The Personal Benefits of Having a #PLN (#EduMatch Tweet and Talk 2)

#EduMatch (1)

Most of us who have been connected for a while already know the professional benefits of having a PLN: we become better teachers, we share ideas, we discover new opportunities, we better prepare our students by encouraging them to connect, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Tonight, in our second #EduMatch Tweet and Talk, we discuss another topic: how being connected has changed us as people.

When we truly connect, it goes far beyond typing out 140 character blurbs or using some strange Nextel-ish app to talk to strangers all day.  This seems to be the impression that people have of “being connected,” and may explain why they are hesitant to join in.  What I wish I could tell them is that being connected has made me not just a better teacher, it’s made me a better person.

I’ve alluded to my experiences growing up in previous blog posts.  TL;DR: I grew up in a community where I was one of few people who looked like me, and have had some experiences that left a negative mark.  I’ve always been kind of a loner, and isolating myself became my main defense mechanism.

It was easier this way.  When you shut people out, they can’t hurt you.  But I have recently learned that when you shut people out, YOU are hurting you.

Being connected has allowed me to see that there are more kind, loving people in the world than just my family, friends, and a few scattered people here and there.  Over the past two years, I have met some amazing people, who have changed my outlook.  Of course, we are a far cry from utopia, but there is a lot of positivity out there if we are open to receiving it.

As a result, I have become more empathetic, but I am still a work in progress (as we all are).  The more people I meet, the more I see the good in others…the more I see how much we can learn from each other…the more I see how we can help each other.

This is why I choose to connect.  This is why I am so passionate about encouraging others to do the same.

Yes, it is important for us all to share our stories as educators.  We can all grow professionally, hearing about what worked (or didn’t work) for others instructionally, and building upon that shared knowledge.  We can collaborate, innovate, and spread our passion.  But what we don’t always discuss is how these personal take-aways can be just as important.  Many thanks to my #PLN for making me a better “teechur,” as well as a better human being.

If you are free, please join us tonight (June 7) for our Tweet and Talk on this topic at 6 PM EST (Live Google Hangout on Air) with #EduMatch Twitter backchannel.  The Twitter chat will be storified, and the panel discussion will be available as an iTunes podcast.

You May Not Be a Connected Educator If…

sarahjanethomas3

The topic of #Satchat this week is being a connected educator, and we are continuing that discussion on the Voxer group.  A very amusing, “You May Be a Connected Educator If…” discussion emerged spontaneously.

On Tuesday, I tried to formulate a thought that had been burning in my brain for some time, but wasn’t able to get it out.  Thus, I will use my preferred medium (blogging) as a second attempt.

In this post, I will adopt the awesome format of my #satchatvoxer friends, and debunk common misconceptions about being a connected educator (spoiler alert: having a Twitter account doesn’t make you connected).  I feel like I should put a disclaimer here, even though it should go without saying.  These are simply my opinions, and I welcome any constructive conversation.  Without further ado:

“You May Not Be a Connected Educator If…”

  1. …you have a social media account, but you haven’t signed on since you set it up.
    A lot of people equate Twitter with being connected, but one must put in work.  Simply having an account isn’t being connected.
    Quick fix: This one is simple: start engaging!  Check out CybraryMan‘s list of chats and educational hashtags.  Also, Susan Bearden‘s Tweech Me app is a great way to learn about Twitter.
  2. …you have tons of followers, but you only engage with a tiny fraction of them.
    Self-explanatory.
    Quick fix: Self-explanatory.
  3. …you treat people online as currency for your popularity, rather than as human beings.
    Some people seemed to lose sight of the fact that other people on social media are…well…people.  Following people, then unfollowing them once they follow back, in order to build follower count is rude and disrespectful.  The unspoken message is, “you are only a number. Your ideas don’t matter.”  I could go on, but you get the point.
    Quick fix: This is also known as narcissism. There is no quick fix.
  4. …you aren’t open to hearing what strangers (i.e. fellow educators) have to say, unless everybody else is following them, too.
    Social media is not middle school, but this behavior definitely is.  Being connected doesn’t involve a popularity contest.
    Quick fix: Create your own PLN, full of people that you value and connect with.  Recommendations from others can definitely be helpful, but I personally wouldn’t base the bulk of my PLN on “Who to Follow” lists.
  5. …you use social media only to broadcast, without sharing the work/ideas of others.
    Caveat: educators, please know that it is OKAY to share your ideas/your students’ ideas/ your school’s ideas online.  This is all part of building your brand, and it can be a very positive thing.  The point of this isn’t to discourage anyone from sharing…quite the contrary.  Share MORE.  Share everything that interests you, as it will likely interest someone else.  Just don’t forget to share the work of others, too!
    Quick fix: Check out awesome curation resources (such as Zite), which bring you great blog posts and articles on topics based on your interests.  You can even auto-schedule tweets throughout the day with resources such as Buffer (thanks to Shelly Sanchez Terrell for putting me onto it).

