School’s out for the summer and I finally have time to make my Google Reader a priority. While I was catching up on posts the other day, I found a few really interesting entries that got me thinking about my own professional learning and how I go about acquiring new knowledge. On the cheap.

Breaking the bank

The first article of interest I came across was this post by Gary Stager where he talked about the wonderful opportunities to be had at the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute where “participants are encouraged to take off their teacher hat and become reacquainted with their learner hat.”

I agree that this institute truly sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity. My twitter feed is also a’ buzz with news about #ISTE12 and all of the wonderful learning opportunities and chances to connect being had in San Diego this week. I had the pleasure of attending an ISTE conference years ago, and I know that everything people are saying is true. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn, connect and grow.

What kind of educator wouldn’t jump at the chance to attend these remarkable professional gatherings? The underfunded kind. Sadly, most of us would enjoy being at both of these events but can’t attend because of the price tags. ISTE, minus airfare and hotel, is $239 for members and $338 for non-members. If you live close enough and want to attend for a day that will still run you $175. At my distance this year (Pennsylvania) with travel, meals and a place to sleep, it’s well over a $1000.

The Constructing Modern Knowledge institute, again minus transportation and lodging, will now run a participant $675 since the early bird registration has closed. It’s in New Hampshire, so figure your other costs accordingly

I know many, many educators who would love to get this knowledge first hand, but with pay freezes, furloughs, and lay-offs becoming everyday words in the teacher vocabulary, it may be difficult and perhaps irresponsible to spend this type of money attending conferences, institutes or participating in other fee-based professional development opportunities.

Do we look to our districts?

So what’s a teacher who’s looking to learn supposed to do? Many schools and districts have had to clamp down on any travel-related PD. But that’s okay — we can  look to our school districts to provide onsite job embedded professional development or meaningful inservice days just a short drive from home. Right? Go ahead, go ahead, I’ll give you a minute to finish laughing (or dry your tears) because we all know that most professional development days in our schools remind us of this picture I saw in George Couros’s post about the need for principals:

Just like many classrooms, district professional development days are typically created using a one-size-fits-all, “sit ‘n’ git” mentality, rather than differentiating the instruction or the topics so they will be meaningful for the participants. Very few people are willing to go out on a limb like principal Lyn Hilt, allow their teachers to take charge of their own learning and share new knowledge with others.

The culture of trust is just not in place in many school districts, and with so much focus on scripted lessons and passing the test districts often aren’t willing to give teachers the freedom to learn about new and exciting ways to change their instructional strategies. It’s all about script fidelity and test prep. So leaving it up to our districts or boards just isn’t going to cut it.

We have to look to ourselves

If we don’t have the money to spend to go and learn with the experts, and we can’t count on our districts to provide meaningful opportunities, what are we teachers to do? The only answer is that we have to take matters into our own hands.

My thoughts immediately go to social media because that is how I have done all of my personal learning over the last year. I signed up for Twitter and starting following people in education who were interested in making a change. From their tweets, I started developing a list of blogs to follow and began reading and commenting and seeking out more in-depth discussions. Twitter chats, like #4thchat, came next, and then I started writing on my own blog.

Substantive discussions in different online communities helped me continue to learn, grow, and change my thinking about learning — and adjust how I view my students as learners and myself as a leader in the classroom. I’ve become a major league cheerleader for learning via social media. I encourage as many people as I can to get involved and look out for their own learning, even when they cannot afford pricey conferences or online tuition.

Social media is not a substitute for reflection

Then I stumbled upon another post. Pernille Ripp brings a very different perspective to the social media & learning discussion, but I agree with her whole-heartedly. Rather than supporting a notion that ALL teachers should be blogging or tweeting, Pernille suggests that all teachers should be reflecting first and foremost. Personally, I can’t imagine learning without social media tools, but I don’t have to reflect for long to get what Pernille is saying.

