The past five months have transformed my view of professional development in education. Reflecting back on it all, the perspective change from early-March-me to now is staggering. In my experience, PD had always meant building or district level development, and I was completely unaware of the national (even global) network of educators who are collaborating online to evolve educational best practices moving forward. This, my first blog post, is about the process through which I began to access and connect with this larger network of educators. And as an English teacher and the product of a small, Midwestern town, I greatly appreciate when facts and details are seasoned with a simple narrative to give it flavor. Therefore, I’ve written this blog to be part personal introduction, part narrative, and part informative for those searching for their way to join in the fun. So here it goes…
As I stated, this story starts this past March. At that time I was immersed in the scripting, filming, and editing of video content for yet another personalized learning unit. For the first time, our entire English 9 Honors team would be teaching a personalized learning unit together, and I was elated. The collaborative process of its creation, well underway at that time, was truly bringing our team together, and early March also brought news that I would be the 2016 PBS Lead Digital Innovator for the state of Nebraska. Things were certainly going extremely well and were also at the same time extremely busy.
In March I could feel my 9th year in the profession quickly drawing to a close, and while my love for teaching has never waned, I couldn’t ignore the quiet feeling that something was certainly missing. See, I am a person driven by creativity and the rush of turning the concept into the concrete. And while I’ve been blessed with a myriad of phenomenal colleagues who have helped shape my practices over the years, my creativity, always a professional strength of mine, felt drawn to connect to others who might round out, compliment, and challenge me in my creative passions. My passion for producing educational video content. My passion for personalizing learning. My passion for unlocking student creativity. My passion for hacking and redesigning learning spaces. Ultimately, my passion for leveraging my creativity to improve as an educator in order to provide my students with the most optimal learning experience I am capable of providing.
Now I’m a fan of Campbell’s hero’s journey, so I’ve decided to loosely follow his structure throughout this post as I recount the details of my own journey in engaging this network of connected educators. So at this point in time, I recognized that I was a willing adventurer who just needed a call to adventure. I needed to connect with other educators whose curiosities had led them down their own rabbit hole towards the future of education. And at this point in time, my frustration was Alice’s – I had crossed the threshold but wonderland lay on the other side of a locked door.
Then, just as Campbell prescribed, the call came.
And it came from the most unlikely of places: journalism.
To the most unlikely of places: LA.
In late March, our journalism advisor Jerred Zegelis was in need of a chaperone for the journalism students’ trip to the JEA conference in Los Angeles, California, and given my passion for video production, he asked if I would be interested in attending.
JEA was to be my first national conference experience, and despite my not actually teaching journalism, I was still set to be an inquisitive chaperone looking to improve my instructional video skills.
Next, Campbell advises to seek out a mentor. Matt Rasgorshek, the video journalism advisor at our high school, has spent the past year and a half putting up with me surveying his class and annoying him all sorts of entry level video questions in my quest to produce better instructional video content for my students. Matt, knowing my interest in video production, arranged for me to have a working, video-critique lunch with a journalism colleague of his from St. Louis during the JEA conference. And this is how I came to meet Don Goble.
Don Goble is a nationally renown journalism advisor who was recently recognized by Onalytica as one of the top 200 leaders in American education for 2016 – although I was completely unaware of any of this at the time. On the first day of the conference, I attended an 8am session Don was leading. His passion was clear: empower student voice through digital media to connect students with an authentic audience in order to change the world. Simple enough right? But Don is masterful at it and his enthusiasm was infectious. Later that day Don and I met for lunch, and Don brought that same passionate approach to his critique of my videos. He was extremely personable, patient, and genuinely interested in watching my video content and providing meaningful feedback. Don watched several videos and imparted significant suggestions that will certainly shape my process moving forward. However, the most transformative part of our conversation had nothing to do with editing techniques or lapel mics.
As our lunch was winding to a close, I asked Don if there was anything else I should do to reach out to others, to share my work, and to get new ideas moving forward.
Don paused, then asked if I had a Twitter account. No. A blog? No. A YouTube channel for sharing my videos? Well all of my videos are on YouTube…But 85% of them are unlisted.
Don then revealed another sincere passion of his – advocating for educators to share their ideas for the betterment of the education community as a whole. He encouraged me to share my story and my work and reach out to other educators through the avenues he had mentioned. He also suggested several conferences at which I should consider applying to present. What a lunch! Not only had I connected with another teacher whose passion was video production, but Don had given me the keys to unlocking the door into a world I had hoped to find but never knew existed. That said, two days later I left LA with a serious to-do list and found myself adrift, swimming in waters I had never tread before.
That’s the problem with entering a new world – as Campbell points out – you begin in the “belly of the whale” that awkward I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing phase of any new experience. However, the belly of the whale marks the beginning of a period of great change for those willing to acclimate to their new surroundings and increased expectations. Upon my return to Omaha, I was determined to learn as much as I could about being an educator on Twitter, and I wanted to learn fast given that I was five days away from attending NETA, our statewide ed tech conference.
