Home Renovations and Plugging In: Reflections on Developing a Personal Learning Network

“So how are your renovations going? You must be nearly finished.”

I hang my head and reply, “No, not yet – it is still a work in progress.” Accompanied by some self-effacing laughter and a knowing smile from the owner of my favourite hardware store as he helps me locate the missing piece of the puzzle that constitutes my home.

This conversation unfolds more often, at times, than I would like; as it serves to painfully remind me that I still have much to do on our home renovations. There is still the window casements around the living room windows, dry walling to finish around the same, painting to be done, trim to install and that is just the living room. It does not start to touch the upstairs bedrooms, the ripping out of carpet, the laying of hardwood floors the touch ups to the dry wall and the painting, doors and trim that need to be completed. Then there is the basement rec. room. Well, you get the idea. This process has been unfolding for the last 8 years and has seen a significant amount of improvement but at this point can still be viewed as a work in progress.

Curiously enough it is not the only aspect of my life that I consider a work in progress. I am still learning how to play the bodhran, how to take great photographs, how to be a better parent, husband, teacher and how to improve my game at darts. This quest for improvement also applies to my development of my Personal Learning Network (PLN). Up until November of last year I had not even heard of, let alone considered, creating a PLN. This new adventure got started when I began to explore the search features of Twitter and came across Tom Whitby whom I quickly discovered was one of the most passionate education technology advocates to be found; as I searched for information on the integration of technology into my educational practice and classroom.

It was through posts by Tom that I discovered the Educator’s PLN a website devoted to the connecting of educators around the world who have a common interest in increasing their knowledge of the craft of education through sharing of ideas, resources and tips on a veritable cornucopia of topics. Up until this point I had participated in Professional Learning Communities that are part of our school’s on-going pursuit of excellence in education. My limited expertise with the blogging process was increased about this time as well as I began to locate fascinating articles on a variety of education topics from numerous fellow educators.

These experiences got me thinking about how I learn, what I learn and when I learn and where I learn. Topics that occupy teachers as we consider our students preferences when we approach a lesson with the desire to really engage the student; often times not giving a second thought to our own processes as we are caught up in the whirlwind of the classroom environment with deadlines, marking, conferencing, supervision, IPP’s and the plethora of things that take up our day. To say that a light bulb went off or that there was a paradigm shift in my thinking on this matter would be akin to referring to Mt. St. Helens as tremor.

The next revelation was that a PLN is as individual, comprehensive and tailored as the teacher creating it. In a nutshell it is a lot like Web 2.0 – which for a long time I thought was some program that I was systematically missing out on. That is until I started reading Steven W. Anderson’s Blogging About the Web 2.0 Connected Classroom. In reading his work I realized that the 2.0 classroom was a compilation of useful technological resources adapted by teachers to facilitate enquiry based learning specific to their own styles and classrooms. In the same way this is true of an individual’s PLN.

The creation of my PLN is, to say the least, a work in progress; and is currently not nearly as far along as the renovations to my house. It does consist though of some basic elements: several solid sharing sites including the Educator’s PLN and Edutopia, as well as a compilation of blogs that I follow and my twitter feed that keeps me posted on the latest offerings from a variety of sources.

Too complicated, too much time wasted? I think not. While there is a learning curve, as there is with most things in this world the old adage that you get out of something exactly what you put into it is as timeless as it is true.  While there is a certain commitment in the form of time to learn the technologies or applications to create this sort of network, once you have it up and running it is available to you when, where and how you want it to be. This allows for everything from planned reading of a blog article before bed to a spontaneous discussion that occurs over twitter as you respond to a brief thought or post that is made by other like minded individuals.

So what does this replace? In a profession where we are always being, it seems, asked to do more and more I am sad to report that nothing comes off the plate. What does happen is that you get to start selecting from a much wider menu than you had before and as you streamline your PLN to meet your distinct tastes you are no longer casting around for articles, videos or resources nearly as much. Indeed, once set up much of the desired materials find you!

Now off to the hardware store for some plumbing items. I would be very interested in your story about the creation of your PLN – I look forward to hearing from you.

The Thinks You Can Think and Other Thinks: Making Sense of My Information Overload In a Digitized Society

A childhood literary hero, the individual who helped me put my children to sleep when they were younger; and the person who helps me introduce poetry at the Grade 10 level comes readily to mind this week.  If you guessed the allusion to Dr. Seuss you are correct; if not or you are still wondering about the specific reference – go to the add tab in your browser window and Google the term – but keep this tab open….

The last month has been one of great personal growth for me as both a reader and a novice thinker. I say novice as I reflect on all of the new information that I have taken on board in the last several weeks from a variety of sources. These new sources of information have been a result of the on-line work that I have been doing with my students. As a high school teacher I am a huge believer in the use of the internet as a educational tool – my students use the internet for research, to log into a virtual classroom that I run through Taking IT Global where they can access homework, post blogs, access on-line video conferencing after school hours with their peers or during tutorial hours with myself. I have also, of late, experimented through the Center for Global Education with international video conferencing with other schools across Canada and around the world. While the setup for the conferencing was a steep learning curve the dividends that it has already paid made it time very well spent.  I use a SmartBoard daily in my classroom and am set-up with Skype on every machine that I access on a regular basis.