While I have enough time to catch up on the tweets, peruse and comment on blog posts, and write my own posts, some of my closest co-workers have plates that are way too full for that kind of learning. Kids, second jobs and other commitments take up their time. But the great thing about these teachers is that they always have time to talk with me! They read the articles or posts I share with them because I think they will be REALLY meaningful to the work in our classrooms. They listen to the grand schemes I come up with based on my social networking and then push back when I need to be reined in a bit. This is one of the concepts in The Connected Educator three-pronged approach advocated by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and PLP. Bringing it back to the local level.

We talk about what ideas would work for our kids, what wouldn’t, and how we can change things to make them best fit our kids and the constraints set forth by our curricula or resources. These local educators don’t have to be engaged in social media to learn new things, and my learning is enhanced by our discussions about our kids, our classrooms and new ideas. We are taking part in learning that is meaningful to us, that happens when we need it, and that benefits our students! All without taking a hit to our wallets or wasting a whole day trying to stay awake during inservice.

Getting started

So what does it mean to be connected and how exactly do we get started if we want to take learning into our own hands and want to get our colleagues involved in meaningful discussions? I know the first thing people wonder is how in the world can I possibly fit that all in. Some days you can, some days you can’t, but this Connected Educator infographic gives you an idea of how social media can be incorporated into your classroom and help you learn and grow on a typical school day. Do I do all of these things every day? Heck no! Nor do I need to! But it’s nice to see how easily learning can be embedded into the things you do every day.

One simple way to take your professional learning into your own hands is to do what I did and sign up for a Twitter account (or actually start using the one that you already have!). By signing up for PLPs mailing list (in and of itself a great way to get in tune with some amazing ideas even if you can’t afford to be part of the program) you can get their free Twitter handbook that will give you step by step instructions on how to make the most of 140 characters.

Another great tool for getting started with Twitter and Twitter chats comes to us from Jerry Blumengarten, aka Cybraryman. Here you’ll find everything from the first-step basics to ways that you can become a more advanced Twitter user. It’s all in one spot, and you can check it out on your phone while you’re lounging by the pool!

Come to think of it, if you’re really serious about taking learning into your own hands, Jerry’s pages are a fantastic place for you to start. Not only can you find out about Twitter, but he’s got pages and pages of resources from which you can learn. Want to go to ISTE, but just can’t get to California? You can check out his page, and from there you can learn from others on how to get the most out of ISTE without paying a penny! Want to learn more about improving questioning techniques, implementing lessons for multiple intelligences, or flipping your classroom? Those are just three topics you’ll find in Jerry’s extensive resources!

Another great way to learn more and think differently about your classroom is by reading what others are writing and adding comments to further the discussion. One great place to start is right here at the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog, with nearly 200 posts to browse.

Dig In

As somebody who loves reading, it’s not unusual for me to take a summer day and read an entire book. I know not everybody is like that, and thankfully blog posts are much shorter and cover extremely varied topics. You can easily get a snapshot of what is or isn’t working in classrooms around the world, you can debate fundamental educational beliefs, or you can pick up some great tools to use in your room simply by checking out some blog posts each day.

How do you find blogs to read? I’ll probably sound like a broken record, but I’ve found some of my favorites, like those cited earlier in this post, simply by clicking on links people shared on Twitter. And by setting up Google Reader to follow your favorite blogs, you’ll have them all in one place whenever you happen to be ready to sit down and read!

Professional development doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It doesn’t have to empty our bank accounts, and it doesn’t have to be a waste of time. Professional development can be extremely beneficial when we take matters into our own hands and look for our own opportunities to read, write, talk, reflect, learn and grow.

Featured image: Big Stock

Poster: Credited to Dean Shareski in the cited post

About the author
Becky Bair teaches the intermediate grades in Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown Area School District and is passionate about incorporating technology as one of many tools to help students view learning as an exciting, lifelong endeavor. She writes the blog Teach 'N' Life and can be followed on Twitter @becky7274.