ArticlesNovember 2013

Finding your Professional Learning Network

Noah Geisel

By Noah Geisel, Spanish teacher at Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Colorado; 2013 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year.



At the start of this school year, our staff engaged in a professional development activity exploring mindfulness. We took a field trip to a meditation studio where we received training on breathing routines and affirmation exercises. During one affirmation exercise, we closed our eyes and were guided to our Special Place.  Far from being relaxed, I was excitedly carried away as I began to see the connections between my PLN (Personal Learning Network) and my Special Place. I invite you to keep your eyes open and join me on a journey of understanding PLNs through an affirmation exercise (Special thanks to Allyson Levine, who led the affirmation exercise and whose words are in italics).

Imagine yourself in a special place that you love to be in.

In your practice of professional development, where do you love to be?  For me, my special place is the staff lounge, a colleague’s classrooms, shadowing deans and on social networks…anywhere I can collaborate, share and learn.

It might be in a place that you’ve been before or it could be somewhere that you’ve never been that you’re creating right now.

In most schools, efforts have been made to systemize this place for us through Professional Learning Communities.  When done well, these are high functioning groups doing model work to improve practices and increase student achievement.  But there are also many staffs for whom ‘PLC’ is a dirty word.  The focus of the work is dictated and teachers do not choose whom they get to work with, nor the scope of their task.  The motivation is extrinsic.  PLCs are not inherently bad (quite the contrary), but rather unlikely to be the scene of our Special Place; thus, the need to create our own environment.

Maybe a bedroom or a garden or somewhere entirely created in your imagination.

Leaders in our profession have paved the way for us in this affirmation exercise by imagining a new way of considering our professional learning and sharing. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the PLN is also its most exciting: it does not yet have a concrete definition. Ask ten educational technology thought leader mavens to describe their PLN, and you are likely to get an array of explanations. A common theme, however, would be that the motivation to participate is intrinsic.

Go there and start to pay attention to its details.  What does it smell like?  What does it look like?  Is it very simple or is it very elaborate?  What do you like to do in this place?

Your PLN is as deeply personal as the “special place” in this affirmation.  You decide if it is narrow or broad, densely or sparsely populated, and how often to visit.

It might be some place that you rest or relax or maybe there’s an activity waiting for you.

How you tap into your PLN is up to you.  For many educators, sharing with others who have similar interests is a key driver of the joy they derive from their PLN.  They blog about their classrooms and schools, and the latest apps and websites that excite them. They tweet

They tweet dozens of daily links to recommended reading and publicly converse with others in their PLN.  And they curate useful content on Pinterest, Tumblr, Learnist and other websites. Other educators are more passive, subscribing via RSS feeds to their favorite blogs and checking the social network postings of those they most respect for new ideas to spark innovations and adaptations in their own professional development.

My PLN Special Place is a hybrid.  I am an infrequent blogger but regular tweeter.  The majority of time I spend with my PLN is as a proactive consumer of content.  Rather than comb through full issues of professional journals, I rely on others to point me in the direction of the day’s best and most important reads.  When reading blogs, I almost always read the comments that follow and occasionally engage in these conversations.  Using the social bookmarking tool Diigo, I am prolific in bookmarking and tagging anything of interest and often share my bookmarks with my PLN.

It’s a place for you to call your own and where you can go to find peace and calm and feel safe.  Take your time to enjoy this place and do whatever makes YOU feel happy here.

Just like the Special Place in this affirmation, your PLN is yours and only yours.  You build it with the pieces that inspire, teach, calm and enrich you.  You build it to be a sanctuary where you want to spend time. While you are using it for professional growth and development, it does not feel like work. You do not have contract hours to fulfill and are not being evaluated on your engagement.

Your presence – and that of others who inhabit your PLN – is entirely as you wish it to be. You choose the scope of your development and the colleagues who will keep you company.

The “safe” aspect of your Special Place can be especially comforting.  Your PLN is usually free of judgment and can be the perfect outlet for the difficult (but necessary for professional growth) task of admitting you know what you don’t know and seeking help.  That said, the freedom from ridicule is relative to your use.  If you engage in political, emotional or personal rants, be prepared for your PLN to hold you accountable. 



This 140 character microblogging platform offers more than the latest musings of Lady Gaga. Thousands of language teachers from across the planet are using Twitter for professional growth. If you are new to Twitter, the hard part – finding fellow educators to follow – has been done for you.  Cybraryman’s PLN All Star Page  is a launch pad for discovering recommended folks to follow. From there, look at who these leaders follow and within minutes you have a basis.  Warning: Don’t get overwhelmed with information! Remember that your PLN is your Special Place and there is no expectation of how many posts you read. Try scheduling a daily or weekly time to spend a few minutes exploring.

