I'm too busy to go to the doctor, and other teacher avoidance-techniques

Nose and finger (Stockholm)

I've been building a Professional Learning Network (PLN) for about half a year now, and while the people I am meeting are great, one segment of the profession is noticeably absent: High school ensemble directors. There are a few of us online, to be sure, but nowhere near the participation we are seeing from general music, middle school music teachers, private teachers, and college music majors. So, while I am thrilled to be interacting with those folks, we're usually not able to converse much about the classroom, which is of course the biggest reason to build a PLN.

So where are these directors? I generally find that they are "too busy" to try one more thing. This is something that I have heard regularly over my 20 year career. Too busy to run small ensembles, too busy to travel, too busy to switch kids to bassoon, too busy to go to the doctor even though I feel terrible... you get the idea. I am guilty of these statements at various times (especially the last one, which resulted in pneumonia, very dumb), but I think that overall I was fortunate to learn early on that the investment of time into pedagogy, tools, and philosophy pays dividends, and the dividends ultimately result in working smarter, not harder. 

"I'm too busy to have successful students" is of course a crazy statement. But our actions demonstrate our beliefs, and most of us work extremely hard doing the same things we've always done, hoping for better results. 

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

~Albert Einstein

Our music department has six concert bands, five choirs, three orchestras, five big bands, three vocal jazz groups, and AP Theory all within the school day in a school of about 2,000. We're pretty busy. I feel I have no choice but to work smarter at this point, and my guess is that you need to work smarter as well.

So back to my PLN. My focus has been simply to (a) share what I find and (b) share what I'm thinking about. By doing so I've met many people who are also sharing, and as a result we quickly reached a tipping point: we now receive far more ideas than we give. It's simple math. If everyone in your PLN shares one idea, you are going to get a LOT more in return than you give, and you don't need to feel guilty about it either!

Many of the ideas I've received via my PLN are now being used in my daily planning and teaching, and this is resulting in students that are more engaged and learning faster. It is leading to better record keeping, project management, assessment, and being able to look further down the road to see if where we are headed is in agreement with where we expect to go. I am able to get more done in the same amount of time....working smarter not harder.

With my workflow in pretty good shape, I'm wanting more dialogue about repertoire, instrumentation, equipment, curriculum, and so forth at the high school level. If you feel like your nose is just above the water line I encourage you to take a deep breath, join Twitter (make an account specifically for PLN building) and http://musicpln.org and start by sharing one idea per week. Pretty soon you are going to find your head above water, and eventually maybe you'll even be standing on the shore again. See you there.

Music Teachers, Web 2.0, and the Bloggers Graveyard

Ahead in the past

This afternoon I spent some time updating my feeds in Google Reader. If you haven't taken advantage of GR you really need to give it a try, in fact by not taking advantage of the tools out there for discovering and finding blogs I think we are contributing to their demise (more on that later).

A few weeks ago I put out a message on Twitter that I was looking for blogs by current public school music teachers. I was able to get a hold of about six. This afternoon I decided to go through the 2009 list assembled by Joe Pisano which at the time contained 100 active music education bloggers. I went through the list with two simple criteria: First, the blog must have a new post within the last two weeks, and two, the blog must be authored by a current public school music teacher. How many of the 100 fit the bill?

About ten. The others were either defunct or collecting dust. To be fair, there are some on that list that are active but did not meet my criteria of being authored by current public school music teachers. There are several by college profs, consultants, and studio teachers that are active. Even so, I think it's pretty clear that we have a blogging dearth in the public school profession, and this seemingly was not the case about a year ago.

Has Web 2.0 led to the demise of blogging? In a way, I believe it has. People are busy "connecting" but not spending as much time reading and writing. But at the same time Web 2.0 has provided us with the tools needed for a resurgence if we can manage to wrap our minds around a few simple thoughts.

1. Websites are becoming less relevant every day.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that people will visit your website on a daily basis looking for your latest posts. You need to bring your information to them. That is a fundamental shift in today's online world. Make sure your blog features an RSS feed (nearly all do these days) and the ability to offer subscriptions by email. This way your posts will be taken to people in whatever way is most convenient for them. It is completely possible that the majority of your readers will never visit your site. Who cares? All that matters is the content you are sharing. Bring it to their doorstep and they are more likely to read it. The site itself is inconsequential if your goal is o share your thinking with the profession.

