Creating a Professional Learning Network

I love going to conferences–meeting other teachers and education professionals, connecting about a profession we are all passionate about is invigorating. Before I discovered Twitter and grew my own Personal Learning Network (PLN), these conference experiences were isolated to a once or twice a year experiences. And while I love conferences, there are times I find them frustrating as well–we all  know too well the experience of learning so many great things at a conference and the reality of the struggle to apply more than one or two things we learned to our own classrooms.


I began my own Twitter journey three years ago ( Twitter in the First Grade Classroom) when I created an account for my classroom. I did not however, create a twitter handle for myself until this past year. At first I didn’t understand why I needed two twitter handles-frankly it seemed excessive and time consuming. What I quickly learned was that both served very different purposes. My twitter handle ( @AliciaMISmith) that I use for my PLN allows me to connect with educators all over the world  as well as keep up to date on online resources such as Edutopia and MindShift. Another way that my PLN has dramatically impacted my teaching is through weekly chats specific to first grade. Many Sunday nights at 8pm EST (5pm PST), I log on and participate in #1stchat, a chat dedicated to teaching and learning in the first grade classroom.  During these weekly chats, there is a moderator and a topic that has been selected beforehand. The moderator posts questions and then teachers from all over the country respond hashtagging #1stchat on all of their responses. I use Tweetdeck to help organize and streamline the chats I participate in. Sometimes during these chats, I sit back and watch the conversations without taking an active role, other times I am actively engaged chatting back and forth with other teachers. The thing I love the most about these chats is the energy: each teacher that is participating is choosing to be there and has valuable knowledge to contribute.  I’ve been able to connect with inspiring teachers in a weekly manner from around the country, teachers I most likely wouldn’t have been connected to otherwise.

If you are not yet on Twitter or only have a classroom page, I urge you to create a separate handle for your own PLN. Search hashtags with your grade level and try participating in a chat, feel free to just observe at first. There are many different types of chats happening all the time, find one that fits your own interests and learning goals. Follow other teachers from the chats to help grow your PLN. Creating my own PLN allowed me to take my professional development into my own hands and allowed me to grow and connect with other educators.


Building Learning Communities – My Summer Learning


I love that I work in a school that values professional development.   And not just professional developed that is “sponsored” by our district but professional development that is” teacher driven.”  So in May 2014, I asked to attend my first BLC (Building Learning Communities) conference. Not surprisingly, my principal and the PTSA agreed that this would be money that was well spent in our school.   So last week, I spent four days in Boston with my colleague, Julie Colando and 900 plus other educators representing more than 75 countries around the world.  We all came to Boston because we know that schools are changing and the way we teach kids should be changing too.  No longer are teachers the sole bearers of information. No longer are classrooms places where kids and teachers work in isolation.  Technology has changed our profession and forced me to rethink everything I do in the classroom.  I learned this when my first grade team was given the chance to pilot a 1to1 program in our classrooms.  In January 2014, every one of my 25 students had their own iPad.  Unfortunately (or not) the devices didn’t come with instructions or a curriculum or even a teacher’s guide. Luckily, I had Twitter.  Years ago I had started using Twitter for professional development, (In my first year as a teacher there was very little money or time for professional development and what little PD I received was mandated by our school district.) So, I read somewhere that teachers were connecting on Twitter and I decided to try it out, never expecting how much I would learn.   These teachers became my professional learning network and it was way more powerful than any workshops that my own district offered for professional development. In the beginning, I just lurked on twitter.  But I soaked everything in.     So when devices arrived in my classroom, I took a deep breath and just dove in, (plugged in?)   I knew immediately that my students would not be using iPads for app work, we wouldn’t be clicking on math games just to practice our facts.   I wanted the learning to be much more powerful.    I wanted my students to use these devices to capture their learning.  I wanted them to show their thinking and then be able to share that thinking with each other.  I wanted them to find new ways to learn.  I wanted them to create and to connect with others.  They did and throughout the process we were all learning together. My students were collaborating in ways I hadn’t imagined.  They were working in partnerships and groups.  They were teaching each other and they were finding new and creative ways to learn.     They individualized their own learning, they collaborated and they started thinking more creatively.  They taught each other and they taught me.   We became learners together. So back to my summer learning, BLC14.    In Boston, I finally got to meet some of the teachers and educational leaders that I followed on twitter.  There, I heard many stories similar to mine.   Students at all grade levels are now learning by doing, engaging and connecting in new ways.  Students are also sharing their work with a much larger audience.  Everything I heard at BLC reinforced my own experience.  I know that I have so much more to learn this coming year and I am hoping that many more teachers will go on this journey with me and my first grade team.  BLC14 taught me that we as teachers have so much more to learn.  And at the heart of learning is sharing what we know and what we don’t know.  We have to step out of our comfort zone.  It’s not enough that every child have access to technology, it’s not about the devices, it’s about giving students opportunities to use technology in meaningful and relevant ways.  And ways that are relevant to them not just to teachers.   Classrooms, yes even first grade classrooms, should be places where kids learn how to be digital citizens of our world.  And these same kids should have a voice in the powerful conversations that are going on in the classroom, school, school districts, states, even the world around them.  I keep coming back to a question that was posed by BLC keynote speaker,  Dr. Alec Couros, Professor of Educational Technology & Media at the Faculty of Education, University of Regina, when referring to how kids are learning in most of today’s classrooms:  “When you can choose your own adventure, Why do we have kids doing exactly the same thing?”   So, I guess that’s why I am sitting at my computer on a summer day off wondering how I’m going to apply all I’ve learned in my classroom next year.   I don’t know.  I just know that I’m going to try.

PostScript Summer 2015 –

This month Alan November will be hosting BLC15 again in Boston.   I am sorry that I will not be able to attend.  Hopefully, next summer.  But I will be participating in the learning.   I know there will be many tweets and learning conversations inspired by the #BLC15.