I used to be a perfectly ordinary English teacher, someone who highlighted her books, typed up tests on mimeos, and left her classroom now and then to get coffee in the faculty room. So, how did I get here?
One day in the late 1990s, I asked my students to submit their homework on Jane Eyre to me via email. I was overwhelmed by the response. First, I had twenty-some emails to process – how was I going to manage all that? Next, I couldn’t believe how good their thinking had become overnight.
Sometime around Y2K, my friend and colleague Renee Hawkins gave me a “Website-a-Day” calendar for Christmas. I had to admit some of the websites that were popping up were really cool.
I took an online course on teaching critical thinking at Goucher College. Amazed, I had to figure out how to be a different kind of student. I took another course about creating basic web pages for my courses. Before I knew what was what, I was participating in discussion forums and designing online courses and had a certificate in “Educational Technology Leadership.”
One spring day, one of my former students, Emily Brecht, came back to visit from college. She said she had been spending all of her time commenting on other people’s “status” on this new thing online called Friendster. “Why would anyone want to do that?” I asked her.
Spoiled from having used online course platforms for my own learning, I looked for a way to bring the excitement of learning online to my classes. My school had blocked my website, so I needed some way around their obsessive controls. We couldn’t afford something like Blackboard, and there was no way I could convince them to include this free new tool called Moodle on our school server, so I began to look for another way. I found something called Internet Classroom Assistant (ICA) and began using it for my 10th grade English class: the discussions that spilled over into class after discussing online made my earlier email revelation look like small talk.
One summer, I had a conversation with my step-daughter, who was interested in pursuing writing professionally. I suggested a writing workshop like the MFA program I had attended, so she could have readers who could provide feedback. “I have lots of readers online,” she said, “what do I need to take a workshop for?”
I transferred to a new school and tried out the ICA there. Then I had to shut down the class because my freshmen were getting carried away with political trash talk during the Bush-Kerry campaign. My students responded by creating their own ICA class so they could talk all they wanted to without any teachers or other adults breathing down their necks.
I moved and started teaching at a school in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. I also became an administrator, so the other teachers didn’t want to talk to me about teaching any more. I missed my friends and former colleagues terribly. I started blogging to the void, pretending that I was modeling ways of thinking about teaching for the teachers who wouldn’t talk to me. I joined networks of teachers on Classroom 2.0 and Independent School Educators Network. When someone I didn’t know responded to an idea I shared in a discussion forum, I got really excited. I really did have someone to talk to about teaching, and especially how my teaching was changing radically as I was influenced by all these new ways of communicating. I couldn’t believe my luck – my colleagues were now – could this really be? – from all over the world.
I started a new blog, “The Flying Trapeze,” with my friend, Renee Hawkins. This was a lot better than blogging to the void – at least we had each other. I overcame my jitters and tried Twitter, though it still seemed a little silly. I created a Facebook group for my students; I posted pictures to flickr and had one chosen for an online travel guide; I kicked around with blonde hair and a guitar in Second Life. I got brave enough to lead a discussion at EduBloggerCon at the ISTE conference in Denver (2010), and suddenly I was being followed by smart people like WhatEdSaid on Twitter. Renee and I started accumulating dots on our blog’s Clustrmap. I began having the richest conversations of my professional life by participating in a year-long investigation of best teaching practices with a band of amazing, inquisitive teachers through a group called Powerful Learning Practice.
I have found myself in the midst of an acronym, what people now refer to as a personal/professional learning network, a PLN, and my life as a teacher and learner has been utterly transformed.