2. Join Twitter

Twitter is quickly becoming the de facto method for distributing ideas, links, and building Professional Learning Networks. If you blog something that is worth reading, Twitter members will make sure people hear about it. My ID on Twitter is teaching_music. Start connecting with colleagues online. Having said that, please realize that Twiter is not the magic solution by itself. Twitter is very temporal, and is not (although I fear some people think it is) a replacement for blog posts.

3. Don't "try to blog" but rather share what you are doing and thinking about.

One of the biggest reasons that blogs die a quick death is because people "don't know what to write about." If teachers would focus more on sharing what they are thinking about, rather than trying to write the "perfect blog post" we would all be much better off. Don't try to change the profession in one post, just type some thoughts.

4. If you want readers, then be a good reader.

Many of us have put a blog post out there, then sat back and wondered if anyone had any thoughts about it. Leave a comment (or a tweet) the next time you read a good post. I know I myself have to get alot more proactive about this. And as I mentioned earlier, get an rss aggregator like Google Reader or Bloglines so you can manage and more easily keep up with all the posts out there. You can even just simply bookmark an rss right in your browser (called "live bookmarks" in Firefox, for example). There are also some great rss reader apps for the iPhone like NetNewsWire. Blogging in Music Education isn't about your ideas, it's about the exchange of ideas. The bottom line is that we all need to work together if we are going to revive this important aspect of the PLN. To that end, I have an RSS Feed containing some active public school music teachers, and you are welcome to subscribe to it: http://feeds.feedburner.com/MusicPlnBlogs. If I missed you and your blog fits the criteria, I would love to add you to the list. Drop me a line.

iPad: Review of Early Edition

Here is a new app that has a lot of potential if you prefer a more "newspaper-like" blog reading experience. It's called Early Edition and sells for $4.99. There are a few bugs/issues that need to be worked out, but a very nice initial effort that takes advantage of things the iPad does well.

Sorry for the low light iPhone video, but at least you'll will get the idea of this app.

Update: Bug regarding Posterous feeds has been fixed!

How A PLN Can Make You Filthy Rich

Origami dollar t-shirt

I'm starting a new association for music educators. We are going to meet monthly. The dues are one dollar per month, per member. However, each member will also receive one dollar for every member in attendance. So, if there are 100 people at the meeting, each member will give one dollar, but leave with 99 dollars. No strings attached. Pretty amazing model, wouldn't you say?

If that idea was guaranteed not to be a scam, would you do it? Of course you would! A one dollar investment that returns 99 dollars, every month? You would have to be crazy not to participate. So what is my point? It's this: although money doesn't work that way, ideas do. If, in a group of 100 teachers, each teacher shares one idea, everyone gets 99 new ideas.

Unlike money, educational ideas can be shared without losing their value.

And this is exactly what Professional Learning Networks are all about. The problem is, not enough teachers are sharing. They may think their ideas are not good enough. They may think they are too busy. They may be worried about being judged. All I can say is... if that describes you... get over it, and quick. You are cheating yourself, your students, and many other teachers (and their students). Teaching music is not a competition. All of our students deserve the best instruction.

My PLN lives in three main areas at the moment: A Facebook group of about 1,500; A Facebook page of about 600; and about 400 people I interact with on Twitter. It boggles my mind to imagine what we could do for students if each one of those people shared one idea per month. The number of participants in a PLN doesn't mean much if only a small percentage are sharing what they know.

You don't have to start a blog (but congrats to those of you who are trying it), you can simply start by posting a thought, idea, or link. Put it into the comments below this post, or post it on Twitter, or in your Facebook status. I can promise you that if we all share, we'll all get far more in return than we give.

So... do you want to be filty rich or not? Get your dollar on the table!

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io

Professional Learning Networks for Teachers

Wheel of Friendship

I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for some time now regarding the teacher-networking movement taking place. For those of us who are "longtime" users of Facebook, Twitter, and other networking tools, it has been exciting to see our colleagues begin to dip their toe into the Web 2.0 water. While we are witnessing a clear acceleration of the networking adoption rate, I am hoping to address an important semantics issue before we reach critical mass (something I expect to see within the next 24 months).