“Connected” is the operative word.  Just like you stick a plug into a wall socket, connections go two ways.  Sometimes we are the sockets, providing the energy; sometimes we are the plugs receiving it.  In my eyes, there is a huge difference between being an educator who uses social media and a “connected educator.”  Huge shout out to Brad, Billy, and Scott for putting this discussion back on the radar.

Edu Match: Not a Dating Site

On Friday night, I was bored.  It was one of those rare days when I was home with nothing to do.  Well, I had plenty to do, but I didn’t feel like doing it.  That would have gone against everything that Friday night stood for.

Anyway, my mind started to wander as I was sitting on the couch, playing on my phone.  All of a sudden, I had a #showergem moment.  FYI, in case you’re wondering, here’s the definition of a #showergem.

Showergems

In other words, a #showergem is when your brain is on pause, and all of a sudden, you have an awesome idea.  Here are a few previous #showergems:

  • With seven billion people in the world, we are each only a dot.  But what a beautiful picture we make when we start to connect.
  • Being a connected educator is like using augmented reality on our profession.
  • Relationships are the most important things there are.
  • Everyone has their own version of the truth.  Why should you put anyone else’s above yours?  Don’t worry so much about what other people think of you.
  • Your mama’s so stupid, she stuck her head in the washer because it said, “Permanent Press.”

As I’m sure you can infer, the last one was from when I was in fifth grade.

Anyway, one common theme of my #showergems tends to deal with helping educators connect and collaborate.  This is the focus of most of the things that I choose to do in my free time.

I was sitting on my couch, playing on Voxer, chatting with one of my #eduhomies (new hashtag that I’m totally Columbusing, btw), telling her how she and my cousin would hit it off.  Not in a dating way, but they would have so much to talk about, since they geek out over the same things.

Ironically, I had been joking around with another #eduhomie about how we should team up and make a “Teachers Date Teachers” website.  Well, the #eduhomie was joking.  I was half-serious.  Kidding!  Maybe.  Totally.  Anyway.

So back to the story.  I made a remark in my vox to my #eduhomie that I pride myself in being an educational matchmaker.  Long story short, @edu_match was born.

In my research, I saw there was an #edmatch, but that was about fundraising.  There were a few @edumatch accounts, but none of them appeared to be what I had in mind.  So, I jumped in feet first, just adding the underscore to make it unique.

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It was very silly, and I decided to keep it very Sarah.  Those of you who know me know exactly what I mean.  I was dead serious about fully exploring the potential, but I wasn’t going to do it if I wasn’t entertaining myself in the process.

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Side note: even though I’m pretty Google-savvy, this was the first time I ever used Google Draw for anything.  I was not shy about admitting how horrible the logo is, but honestly, I don’t know if I’ll change it.  It sets a tone for how informal and fun this experiment is.  In addition, people love to tell me how horrible the logo is, and this is great!  Especially because it’s usually followed by, but the idea is awesome.

Personally, I’m more inclined to click on something that catches my attention, good or bad, and see exactly what it is.  I could, possibly, have the same effect with an awesome logo, but this experiment is still in its infancy, and I didn’t want to drop a ton of money on something that I wasn’t sure would work.

Similarly, people tend to think it is a “Teachers Date Teachers” project.  LOLOLOL.  I welcome the confusion, because that gives me the opportunity to clarify it.  In my experience, people are more engaged when they are trying to understand something, than if you try to cold-sell an idea.  Confusing people can be good, so I really play up the, “it’s not a dating site” factor.  The follow-up question is usually, “then, what is it?”

