Grow Your Network: Become a Detective

by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano
Cross posted to the Langwitches Blog

Connected Educator Month is only a few days away.

Seeking to build on this success, the Department of Education has called together a second Connected Educator Month, to be held (by educator request) in October, 2013. This year’s event will have a special emphasis on helping districts promote and integrate online social learning in their formal professional development.

Other goals include:

  • Getting more educators “connected” (to each other)

  • Deepening and sustaining learning of those already connected

  • Stimulating and supporting collaboration and innovation in professional development.

Looking at the goals, I want to take a closer look at “getting more educators connected”. I see Twitter profiles of educators every day who have “jumped on board” by joining “The Twitter”. I wonder if these newbies are network literate? Where do they receive the support to grow? Who supports them?

A typical profile might look like the one below. No tweets and tentatively starting to follow random people.


Or it might look like this one, with already a few tweets under the belt and a growing number of people to follow.


At this point I am following over 5000 educators. That might seem a lot and very overwhelming to many. I acknowledge the point of view of many others who have unfollowed everyone on their Twitter list, to handpick few they wanted to follow. Others have a large disproportionate difference between the number of people that follow them and the one they follow. These methods  work for them.


Twitter is about building, growing and maintaining your network for YOU. It has to work for YOU! My network would not necessarily work for someone else. I would not get the same benefits out of someone else’s network. That is why it is called PERSONAL.


I am also fiercely protective of the kind of educators I follow. I will unfollow people as my own interests change, grow and evolve. I unfollow people, when THEY interests and the things they tweet about change.

I am a “connector” though. I work with colleagues from all subject areas and different grade levels. I want to be able to curate and funnel resources to the Art teachers as well as to the Math teachers. I might be looking for collaboration partners, peers or experts who can bring in different perspectives, authentic feedback and serve as primary sources. My role as a connector is facilitated when I receive a constant stream of ideas and resources, I did not even know I was looking for them. I don’t want to rely on people specifically having to @mention my username to make me aware.

Creating a Twitter account (or starting your own blog) is only the first step in building a PLN (Personal/Professional Learning Network). Your network won’t build or grow itself. I am on a constant lookout to STRATEGICALLY add members to my Twitter network that will enhance the QUALITY of content of my feed.

Here are some strategies that work for me.


Be clear about what you want out of your network.

  • information filter?
  • resource curation?
  • support for your learning?
  • potential collaborators?
  • global audience?
  • controversial discussions?
  • stimulating discussions?
  • opportunities to read and write in other languages?
  • multiple points of view?
  • preaching to the choir?
  • answers to burning questions?
  • tech support?

…and what you will or will not tolerate

  • non-educational related issues (sports scores? illnesses? family affairs?, etc.)?
  • foul language?
  • bullying?
  • self-promotion?

Once you have an idea of how your network will help your specific learning needs it is time to actively and strategically grow.


Become a detective

  • by reading blog posts
    Blogs are great spaces to intentionally be looking for twitter handles of educators that are involved, transparent and willing to share. Reading blogs about your specific interests and learning needs will yield new additions to your network. Read the posts with the intention to look for connections. Does the author mention other collaborators or resources? Does he/she include additional Twitter handles in the post? Follow these links! Check to see if the mentioned twitter user feeds match your criteria of quality followers for your purposes?
    In the example below, I found the link to a Math blog on Twitter, which in turned shared the Twitter handles of various connected Math educators. Bingo, for the connector, who wants to support her Math teachers with resources, ideas and potential members for their learning network.
    @Trianglemancsd, @bobloch, @mbosma8, @LukeSelfwalker, @ddmeyer, @fawnpnguyenAs you are reading blogs,  take the time to check if the blog author is on Twitter. Most blogs will should have  Social Network buttons displayed in one of their sidebars or as a link in the top navigation bar. Click on the link, check out their Twitter feed and, if interesting, follow them.
    twitter- link
  • by taking  advantage of people using personal brands
    Sometimes, unfortunately, bloggers don’t easily display a link to their Twitter feed. It requires a little more detective work. In the example below, you will see a blog about TCKs (Third Culture Kids), that I am a reader of. The name of the blog is DrieCulturen, but I was having trouble finding a direct link to a Twitter account.
    It was worth a shot to hope that the author was thinking about personal branding and was using the same username “DrieCulturen“on Twitter. Bingo… I was able to find the Twitter feed and start following them.
  • by commenting and following up on blog posts
    When you leave comments (make sure you also include your Twitter handle) on blog posts that are of interest to you, it is worthwhile checking back to see who else has left a comment and contributed to the conversation. Follow the breadcrumbs to check out their blog and/or Twitter feed.
  • by exploring twitter followings
    When I find a Twitter feed that is especially interesting, I wonder who inspires that person? Where do they get their resources? Collaboration or discussion partners? I check out the list of people THEY follow to be able to harvest potential quality contributors to MY feed.
  • by exploring twitter lists
    Twitter allows users to create public or private lists of specific users they follow. Once I find an educator who contributes significantly to my learning, I take a look if they have taken the time to organize the people they follow into a specific lists. I can also see, the lists that they have have subscribed to an are a member of, which will give me further people to explore.
  • regularly check who has started following you
    Make it a habit to check who has started following you. Take the time to click yourself through to their profile and their last tweets in order to make a strategic decision to follow them back or not. Once someone looks interesting, digg deeper by following some of the strategies mentioned above.
  • pay attention who @mentions you on Twitter
    People who take the time to interact with you on Twitter (not the spamming kind of mentions) are always worth to check out. These twitterers have already shown that they are interested in connecting and contributing.
  • tweet out specific requests
    Looking for resources or collaborators? Just tweet it out and see who response as well who gets recommended to check out.


