5 reasons to find a virtual community of educators now!

04/01/2012  |  ROD POWELL
virtual classrooms

Each morning, I walk from my home to the high school where I teach history. It’s a brief journey, but it gives me time to reflect. Last fall, as August turned to September, I found myself thinking, “This feels just like last year, and the year before.”

Sure, the semester was off to a smooth start. My pacing guides and lessons were in place, well-aligned with the state’s standards and assessments. I’d planned to make the most of my classroom’s technology with digital, project-based learning. As a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), I had the strategies and mindset I needed to help my students succeed.

But something was missing. Kicking off my 24th year of teaching, I was nostalgic for the excitement and sense of creativity I felt earlier in my career.

Enter an email from Nancy Gardner, our “force-of-nature” senior English teacher. (You have a Nancy at your school, right? She may be diminutive, but she carries more respect and clout than the head football coach!) I scanned her email about an upcoming opportunity, intrigued by phrases like “designing and piloting curriculum and assessments,” “virtual meetings and webinars,” and (something I’d not yet fully explored) “Common Core Standards.”

I had found the spark that was missing — a vibrant virtual community of educators focused on an important issue. I want to share more about my experience and why I’d encourage you to seek out similar opportunities.

Reason #1: Explore Issues That You Care About

The Implementing Common Core Standards (ICCS) community convened by the Center for Teaching Quality includes 18 NBCTs from a cross-section of rural, suburban, and urban schools in North Carolina and Kentucky. We have been developing lesson plans and modules aligned with the new Common Core standards. We’ve also been piloting (and giving feedback on) assessment tools created by the Literacy Design Collaborative and Math Design Collaborative. Our work is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Our virtual community “lives” on the Teacher Leaders Network, the online platform of the Center for Teaching Quality. In addition to asynchronous discussions, we also take part in regular webinars and have had two face-to-face meetings.

But the virtual community is where the action happens — intense discussions about the standards, practical questions about implementation, and constructive feedback. We post drafts, reflections, and resources on a group Wiki. We strategize about how to share what we’ve learned with other teachers.

Thanks to my virtual community, I’ve learned a great deal about the Common Core Standards — and what they mean for my own classroom practice. Previously, “Common Core” was on my radar, but I didn’t know enough to realize that these standards could help my teaching become more relevant and meaningful.

Reason #2: Share, Refine and Steal Ideas

How many times have you planned and carried out a lesson or unit that “clicked,” only to have it remain in your own classroom? Maybe your students have created podcasts with “Advice for Romantic Poets,” or maybe you’ve guided virtual tours of a faraway museum. Sure, you might’ve mentioned it to a teacher in the next classroom or with your department. A few others at your school may have “borrowed” your idea. But sometimes your effective lesson went no further than your own students.

Virtual communities allow us to share great ideas with a much broader audience.

And the ideas don’t even have to be great to begin with! Virtual communities can help us refine and improve our lesson plans. As I posted my planning documents, community members asked, “What would happen if you tried this?” They wanted to know, “Why did you choose this primary source?” And I was asking them the very same questions. We were critical friends — and the results were outstanding.

I designed a Common Core-aligned unit that asked students to consider the relationships of different groups (farmers, city dwellers, robber barons, immigrants) to the American Dream during the Gilded Age.

I wanted my students to analyze and write about documents from the period — but found it difficult to choose from hundreds of potential sources. Reading other community members’ planning reflections was a lifesaver. Because of my students’ varied reading levels, I eventually settled on a wide range of brief excerpts from documents, including Carnegie’s “Climbing the Ladder” address, Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, and Norris’s The Octopus. A wide variety of shorter selections gave students the opportunity to work with sources fitting their own interests.

I struggled with an organized way to have students analyze primary sources, like diaries, letters, and journals. Robin Reid to the rescue! She was quick to suggest the APPARTS method (Google it!) of primary source analysis.

Meanwhile, Kim Tuttle’s wiki entry about her own module inspired a follow-up activity to my Gilded Age module: my students delivered Robber Baron Hall of Fame Acceptance Speeches, composed as podcasts using Garageband software. The much-maligned Robber Barons had their moment, justifying their wealth and influence in brief statements.

Reason #3: Address Specific Challenges

Beginning to implement Common Core Standards was energizing, but it wasn’t without snags, sidetracks, and slowdowns. My virtual community helped sort out specific difficulties I had in putting the standards into action in my classroom.

I’d spent two decades focusing my instruction on a narrow curriculum that revolved around a multiple choice exam. Suffice it to say, my skills in writing and teaching writing needed practice. My virtual community helped me figure out how to resurrect and practice those dormant skills. And as I read examples of evaluated student work samples posted on the group wiki by Robin Reid and Steve Stith, I realized that I needed to “play to my strengths” as a social studies teacher, focusing on students’ historical analysis skills.

Reason #4: Prepare to Influence Policy

Virtual learning communities give classroom teachers opportunities to broaden their understanding of educational policy. I’ve never considered myself to be a policy-oriented teacher. I’ve been content to work within the confines of my classroom, making it the best learning environment possible. But I’ve come to realize that I was often frustrated and restricted by a narrow curriculum and assessments.

My work with the ICCS group has forced me out of the comfort zone of my own classroom. My virtual community has convinced me that my ideas are worth sharing — on our virtual platform and beyond it.

I’ve become more outspoken about mentoring student teachers, teacher leadership and its role in student achievement, and curriculum design and implementation. And I’ve begun to volunteer for leadership roles, like heading up a curriculum integration initiative among teachers of social studies, language arts, foreign language, and exceptional students. Similarly, I’ve “crashed” a district-level Common Core planning meeting to speak up about the innovative work my ICCS team has completed. I have offered to help lead district-level professional development.

Responsible policymakers have a need to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in education. My virtual community has connected me with other teachers who want to influence these policymakers — and given us space and time to plan for how to reach out.

Reason #5: Inspire Virtual Learning in Your Own School

My ICCS colleages are located in communities across North Carolina and Kentucky. But within our own schools, teachers can create and use virtual communities to share great ideas (lessons, classroom management techniques), receive feedback and constructive criticism, and collaborate — even when we do not have common planning time. And virtual platforms even have the potential to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional schoolwide meetings.

A Final View

As my school moves toward the implementation of Common Core standards, our faculty has begun attending professional development sessions. So far they’ve been pretty traditional: after-school sessions led by experts trained during the summer. Meetings are generally one-to-one and a half hour long, including powerpoint presentations and handouts, with limited time for discussion.

The presenters do their best to deliver appropriate material in a coherent fashion, but opportunities for growth stop there. As I write this in January 2012, there is little structure in place for assistance in planning, carrying out, or assessing the effectiveness of the new strategies. Teachers are left to their own devices to implement the training.

Virtual communities can offer these missing components. My ICCS community has given me avenues for feedback and reflection. Even in the planning phase, I can receive feedback from creative NBCTs on the group wiki, and my students benefit from these ideas about materials, strategies, and differentiation.

Contrary to how I felt at the start of the year, I now consider myself an energized, “in the trenches” kind of teacher. Virtual communities offer all of us an opportunity to break down the walls of our classrooms. We can use them to learn more about important issues in our profession, develop and share innovative classroom strategies, tackle challenges, develop our policy chops, and help our local colleagues find better ways to learn and collaborate.

Rod Powell, a National Board Certified Teacher with 24 years of experience, teaches history at Mooresville Senior High School in Mooresville, North Carolina. He is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Implementing Common Core Standards initiative.

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