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Growing Professional Learning Conversations with #cyberPD

by Cathy Mere
 | Jul 31, 2012
What happens when three colleagues in a professional learning community want to talk about the same book, but live hundreds of miles apart? The answer is an event we like to call #cyberPD. This year, our now annual #cyberPD event ran through much of July.

The event began spontaneously last year when Jill Fisch of My Primary Passion, Laura Komos of Camp Read-a-Lot, and I were sharing our stacks of planned professional summer reading on our blogs. When we realized we had similar books in our stacks, we thought it might be interesting to discuss the books together. Since we do not live close enough to make coffee and conversation possible, we decided to discuss the books across our blogs. Using Twitter as our main tool for communication, we asked other colleagues if they’d like to join us. Before we knew it, we had a collaborative learning conversation growing across blogs.

This year our conversation doubled to more than 25 blogs chatting about Peter Johnston’s book, OPENING MINDS: USING LANGUAGE TO CHANGE LIVES (Stenhouse, 2012). Laura, Jill and I began by dividing the book into three discussable sections. Then we each hosted a week of conversation on our blog.

After reading each section colleagues could participate in the following ways:
  • linking a blog reflection to the host blog
  • leaving a comment on the host blog
  • commenting on Twitter using the #cyberPD hashtag
  • adding comments to our Wallwisher
Over three weeks, participants read the determined selection, shared their reflections, and then commented on one another’s blogs. Growing Conversations

In a #cyberPD reflection at Mentor Texts with Lynne and Rose, Rose Cappelli posted this comment about using this format for a professional learning conversation:
I had started reading OPENING MINDS a few months ago, but felt I really needed to talk to someone about it. Although I knew many others who were reading it, there just wasn’t time for a lingering discussion. Being able to share ideas with so many outstanding professionals and incorporate the thinking of others into my thinking has most certainly helped me to deepen my understanding of the book.
Rose’s statement caught my attention as I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why #cyberPD works. I''ve read books on my own, participated in book talks at my school, and even chatted with others informally about professional reading. There is something about participating across blogs in this learning community that brings opportunities to stretch our thinking. Maybe it''s the opportunity to really "hear" what others think and to have time to thoughtfully consider their ideas. Maybe it''s the variety of individuals from around the globe. Maybe it''s the time to think about all that we''ve read and synthesize it in a way that we can share it with others. I''m not really sure. Peter Johnston reminds us:
Our ability to think alone is substantially dependent on our ability to think together. Individual minds are nurtured in the conversations - the interactive thinking - of the community (OPENING MINDS, p. 96).
This year’s #cyberPD conversation was a collaborative learning experience that evolved because of everyone’s expertise and participation. In addition to the posts written by participants and collected at Jog the Web, a Google.doc was started by Julie Balen to collaboratively collect language suggestions for our classrooms. Carol Wilcox has offered to host a final post at Carol’s Corner on Wednesday, August 1st for participants to synthesize their reflections, plan next steps, or share links to other related information.

Why Virtual Learning Communities?

Recently I was in a professional development session. It was the typical session with a speaker, notetaking, and listening alongside other colleagues in my district. We had four real walls and a door. There was a lot of great conversation when a friend asked, “Do you find you can have these kinds of conversations in your building?”

Her question caused me to pause for a moment. There was a time when this was the main network one might develop, a network at the building level. I realized, for the first time, I have cultivated a professional learning community beyond a local level that constantly has these educational conversations. Being part of a community that shares information and pushes my thinking helps me to improve the work I do every day with children in the classroom. Though I value my local network, my learning community has grown exponentially because of connections on Twitter, blogs, virtual book talks, and other social media networks.

My virtual community is passionate about education and learning. The book discussions on #cyberPD grew out of this community and a common interest. These educators are there any time of the day or night to discuss ideas, share resources, or help with a question. It seems, by reflecting online and reading the thinking of other participants, learning is magnified.

The benefits of virtual booktalks like the ones we have in #cyberPD include:
  • Convenience: professional development from your couch—or anywhere
  • Flexible schedule: work at your convenience
  • Time to synthesize learning
  • Places to respond to thinking of others
  • Equal voices in conversation
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Benefit from the expertise of others
When we are gathered around a table in the same room for a professional reading conversation, it is sometimes true that the conversation is dominated by a few people in the group. When thinking is shared across blogs, everyone has an equal voice. No one voice dominates the conversation. Our understandings are deepened by the multiple perspectives of participants.

We can now think beyond traditional ways of participating in professional development opportunities. Though, as an educator, I do not have the money to attend every professional conference I would like to attend, through social connections on the Internet I am able to learn from others at any time. While adding a virtual component to a local book discussion would provide benefits in learning, the real benefit in these learning structures is our ability to connect to others from around the world who share our interests and passions.

The real benefit is in the powerful conversations we share.

Cathy Mere is a co-host of #cyberPD, Twitter addict, literacy advocate and participant in virtual learning communities. She is the author of MORE THAN GUIDED READING: FINDING THE RIGHT INSTRUCTIONAL MIX K-3 (Stenhouse, 2005). Her virtual home is Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community.

© 2012 Cathy Mere. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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