Learning is a Conversation

I had never heard the term PLN until five months ago when I became involved with the Ontario Professional Learning Practices (PLP) project.  Since that time, my involvement in the project has helped me and my students as I develop my own Professional Learning Network (PLN).  Teaching is often a solitary profession, particularly, as in my case, when you teach with a very small staff and you are the only teacher in your division.  There are few people to turn to when needing resources, ideas or just an ear.  But as I slowly build my PLN, I am surrounded daily by global educators who offer inspiration and resources needed for my students to learn and grow.  As teachers, we can’t possibly do everything by ourselves.  Learning with others, from others, is a much more efficient way to help our students.

Developing my PLN took off once I joined Twitter.  Gradually, I joined a few education nings and read blogs and wikis to see what other people were doing in their classrooms.  They willingly shared what’s worked (or hasn’t worked) for them.  As a result of what I had gained from my growing PLN, I made a commitment that I would share in return by starting a blog to post my experiences with new technology in my classroom.  Together, my students willingly learn with me as I attempt to integrate a new tool into a lesson.  Some of my posts cover such topics as Backchanneling, Glogster Book Reports, Twitter in Geography, Student WikisFacebook Internet Safety, and Podcasting.  Before the PLP project and the encouragement of my PLN, I can honestly say I would never have even considered writing an education blog.

My PLN is a place to turn to when I am stuck, frustrated, and in need of help.  It is a place where I can rely on the kindness of “strangers”.   I’ll share one experience that resonates the most.  While struggling one night on ways to help a boy in my class with reading, @KimMcGill posted a blog about boys’ literacy.  Even though Kim’s role is at the secondary level, she immediately offered to help through her PLN when I asked.  Within a few hours, @kellypower from Windsor had forwarded a valued resource for me to try. I now had a game plan.  The “kindness of strangers” has become the “kindness of friends”.

Learning is a conversation.  Over the last several months, I have had the opportunity to connect with Susan Carter Morgan through the Ontario PLP.  Susan is a grade eight teacher at the Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia who has developed her own PLN with deep, diverse connections.  She was one of the resource people brought into the Ontario PLP project to initiate and help develop discussions.   Through our ning discussions, Susan and I recognized our shared interest in a classroom where learning was more inquiry-based.   As a result, we have developed a collaborative project where students from her class are working with students from mine.  Using Google Docs, Skype and VoiceThread, students from two different countries are researching and producing a project on an issue of social justice.  Together, Susan and I are helping our students as they engage in their own learning.  Our students are developing their own Turnberry/Fredericksburg PLN.  They are becoming global learners.

For me, my PLN is about making connections with people who have the same goal:  helping our students to become 21st century learners.  That connection continues to strengthen when we share and participate.  Sometimes it’s messy and uncomfortable as we develop connections where pushback is present.  But it is respectful.  I’ve found myself changing my beliefs dramatically on some issues, including the importance of a digital footprint.  We must be transparent if others are to find us.  My PLN showed me how to do this in a safe way that I’ve since modeled for my students.

The ultimate evaluation is found in the responses from my grade 7/8 class.  Students that I had taught last year, and again this year, were asked to describe what was different about their learning.  Listen to what some of them have to say.

TS14 TS11 TS30

There are several students in my class who have had extreme obstacles  to overcome in their learning.  The use of technology has allowed them to succeed and become part of the classroom community.

My students want to be 21st century learners.  My PLN continues to enrich me as I strive to be a 21st century teacher.  I look forward to our ongoing conversation.



Backchanneling is a learning strategy you can use to keep students effectively engaged in a lesson.  Similar to a chatroom, students have a continuing “chat” alongside various formats (lecture, video).  After reading various blogs by a primary, intermediate and high-school teacher, I noticed the comments regarding the value of the process were similar.  As students backchannel, they collaborate, communicate, and connect to each other and their thinking.  Students who are reluctant hand-raisers are more apt to participate.

TodaysMeet is a free and secure site you can set up for your students to meet and backchannel.  It’s easy to monitor and sign up.  A major concern of any teacher (myself included) is that students would just chat and not focus on the lesson.  Before we began, my students understood that all comments posted were visible to me along with their username and time.  They were reminded of the appropriate use of technology and the importance of staying on topic.  We discuss this routinely throughout the year as they use Google Apps, wiki sites and blog comments, so I trusted they were ready.

When signing up for a meeting in TodaysMeet, you’re asked to provide a class name (I used TCPS) and then given a url.  I posted the url on our class wiki for easy access.  After the meeting, the transcript is available to print if needed, and it stays posted for however long you specify (up to a year maximum).

Before logging in, students were given the following instructions:  “While viewing the science video, post comments on what surprised you and questions you have.”  Students entered their TS#, typed hello, and jumped in.  Maximum message is 140 characters.

As the conversation continued, students collaborated by helping each other with answers to questions.  They connected their learning to other subject areas.

I was surprised that air was a fluid. ts02 at 9:11 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

So this also causes earthquakes? ts19 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Its convection. ts28 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

That’s like our geography.ts41 at 9:15 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

How does such a little substance like fluid, move the earth to create earthquakes? TS30 at 9:16 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Well earthquakes involve magma because they start way down in the earth’s crust. Magma is fluid. ts43 at 9:17 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

When the video was finished, I asked students to post their thoughts on the process of backchanneling.

Backchanneling helped because if I had a question during anything, people can share opinions or answers. ts36 at 9:30 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Back channeling let us all contribute our thinking, without being loud. We got to see other’s opinion, and it let us help each other. Ts29 at 9:30 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling was helpful because some of the people in the class said things that I didn’t even think about. Ts45 at 9:29 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling was helpful because it shared questions and things that surprised people that I might have forgotten or not even have thought. ts14 at 9:29 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Back channeling is the best.  It helps me to say what I think during the movie so I don’t forget. ts11 at 9:28 AM, 29 Mar 2010 via web

Backchanneling provides insight to the teacher for next-step lesson planning.  Transcripts posted on a wiki could be reviewed by students who miss class.  As well, the conversation could be continued.  Comments from my own students show that backchanneling is another example of the importance of collaborative learning and the engagement factor of technology.