So glad you asked.

According to the website (s/o to the #eduhomie for the suggestion),

“we use the power of social media in order to help foster collaboration and connections among educators around the globe.

Each day, we have an #edtech Person of the Day, and tweet out several bits of information that they have supplied. You don’t need to do anything, and there is nothing to lose.”

“We” sounds better than “I.” But truly, it is “we.”  I treat this with the EdCamp mentality.  My job is to facilitate these connections, but it’s all driven by the people who sign up, and who participate.

Yesterday, we had our first #edtech Person of the Day.  I asked him how it was going midway through the day.  Much to my surprise, he said that he had a bunch of new followers.  I was so happy to hear that, but it inspired me to change the sign-up form a little.  I added a place for the Person of the Day to write a discussion question to ask the Twitterverse.  Although follows are good, engagement is better!

As of this morning, we have 10 people signed up to be featured.  Wow!!!  This is great.

I’m learning as I go along…for example, today, I have scheduled the tweets to promote our second Person of the Day.  This helps me tweet at odd hours of the night being in EST, but our friends on the Eastern Hemisphere are wide awake.  Maybe there is a script or something so that I can automate it 100%.  That would be awesome.  Also, I’m trying to figure out what happens if/when this gets huge.  It would kind of suck to sign up and have to wait for weeks or months before you are “on deck.”  Maybe eventually we will have multiple People of the Day.  Hmmmm.

Tl;dr version: If you have a crazy idea, jump in and do it.

If you have any suggestions, comments, or feedback, please share below.  Thanks!

Gone Fishin’: Reflection on Social Media

Photo credit: https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/27/61136502_f6c55cd5f0_z.jpg?zz=1

Disclaimer: This post is going in a very different direction than usual. Not everyone will agree, and that is totally okay.  However, I wanted needed to chip in with my own two cents.

First of all, let me say that my PLN absolutely ROCKS!!!    

I have been having a blast over the past year, while learning alongside great teachers all over the world.  The collaborations have been excellent.  I am also thankful for the times when we have had those courageous conversations, for these are the moments when I get to re-examine my thinking.  We all need to be exposed to different perspectives in order to see situations from many angles.  It is in this spirit that I write this blog post.  

Please keep in mind that I am dissecting ideas, and not attacking individuals.  For this reason, I will not mention any names or specific blog posts, except for those that have inspired me in a positive way.  The views below are my own, and I am not speaking one else’s behalf.  With that being said, let’s begin.

The Fish

Rafranz Davis  wrote a phenomenal blog post this past weekend, which got my gears turning.  I told her that I loved it so much, that I could “blog about [her] blog.”  At the time, I was joking, but later that week, I saw some very different posts being spread so virally that now I’m dead serious.

Rafranz is totally right.  There is a weird Twitter dynamic in the world of educational technology.  Some of my other friends and PLN members have mentioned it, too, such as Elle Deyamport and Angela Watson.  They both utilized a metaphor that I really like, being fish in a pond.

To continue the extended metaphor, our networks would be the pond, and we educators are all the fish, splashing around.  I, personally, am thrilled to be a fish in the pond, swimming in this good salt water…or fresh water…whichever is in a pond.  Obviously, I’m not a science teacher.

There are all different kinds of fish in our pond.  I like to consider myself an exotic, quirky fish, if there is such a thing.  Maybe a little red one, swimming in the blue water…a Haitian fish.

Anyway, back to the point.  There are guppies.  There are goldfish. There are dolphins (I know there are no dolphins in ponds…humor me, people).  That’s what makes our pond so great! Fish come in all different varieties.  In all honesty, the size of the fish (i.e. how “known” you are) really doesn’t matter.  You’re a fish.  You’re already a rockstar.  But since fish size is a reality in the lovely world of educational technology (and most other fields), I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the room.

To loosely paraphrase Angela, sometimes you may be a guppy in one pond and a dolphin in another.  There is nothing wrong with being a little fish, a medium fish, or a big fish.  We are what we are, let’s face it.  It’s all good in the hood…er, the pond…however, lately, I’ve been reading some things that have made me go, “hmmm???”

