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.
Your PLN will outlive the latest app or device and challenge you to become a better educator year after year.
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 Cortázar 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 yyou’rereading 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.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, DafneCholet.