The common term being utilized for teacher interaction via the web is Personal Learning Network, or PLN. While I think that label is appropriate for people who share a common personal interest (for example, woodworking), I am concerned about using that term to describe networking within the teaching profession. We must give careful consideration to the connotations associated with the word personal (for example, taking a personal day). There is a clear dichotomy between "personal" and "professional" and I think those of us on the ground floor of the teacher-networking movement need to make sure administrators, board members, parents, and even our colleagues understand that online networking is a critical component of our professional development efforts.

Therefore, just as PLC stands for Professional Learning Community, PLN should stand for Professional Learning Network. Indeed in many ways a PLN can (and does) function as a networked version of a PLC Team. For some of us... particularly music teachers... the PLN is even more essential since most music teachers are a "team of one" in their buildings. In many cases the only way for music teachers to collaborate and share knowledge in a consistent and meaningful way is by networking with other "like content" professionals via the web. So it is imperative that we present this movement in a way that makes it abundantly clear that teacher-networking is professional development, not a "personal" or "social" pastime. Professional Learning Network fits the bill.

Networking is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my twenty-year teaching career. Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Docs have allowed me to collaborate with nearly 2,000 other music teachers, and the number is rising quickly. Yet we know that there are people who consider "social networking" to be frivolous or something that detracts from "real work." Should we get to a point where administrators tell us that networking be done on personal time (and that day is already upon many of us), we had best redouble our efforts to create a clear understanding that teacher-networking efforts are professional.

Long live the Professional Learning Network.

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io

Harnessing the Web for Better Music Teaching with Diigo

The Inefficiency of Web Surfing

I surf the web...... a lot. I gave up on saving bookmarks in my browser a long time ago. If you have more than 100 bookmarks you know why. It's a losing battle. Looking at your bookmarks, you'll be lucky if you can even recall what 25% of your bookmarks are about, based on the name alone.

So nowadays I find myself thinking "what the heck was the name of that site I stumbled upon for sightreading...." or "what was that high school on the west coast that had a great looking website...." Then I do what most of us do: I "Google it" until I can find the site again.

Hopelessly inefficient.

I've also added many links to facebook. Sure, that's a nice way to share something you've found, but what if you want to get back to it later? Facebook does not have a way to organize or search links that you have posted. You have to page back through your links to find what you want.

Again, hopelessly inefficient.

Enter Diigo.com

Then more recently I found out about diigo.com. I posted about it, and some of you have checked it out. But clearly I did not make enough of an impact upon many of you, so I thought I would blog about it. I'm hoping that by the end of this post I will have convinced you to give diigo a try. I believe it has enormous impact for us as teachers.

So in short, diigo is a site for bookmarking sites. Big deal right? Well, on the surface yes, it can seem like no big deal, just one more thing to worry about. But there are two big reasons why you should try diigo. The first is for simple productivity. How many of you have large music libraries at your school or district? Can you imagine trying to find music without a database, master list, or other system? Some of us have taken on the task of creating a catalog system for our music libraries, so we know first hand how wonderful the outcome can be. Now, instead of picking through drawer after drawer in search of a piece, we find it quickly and easily.

Well, that is what diigo does for the web. Every time I find a website that has something of interest, I send it to diigo where it gets cataloged for easy retrieval. And I can get to my diigo links from any computer easily (or even from my phone). Diigo allows you to add tags to your bookmarks, so for example I can visit my diigo page and type "wind ensemble" and I will instantly pull up all of my bookmarks tagged as such. Very powerful.

The second major reason to try diigo holds exponential power for us, and that reason is collaboration. Diigo allows you to create groups. I have created a group called (shockingly) teaching-music. Anyone who is a member of that group can share any of their diigo bookmarks to the group. Imagine the possibilities. Sure, we all teach music, but we all have our areas of specialization. If everyone shared even just a few of their favorite websites, we could build a library of thousands of helpful sites. And it all happens automatically. The group library can be sorted, searched, discussed, etc. You can receive automatic updates via email anytime links are added by others. You can post annotations over the top of sites that point out specific features. It holds tremendous promise.

Right now our group has just five thirty-two members. I hope you will seriously consider joining and adding just a few of your favorite sites. College students, I'm talking to you too! Even though you are not out in the field yet, you know a lot of great sites. One of the biggest problems we face in our profession is a resistance to working together. Please everyone, let's step up to the plate and be willing to share.

First, join diigo (it takes seconds) and then join the teaching-music group.