nfl player tweetIt’s Superbowl Sunday and my husband is gearing up for the Big Game.  It’s only 9:00 am but he has prepared the menu (enchiladas) and is online reading about the game.  He pours over the Sports Illustrated website, along with ESPN’s and the NFL’s.  He doesn’t subscribe to blogs or tweet about his love of football.

It makes me a little crazy to tell you the truth.

Why would he not want to go deeper, read more, join a conversation, and share his many opinions on the qualifications of the coaches, the officials, and the players with someone other than me?  Seriously. It’s hard to fathom.

Case in point.  I shared the following tweet with him:

Translated: To use the night to watch a sport I do not understand, with players I do not know who is. So that I can brag about it on Tuesday.

He didn’t think it was funny. I couldn’t stop wiping the tears from my eyes.

Having a good laugh is only part of the reason I shared it with him. This tiny little exchange is an example of a door that was once shut tight now thrown wide open. I am able to laugh at a joke from a young man from Oslo, Norway because I happened to find him in a Twitter post. I found him in Twitter because people from around the world are pointing their thoughts to one place: #superbowl. I am able to translate Norwegian into English thanks to Google Translate. And I am able to share it with you because of this blog. In itself, it isn’t very significant, but the potential is great. Behold: the power of the network!

I’m the first to admit that I’m new to this. Little by little, I’m becoming more confident using these new tools to connect with other teachers and like-minded individuals around the world. As a child I knew instinctively that reading was powerful, that mastering those skills would be empowering. I feel the same way about the tools I use to connect to my personal learning network.

How I power up my Personal Learning Network

My network feeds my professional soul. First, I follow smart people. I remind my students that I too, stand on the shoulders of giants. Whether through blogs, tweets, or TED Talks, I learn from the finest thinkers in and out of my field.

Second, I seek out master teachers in all disciplines. Thanks to my participation in a Powerful Learning Practice community, I was able to connect (literally) via Elluminate with Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches), who shared the documents she uses to help her elementary teachers to “21st centur-ize” their curriculum. Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), a 6th grade social studies teacher, shared examples of student learning that facilitates social change. I listened to and chatted with Dolores Gende (@dgende), an AP Physics teacher, who so engages her students in their own learning, they speak of having a “passion” for science. These are my teachers too. The examples from their teaching that they so willing share help guide and improve my own practice.

Third, I need help. That’s the substance of tweets I send out to the world. I’ve asked for help to learn more about Microsoft’s Kodu programming application for young students and the qualities of a 21st Century Technology Coordinator. Recently an acquaintance who works for Facebook wanted to know if teachers were using Facebook in their classroom. I went straight to Twitter. Later, I asked for feedback “to gauge the reach and effectiveness of my network.” She replied,

“I think that it was really useful, especially once I picked up on the #edchat and #edtech conversations.  Got some great stuff culling through those, some of which I was able to use yesterday and some of which I’m sure I’ll have occasion to use in the future.”

Fourth, my network extends the reach of my students. I can use the relationships built through Twitter, blogs, and Ning discussions to find readers and commenters for my students’ work. Because my reach is global, so is that of my students. Are you a teacher looking for collaborators for a VoiceThread project? Would you like to give your students the British perspective on the American Revolution? Have your students gain a global perspective on something in the news (#Egypt, #Tahrir) or the President’s State of the Union address (#sotu)? Twitter can help make it all happen, often by employing a powerful tool first put forth by Twitter users themselves: the hashtag.

How about helping your students build a readership for their blogs? Send out a tweet using #comments4kids and ask the members of your network to help you spread the word (and the hashtag). It may take awhile and require some persistence at first, but it’s worth it in the end, when the comments begin to flow back. Once your students have a real audience they are no longer students, they are writers. I get excited when I discover another red dot on the Cluster Map in my blog. Can you imagine how motivating it is for a fifth grader?

Your professional toolkit needs a PLN

Making the effort to grow and cultivate a personal learning network is essential to today’s teacher. It should be part of our professional toolkit and viewed as important as face-to-face, bricks and mortar, professional development opportunities, maybe even more so. As I thought about this, I sent out the following tweet:

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Here are some of my favorite answers:

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We model so much for our students. Why not model the building and use of a personal learning network? Why not demonstrate the learning power embedded in a connected world?

About the author
Renee Hawkins is a 4th/5th grade teacher and Director of Instructional Technology at Garrison Forest School, a nursery-to-grade 12 girls’ school near Baltimore, Maryland, and co-author of the blog The Flying Trapeze. A teacher for 28 years, she has taught in the U.S. and Japan and currently lives with her husband in Baltimore County. Follow Renee on Twitter at @rhawk.