Chats are another benefit of Twitter.  Organized around a weekly topic, it is a regular time for educators with common interests to spend an hour conversing and sharing around a question set by the chat’s moderators. Outside of these chats, some members of your PLN – especially those with thousands of followers – may be inaccessible for reciprocal dialogue but, during that hour, democracy reigns and conversation flows. For World Languages teachers, #LangChat is every Thursday at 8pm EST. has a comprehensive listing of education chats.


Nearly every issue of my education association’s magazine warns of the dangers Facebook poses to educators. Scarcely a month goes by without a news cycle detailing the scandalous downfall of a teacher whose career was destroyed by Facebook indiscretions.  That said, the easy way to avoid indiscretions is to be discrete.  If you are already on Facebook, consider maintaining multiple accounts, with one dedicated to professional use.

While most use Facebook to connect with friends, the medium’s power to boost your PLN is in its Groups function.  Searching for your state language association’s page is a start. Another way to find groups is to friend (it’s a verb now!) power users like ACTFL President Toni Theisen and peek at the groups to which they belong.  Because World Languages Facebook groups are smaller, conversations are intimate and the content considerably less voluminous than on platforms such as Twitter.  Posts tend to be exclusively related to World Languages, so you do not spend your PLN time scrolling through baby pictures and eating habits of people who you do not even know offline.


Pinterest is like a bulletin board for curating content.  Many teachers use it as a sort of graphic organizer for bookmarking resources.  Amy Lenord’s page is a well-organized model to check out.



Your Personal Learning Network does not need to be limited to networking. There are dozens of quality blogs by language teachers.  The format lends itself to brevity, so you learn a lot in short bursts of reading. In addition to the writers’ posts, the comment sections of World Languages blogs are an ideal setting to engage with colleagues who read the same post as you. It can be like a book club, except you know that everyone else also reads the book and is not just there for the wine. Some sites aid in discovering other blogs by listing a “blog roll” of blogs the authors enjoy.


A hybrid between traditional blogging, Twitter and Pinterest, Tumblr allows for posts of any length with seamless integration of media. Tumblr is gaining traction with teachers for both professional development and classroom uses.  You can build a Tumblr page that will be meet your needs in minutes.  Blogging and following aspects are straightforward.  The content curation component, through the “re-blog” function, is the most powerful use I have found.  When someone I follow posts content I find useful, a single click reposts it to my own feed (  Tumblr’s straightforward tagging system also facilitates discovery of the content you want.  For a fun example of how this works, substitute the word in your target language for infographic at the end of this url:


Every teacher I know has employed YouTube videos in their lessons. For your PLN, take this to the next level by seeking out and subscribing to Channels. Find one you like and Google will take care of the rest by suggesting similar channels. Check out for example this German learning channel. Be conscientious in your subscription content and privacy settings as your consumption might be public. For example, I enjoy the Mexican comedy troupe Werevertumorro channel as a way to practice my listening comprehension, but the subject matter is rarely, if ever, school appropriate.


Like readers who enjoy the sensory benefits of holding an old-fashioned book with paper pages, language conferences remain in style. Social networking tools can assist in bringing new contacts into your PLN and sustain the enthusiasm and collaboration in the weeks and months after a conference.
If you have “been there, done that” and are over traditional conferences, consider attending an Unconference. Unconferences vary in their structure but most take place on a single day and are free to attend. There is no keynote speaker nor predetermined conference schedule.  The attendees gather and suggest sessions they would like to lead or attend. A few minutes later, voila! a schedule has been created. Every unconference I have attended has been beyond inspiring. The EdCamp movement is a driving force in unconference organizing for educators and their site lists upcoming events. If you do not find one near you, engage your PLN and start your own!


The digital tools for your PLN are problematic in one way: we educators are forcing social networking mediums that were not built for us to meet our needs. Markets however, are smart and will fill in the gap where unexploited niches exist. Already, “edupreneurs” are working on providing an education solution to the social network quandary. An early frontrunner is Sanderling (Full disclosure: I have a professional relationship with Sanderling’s creator, An Estuary).  Currently in Beta testing, Sanderling hopes to be the social network for and by educators that becomes the new home of our PLN. Like other platforms, users may follow one another and interact through posts, but in addition to following other teachers, they also have the option of following the goals that others post.  This functionality will allow for a brand of micro following and lead to targeted consumption of the specific content that you most need from your PLN. Whether it is Sanderling or another network that eventually emerges as the new Twitter for Teachers, I am confident that it will be a PLN Special Place indeed.

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