There is no need for me to “call anyone out,” or for any rachet behavior of any kind.  This is not Worldstar Hip Hop, thus I will not mention anyone specifically.  The point is to address a certain way of thinking that goes far beyond a few blog posts.  Many people seem to share this philosophy, so I wanted to chime in and offer some food for thought.  Fish food, if you will.

We can agree, we can agree to disagree…it’s all good baby, baby.  I have love for my educators either way.  With that being said…

Here We Go!!!

Twitter is a social medium.  Let me slow that down and bring it back one more time…social…medium.  Those two terms would lead us to believe that it is a tool for collaboration, oui?  Twitter and other social media have brought me out of teaching in isolation and into 20-freaking-14, allowing me to collaborate with, and bounce ideas off, educators all around the world.  In other words, using social media has put me into a new pond.

(BTW, here are some ideas to get you going if you want to rock social media for collaboration.)

The way I approach Twitter (and other SM) is that I am here to learn.  I am here to share.  I am here to grow…with you.  However, lately I’ve seen a few blog posts, with the writers sharing their criteria for following back.  I totally respect that everyone has their own methods.  Yours may be different from mine, and that is A-OK.

However, I’ve been seeing one recurring word that doesn’t sit quite right with me.  This word is, “impress.”  A lot of times, people say they won’t follow back if they’re not impressed. I’m baffled.  I’ve heard this term enough over the past week that I would be remiss if I didn’t address it.

What, pray tell, are the criteria for “impressive?”  If I have less than 1000 followers, am I not impressive?  If I don’t have 50 million accolades listed on my bio, am I not impressive?

Personally, I’m impressed simply by the fact that you’re on Twitter, trying to better yourself for your students. The last time I checked, we were all fish.  Do we not have fins to swim?  Do we not have gills to breathe (ok, science teachers, I know…just work with me)?  And since we are in a magical pond where fish can change species, did we not all start out as guppies?  

Don’t get me wrong…I have criteria, too, for when I will follow back.  Obviously, you can’t follow every single person who follows you, or your timeline will be complete junk.  I made that mistake on my first Twitter account. But, what is junk?  To me, the voice of a fellow fish will never be junk.  Junk is that spammy stuff that pollutes our beautiful pond.

***(Random sidenote: Dolphins can learn from guppies as much as guppies can learn from dolphins.  I’ve met some great dolphins who know this, and some great guppies who had the confidence to insist upon both listening and being heard.)***

Here are my criteria for following back, in a nutshell:

  1. Are they clearly involved in education?  (If yes, follow back.)

It’s that simple.  Every now and then, someone flies under my radar, but that is an oversight.  I apologize profusely to anyone whom I may have missed.  That being said, every educator fish is welcome in my pond.  The more, the merrier.

To reiterate, I’m not attacking individuals, just dissecting ideas here.  I’ve heard the argument that people’s streams will get diluted by info they don’t want, etc.  Again, I believe that everyone has a voice and something valuable to bring to the table.  In addition, you never know what guppy is going to become your “personal dolphin” someday, i.e. have a great impact in your life.  I cannot begin to tell you all how many seemingly random strangers I have connected with online, who have come to play a major role in my life.

However, I do understand that there are certain people you want to connect with more closely, which is hard to do when you follow hundreds or thousands of people.  That, my friends, is the beauty of Twitter lists.  I just created one with about 100 of my personal dolphins…close friends in my PLN with whom I want to stay tightly connected.  I set this list to private, and I check it frequently.  It’s the best of both worlds.  I can now have that ever-growing pond, while still having that VIF (Very Important Fish) feed.  Ok, I’ll stop with the fishy metaphors now.

Nobody has to use my methods.  Who am I to tell you who/how to follow?  However, as a friendly fellow fish (I totally lied about stopping with the metaphors), I wanted to share what works for me.

Conclusion

Student voice is a concept that has been gaining ground in terms of best practices for instruction.  In my district, teachers cannot be evaluated as “distinguished,” unless they give every student the opportunity to be heard.  To me, this is phenomenal!  Why are we not treating each other with the same respect?  We need to start knocking down these walls, and shattering glass ceilings.

