 education,” with topics ranging from resource sharing to 3D field trips to aboriginal teacher education, although most don’t have the kind of activity that Burke’s or Hargadon’s have. (There are also a number of Nings that have been started by education resource companies.)

Permission to Love Your Work

As Laura Abercrombie discovered before she even entered the classroom, not all teachers are eager to share their work. But Nings and other social-networking sites are proving to be non-threatening forums where teachers want to share and exchange their ideas. The phenomenon belies the image of the isolated teacher, cloistered in her classroom, unwilling to reveal the secrets of her practice. Removed from the teacher’s lounge or a faculty meeting and bolstered by the detachment the Internet affords, teachers are posting organizational techniques, lesson plans, book lists, videos, photographs, and even personal confessions about their classroom failings to a captive, ready-made audience. “People are so generous with what they’re willing to post—their handouts, their links,” says Burke. “Workshops are there to order up.”

Nings are also providing some teachers with a platform for professional validation and acknowledgement. The social networking experience, says Hargadon, is “an inroad to job satisfaction. Teachers want to be good at their jobs. They want to be fulfilled.” By engaging with others and having the room to pursue their interests and their ideas unencumbered, educators have the freedom to develop their practice without experiencing the professional jealousy that can exist within the confines of a school.

“The Ning offers implicit permission to be able to love and want to be better at your work,” says Burke. “As strange as it seems, [that] is not always something a teacher is rewarded for. In the case of Laura Abercrombie, her school and her colleagues are giving her nothing. She should not have to apologize for wanting to be better.”

For 21-year-old Abercrombie, for whom joining Facebook and MySpace was out of the question (“I don’t need students finding me on those”), the Ning gives her access to professional collaboration at a moment when she is still an outsider. “I can talk to teachers [around] the country,” says Abercrombie. “The Ning gives me a wider pool. It’s better than any location conferences.”

In fact, The English Companion Ning helped Abercrombie to reach a wider pool than she could have ever imagined. One of the educators she heard from was Jim Burke.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, right. That’s not the Jim Burke,” recalls Abercrombie, who was convinced the message was a hoax. Even more improbable was that Burke had a message for her from Laura Robb, a veteran educator-turned-coach and author of more than 16 books, including Teaching Reading: A Complete Resource for Grades 4 and Up. The message included Robb’s e-mail address and phone number. “Special help from Laura Robb?” says Abercrombie, who, in spite of her incredulity, pursued the contact. “It was like getting to meet a rock star.”

Robb and Abercrombie have been meeting over the phone since mid-June. “I still can’t even believe it,” she says. “She is the sweetest, nicest person. She’s been like a shoulder for me to cry on basically. It’s been unbelievable.” About her current state of mind, Abercrombie says, “I feel much less overwhelmed.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook


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