In short I was beginning to think that I have begun to understand the digital world that I have worked with for almost two decades. The last month has made me rethink my level of savvy as I have discovered in the last month or so there is more out there than I could have ever imagined – I mean we hear or pay lip service to the idea that the amount of information out there is more than we can handle – in the same way that we pay lip service to other concepts like it is a beautiful day or time flies – you know things that we say or acknowledge without much in the way of a second thought or real attention to the implication of what it is that we are acknowledging. Well between making new connections to various on-line organizations as well as increasing my participation in the online dialogue with others via mediums like Twitter and TweetDeck and discovering what hash-tag discussions are all about I thought this morning when I sat down to write this entry that I am suffering from information overload.

Upon further reflection, and several cups of coffee, I have determined that if I use the skills and tools that I have tried to pass onto my students that I am not in over my head as far as I may think that I am. I constantly remind my students that when faced with a question or situation that it is important to develop criteria to help decide what source, material, information, position etc. is relevant to what it is that I am doing. When I apply this methodology to my studies of technology use in education I have developed several criteria questions that I can use to help me prevent personal information overload. First, is the site, source, post etc relevant to what it is that I am currently trying to figure out? Secondly, is the source one that leads to greater knowledge for myself or those that I may share the information with? Third is the time factor – how long, realistically, is it going to take me to make sense of this source be it to read the material and/or adapt it to my needs in the classroom or with other educators or students? I find that if I keep these questions in mind as I approach new sources of information or ideas for implementation I can significantly reduce my sense of being overwhelmed.

Granted it may mean that there are some sources, no matter how good they are, that for one or more of these reasons gets kicked to the proverbial curb; but as a trade off I filter information in such a way that it is manageable and relevant to me. I have discovered that streams like HootSuite and TweetDeck can allow me to scan quickly posts that are made and only further investigate those that fulfill the above stated criteria thereby allowing me to streamline my viewing.

So how do you make sense of your information overload in a digitized society?

Finding the Time Thingy

“When do  you find the time to write?” The question is posed as a colleague and I are ushering our families into the showing of a movie at the local theater. I do not recall the answer that I provided but I am quite certain that it was along the lines of, “Oh you know, I work it in here and there,” accompanied by some self-effacing laughter the conversation turns to the weather, our spouses health, progress of children in school or one of a multitude of those everyday conversation threads that entwine themselves into the brief passage of two people.

While the question and its setting are quite happenstance their result has not been. A number of times this summer, when I have had the opportunity to sit and think – usually while driving between family during our vacation to the Maritimes, I have wondered when I am going to have the time to write and post with anything that resembles regularity? An examination of any of the blogs that I currently work on shows that I tend to only post when I am off of school for the summer. If, as you read this, you feel that perhaps I am exaggerating just a bit for some sort of editorial effect, I would offer in my defense that today is the 04-Nov-11 and this post has not been touched since the 19-Aug-11; driving home for me again the topic of this post – Finding the Time Thingy.

I tell my students that writing is one of the greatest self-indulgences that you can engage in – I have expounded on its cathartic qualities, its ability to allow a writer to reflect upon major or minor occurrences in their life and to, if they choose to share it, build connections to others around the world. While I occassionally assume the pulpit in this fashion with my students it is my own practice that I must seriously begin to examine. I must admit that the allure of writing usually coincides with times when I have much to do and very little time to do any of it. There is no question that I have a full schedule during the school year – though as some of my friends point out – it is a full schedule that is largely a result of my own choices. There is fire practice two evenings a month, two more for station maintenance, six evenings a month out for cadets not to mention about 6 weekends a year that are devoted to exercises and community service, and I play darts every Friday evening at the local legion. There is a third of my evenings and about one weekend a month – though in September and October of this year the only weekend that I had off was the Monday of Thanksgiving weekend. While this may seem like a normal range of activity for someone who values social interaction and wants to be involved in the community it does not reflect the number of nights and weekends that are given over to planning and marking during the school year – which erodes volumes of what others would consider to be disposable or personal time.

I am not complaining, only attempting to provide insight into the situation that I seem to have gotten myself into, as I do enjoy all of the activities that I am involved with; they provide me with a great deal of personal satisfaction – especially as  my son is involved in the Junior Firefighters program and both of my children are members of our Air Cadet Squadron. On the other side of the scales are the parts of my life that I would like to get reacquainted with; these include but are not limited to friends, writing, completing home renovations, my dogs and most importantly my wife. The question becomes how best to achieve some balance between these two competing aspects of my life. I have friends and family who in the past have said to me, “Just say no…” when I indicate that I cannot join them for a different activity or event my question to them has often been to which element or part of my life should I limit or eliminate. If we are, in part, formed and nurtured by these experiences then which parts can one limit or remove and continue on as before. In some instances there are others who could be impacted negatively should I make a decision to become less involved with say cadets or the fire service – do their needs, hopes, or demands get to play a role in decisions regarding what will constitute balance in my life?

Or, perhaps I am looking at this matter from too much of a balance perspective – perhaps balance is not to be found in this situation and what I really have to decide is am I happy with the way that I am now and the way that things are unfolding in the present. If I enjoy being heavily involved in my community, my profession, and all of these other things that contribute to making me who I am perhaps I need to be more accepting of where I am at in life. Perhaps I should simply take greater joy in the time that I do devote to any of the elements or tasks in my life that I do. Be grateful for the time that I do have to write, the time that I do spend with my family, fellow firefighters, friends, cadets and students rather than trying to figure out how to better compartmentalize and streamline my life.

In either case I will probably continue to smile, work in things like writing here and there and maintain the self-effacing laughter – it tends to keep a person “real”.

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