I’m not going to mince words.  Like I said, I am all for collaboration, and will continue to actively pursue and facilitate those connections.  I have love for all fish, regardless of size, but I personally do not have any interest in “impressing” anyone.  There are plenty of other fish in the sea, willing to work together for the sake of all our students.

Guppies.  Goldfish.  Dolphins.  Who knew that we fish could make so much noise?  The funny thing is that Twitter is just a tool!  It really isn’t that deep…at least it shouldn’t be.  We are here to listen.  We are here to share.  We are here to do right by our students.  Make your own pond, and fill it with all kinds of fish.  Don’t forget your personal dolphins 😉

Some awesome quotes to leave you with:

I’m proud that I can inspire someone but what makes what we do even more amazing is that we are also constantly being inspired by others. – Rafranz Davis

We need to continue venturing into other ponds and making connections so that every fish can feel welcome wherever they go. – Angela Watson

I was glad to take the plunge because below the surface I was able to find my school of fish. Now I feel I can take my next adventure out to sea, and this time, I don’t have to do it alone.  – Elle Deyamport

What is your $0.02?  Chime in below in the comments.

Sarah vs. “Da Teechur”: An Introvert’s Guide to Conferences

sarahjanethomas3

I have a confession.  It’s a pretty well-guarded secret, but, hey…since you and I are friends now, I think I can trust you. Ok, here goes: I’m an introvert.

Photo credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/SMirC-shy.svg

This usually comes as a surprise to people who don’t know me very well, as well as those who know me too well. I’m a decent actress, and one of my greatest roles is “life of the party,” but I can only stay in character for short bursts of time.  Conversely, once we get to be really good friends, I won’t shut up, and you’ll forget how you couldn’t get me to say a word when we first met.

I just returned from ISTE, the biggest EdTech conference in the world.  This year, there was a record number of attendees…roughly 16,000 in one venue, and many more online (shoutout to the #notatiste crew).  It was totally overwhelming, but in a good way.

One amazing thing was that there were so many people in my PLN in attendance.   These are the people with whom I’ve Tweeted, Google Hangout-ed, Google Plus-sed, Facebooked, emailed, etc. for over a year.  One of the most awesome feelings are making these in-the-flesh face-to-face connections.

I had a total blast.  Everybody and their mama was there. Between all of the information, the fantastic conversations, and the crowds, I would often find myself mentally exhausted.  I’ve talked to other people about this, and I was surprised to find out that I’m not alone.  With that being said, let me go ahead and share my five major takeaways  for the rest of the “ISTE-verts” out there.  (Bonus: Most can also work for other social events.)