Now let me just say that though I am far from a novice when it comes to technology I was completely lost in the Twitter-verse. And reader, if you are not on Twitter and are reluctant to do so, I implore you to start. Here’s how I started…
At NETA, one of the keynote speakers was the Director of Bright Bytes, Bob Dillon (@ideaguy42). Bob, coincidentally also from St. Louis, led a morning breakout session after the keynote, and while Don had mentored me in video, Bob’s passion for classroom design tapped into my interest in hacking and redesigning learning spaces. His session sparked ideas that prompted me to restructure my classroom layout just four days later. After the breakout session, I thanked Bob for sharing, inquired about his upcoming book release on learning spaces (which I have since purchased), and as he was from St. Louis, I asked if he knew Don Goble (@dgoble2001). Of course he did (it seems everyone in the whole of the connected educator community does), and so after our conversation I followed Bob on Twitter and I sent out my first tweet telling Don I had met Bob Dillon. It almost seems a bit childish to note it now, but I had no idea what I was doing and it was fun to feel connected to two phenomenal educators who shared some of the exact same passions I have. With that as a starting point, I proceeded to spend the next two days at the conference locked into Twitter, following any speaker I found especially interesting or any teacher I had a chance to chat with.
The week after NETA, my Twitter-feed began to fill up with tweets containing links to insightful articles, in-depth blog entries, passionate quotes on education, and ed chat hashtags calling educators to rich online collaborative discussions. If you’re new to Twitter, my advice at this point is to Google search for lists of prominent Twitter teachers, follow a few of them, and then simply follow anyone else who tweets out something insightful, informational, and/or intriguing. In a matter of days it became clear to me that Twitter was a pathway to new ideas, and in a few short weeks that pathway began to broaden. I certainly wasn’t a connected educator myself, not by any means, but for the first time I could see the whole of wonderland opening up one piece at a time before me, and quite frankly, I was overwhelmed. But at the same time – it felt something akin to Christmas morning. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but anyone who truly feels that they have a passion or a calling in life certainly knows that subtle feeling of alienation prior to finding others who share their interests and similarly the joy that comes from discovering that you’re not crazy, you just had yet to find others who were crazy like you.
However… it wasn’t long before I regretfully acknowledged that my online presence was all hunger, driven to mass consumption, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for eating at the table without having brought anything to share.
This was not what Don had mentored me to do. This is not a part of Campbell’s design.
So knowing that I needed to find my voice online, I began the struggle of actually creating my own tweets instead of simply reading everyone else’s thought. By late June, I was growing a little Twitter savvy, though I should admit that years of informal Facebook posting and the 140 character limit still stunted my sensibility and effectiveness online. Thankfully, I had become proficient enough at that point in time to be prepared to develop my personal learning network (PLN) when I took part in the PBS Digital Innovators Summit in Denver just before ISTE 16 began. As I sat in a room with 52 exceptional educators from across the country, many of whom are at the front lines of ed tech and ed innovation, two things quickly became apparent. 1. Twitter had replaced the business card at events such as this. 2. Twitter also seemed to be used as a form of social status amongst some educators, and though I didn’t find myself in awe of the “Edu-celebs” (as one colleague called them), I did deeply respect these individuals and found it inspiring that there are educators out there tweeting and blogging and vlogging and chatting and collaborating and presenting to such a degree that thousands of other educators are improving their practices for the betterment of hundreds of thousands of students as a result of one teacher’s efforts.
During my time with PBS and at ISTE, I met several phenomenal people who have been terrific friends and resources in the the profession since. Kevin “Mister C” Cornell (@OriginalMisterC) is creating the highest quality instructional videos and related materials I’ve seen. Dan Koch (@danvkoch) is an ed tech mastermind whose #edtechafterdark chats are rich in tech info and ideas. Chantell M (@TechieTcher), who leads her own weekly #RSDchat, is a podcast expert, PBL guru, and has been a good friend in helping me out of my “newbie” phase in this world of online collaboration. At ISTE, I stopped by Melinda Kolk’s (@melindak) paper session and soaked up her profound words and rich insights on a topic I had spent the summer contemplating: How to unlock/foster student creativity. And finally, on a level that he is likely not even aware of, Steve Isaacs’ (@mr_isaacs) passion for games, gaming, gamification, ARG – you name it – left me creatively intrigued about the topic of games in the classroom. During our PBS ed camp, he mentioned the work Paul Darvasi (@PaulDarvasi) has done with Alternate Reality Gaming, and after reading through Paul’s entire blog, I was inspired to create an ARG of my own.
And this leads me to my conclusion – why I decided to start blogging. As I was binge-reading Paul’s blog, I saw not only an exceptional example of an educational ARG, but maybe even more importantly a teacher-created resource that expounded upon ideas in a way Twitter could not. This is how I came to understand Twitter for what it truly is – something a lot like a superhighway. It’s busy with people and ideas flying quickly by. But as such, it is also the quickest route to a myriad of off-ramps where things slow down and are more specific in their focus. I then realized that I greatly enjoy making a pit stop at a blog, vlog, webinar, etc. more than speeding along my Twitter-feed, and so I want to create my own little pit stop where I can hopefully fuel others in their creative passions and maybe provide something for educators to chew on before they continue down the road to their own goals and destinations.
Well, I can’t pretend that my hero’s journey has come full circle just yet. I do feel though that I’m well on my way through my own road of trials in Wonderland, and while I have no aspirations of making a name for myself in this community – I do intend to have a voice. It’s the same voice that early-March-me had, but now there is an outlet, an audience, a community of people whom I feel a special connection with because they helped me to see that there are others out there in education who are creatively crazy like me.
“…if a person has had the sense of the Call — the feeling that there’s an adventure for him — and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the society because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. …If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one’s bliss — the thing that really gets you deep in your gut and that you feel is your life — doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.” –Joseph Campbell
*The pictures above were taken from various sites through Google’s “labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” setting.