The Five Hacks

  1. Hack one: Build upon your pre-existing connections.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but a lot of us have built a strong network of like-minded educators online.  Yes, it’s so much easier to talk to people behind a screen, where you have the luxury of filtering what you say before you post.  Yes, it can be absolutely terrifying to meet people in real life.  However, don’t forget, you and your PLN members have probably invested months or years into building a relationship.  The hard work has already been done.  Just roll with it.
    • Bonus: Reach out to people you are particularly close to, prior to arriving at the conference.  Make plans for lunch, or to meet up at a social event.  That way, you will have a guaranteed buddy.  However, also be sure to mingle and get to know other people.
  2. Hack two: Don’t take yourself too seriously.  I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but since we are such good friends, I feel like I can open up to you without judgement, right?  I kind of have an alter-ego in a way…wow, I feel like I’m five.  Seriously though, there’s Sarah, the reserved side of me, who would rather just put her earbuds in and drown out the world.  Then there’s Sarah daTeechur, whom I’m sure many of you have met.  Sarah daTeechur is the persona I described in the introduction.  She’s fun, charming, and witty.  She’s the one who sang Lady Gaga at ETK14, on a large stage in front of 500 people.  Sarah would never do that, but Sarah daTeechur?  She has no fear.
    • Find your inner teechur, or whatever you want to call it.  You may have to dig deep, but find the person who comes out when you interact with your closest friends/family/kids/pets/house plants.  If you never ever talk to anyone, channel someone you know who does.
    • People, generally, want to like you, and they want to hear what you have to say.  By not participating, you’re denying them (and yourself) the opportunity for collaboration and feedback.
    • Even if you make a complete derriere out of yourself, guess what?  Everybody does at some point.  Nobody is going to care as much as you do.  It’s not the end of the world…nobody will probably even remember.  If someone does decide to hold a minor faux pas against you, tough cookies for them.  It’s not your problem.
  3. Hack three: Listen more than talk.  This may sound counterintuitive, especially coming right after the previous hack.  However, there is a difference.  I didn’t say to stay silent like some weirdo mime.  All you need to do is make sure that you’re listening to what others have to say, as opposed to struggling to find the right words, which leads to even more awkwardness.  You can only use the, “my brain is mush right now” excuse so many times.
    • As an introvert, at least for me, listening should come pretty naturally.  The trick is to ask follow-up questions based on what people tell you.  Ask them how they came to do what they do, what shifts they see in the field, etc., etc., etc.  This takes the pressure off you to talk, but at the same time, you are contributing to the conversation.
    • If someone did something you particularly admire, congratulate them, and follow up with questions.  This helps to strengthen the relationship on both sides.
    • Make sure that you chip in with your own input, when you’re comfortable.  On the flipside, don’t go overboard and dominate every conversation.  That is not a good look.
      • One hack that I’m starting to implement is to make sure I contribute at least one idea to every collaborative and/or social situation.  For example, I attended Hack Ed, which was structured similarly to an edcamp.  During the first session on equity and access, I struggled internally on whether to contribute to the conversation, but finally shared my views at the end.  I spoke for probably 15 seconds, but from that, I was able to connect afterwards with other like-minded attendees, and we came up with a game plan to enact change.  #winning
  4. Hack four: Bring props.  When I was a little kid, I fought dirty.  As a toddler, I used to love to bite people, for absolutely no reason.  I don’t always play by the rules.  Now, as an adult, I still have my mischievous streak, but I choose to use it for good rather than evil.  At #ISTE2014, I was able to present with a member of my PLN, whose work I had admired for a long time.  Since we were presenting on gamification, we decided to award ribbons to attendees for completing challenges.  (You know those ribbons…the ones that go on your name tag.  They are always a big deal at conferences.)  We got 100 ribbons online, and jokingly referred to them as “the contraband.”  We knew we wouldn’t need all 100, so I’d use the extra contraband as an icebreaker to start new conversations.  (For example, “your name tag looks naked.  How about a ribbon?”)
      • Although we were using the name tag ribbons for a session, who’s to tell you that you can’t do the same thing, even without presenting?  Go crazy, kid.  They’ll love it.  Order your own contraband ribbons here.  You can even customize your own slogans.  How cool would it be to have ribbons saying, “Member of _____’s PLN?”  Hmm…maybe I’ll do that next year.
      • If you’d rather be more discreet, your prop can always be a go-to story.  I’m blessed to be awkward, and I have quite the repertoire of #edufails to share in my back pocket (i.e. how I was forced to sleep in a Denver airport two weeks ago, and narrowly made it in time for my InnEdCo presentation).  Just make sure that your story is not totally random or inappropriate, because that would be kind of weird.  Although, I have discovered that most educators have a twisted sense of humor…
  5. Hack five: Know when to say when.  Sometimes, things get way too overwhelming, and you start getting grumpy.  At least I do.  There have been a couple of times during ISTE where I had to return to the hotel to take a breather and regroup.  Sometimes you need a little me-time to refocus and return with new energy.  This is perfectly fine.  Just remember to come back!!!

You Only Get One Shot

Try to lose yourself when you go to these big events, as they can be game-changers if you play your cards right.  Ok, that was a horrible segue.  Anyway, one line of “Lose It” by Eminem sticks out to me as particularly relevant: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.  This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, Yo!” Very insightful, Eminem.  Yo, indeed. I’ve witnessed some people change their lives  at this conference, right in front of my eyes.  You never know who you will meet, who can strengthen your PLN, or who shares a similar vision.  If you’re fortunate enough to be at ISTE, or #notatiste, you can’t let any opportunity pass you by.  Step outside your comfort zone, ISTE-verts!  I have faith in you!!!! See you at #ISTE2015.