What are some of your strategies you use to grow your network? How do you read online with a lens of network literacy? As you make your own thinking visible, HOW are we going to teach these strategies to our student ? Is anyone teaching them?

How “Kid Talk” Can Change Student Understanding


By Kathleen Cushman

The teachers I know are always talking about kids in informal ways. They do it at the copy machine, at home, at social gatherings—anywhere they relax enough to answer the question “How’s it going?” And, like anyone whose vocation is to work with other people, their talk is full of stories. They tell of frustrating moments and of triumphant ones, of hilarious moments and heartbreaking ones. Listening, it’s so clear how much most teachers care what happens to their students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

But very few teachers have the time structured into their workday to turn that “kid talk” into a collaborative and productive professional discourse, which advances not only the teacher’s understanding but also that of students.


Kids’ stories matter to learning

Neuroscience tells us that all students come to us with existing knowledge, in the form of neuronal networks built up through their individual experiences. The information in those networks affects everything they know, think, feel, or do. So “what’s going on” with particular students matters enormously to their teachers on a biological level. It necessarily affects their learning process—their understandings or misunderstandings, their partial ideas, their developing skills, everything.

“We must let our students use the neuronal networks they already have,” writes James Zull in his wonderful 2002 book The Art of Changing the Brain:

We cannot create new ones out of thin air or by putting them on a blackboard. And we cannot excise old ones. . . . Even the most focused of brains finds itself bouncing from neuronal network to neuronal network in a lecture or during a lesson. And the connections are totally unpredictable. A single word can send a mind off through a tangle of neuronal network underbrush.

Designing a science unit on combustion in a Colorado middle school, John McKinney, a teacher-contributor to my book The Motivation Equation, asked his eighth graders about their own personal experiences of fire. Many brought up the terrifying wildfires that had recently raged through their state. ”I knew someone who’d been on fire before,” one kid said. Another called himself a “pyrotechnic,” saying, “The danger yet calmness of the flame interests me.” On the day that Mr. McKinney ignited a “turkey pan forest fire” in controlled conditions out on the school’s asphalt driveway, reactions from his class ranged from “Ooohh, you rock!” to cautious fascination.

Five months later, every single student could still explain with exceptional accuracy the central scientific concepts of combustion McKinney had targeted in his unit. No doubt the networks had altered for each student in very individual ways—but all had come away with substantive understanding built on the old ones.


How to use the stories

In schools that schedule regular “kid talk,” I have seen teachers working together in ways that acknowledge and make use of the individual experiences and mental models of their students. Together they look for ways to start their lessons with genuine inquiry. They don’t begin with what the teacher knows but rather with what learners already “know.” What personal stories, metaphors, images does each learner bring to his or her understanding of the world? The more teachers know about that, the better they can design lessons that race through their students’ neuronal networks’ underbrush and set their minds on fire.

Like McKinney, they may start with a powerful attention-grabber, then ask a question like “What does this make you think of?” What students come up with may be incorrect, but the artful teacher draws it out and builds on it, creating new concrete experiences that fill in the gaps, enriching and completing the ideas that kids arrive with.

Teachers cannot accomplish that without knowing their students: their histories and their hopes, their issues and their interests, the stories they carry inside their heads. That kind of knowing can’t just be shared with colleagues at the water-cooler. It deserves at least one schedule block a week in which teachers who share the same students (such as a grade-level team) come together to enrich each other’s understanding of who those learners really are. When thoughtfully put to use in lesson planning, the resulting information is worth its weight in gold.


What might this look like in your everyday practice?

Step 1. In class, ask pairs of students to take turns explaining to each other their previous experiences and ideas about the subject you’ll be teaching. (For example, “What do you already know or think about the rights that a citizen has under the U.S. Constitution?”) If possible, have them record each other’s responses on video or audio. Even in their roughest form, such clips provide valuable material—first for you in designing your lessons, and later for students as they reflect on how their understanding has grown.

Step 2. With colleagues, review what you’ve learned. What stories are your students carrying within their heads? What prior experiences or associations do they have with your material, either positive or negative? This tool (Tool,PlanningForMotivation) can help you make notes on both the value that students may already place on the material and their expectation of success in working with it further.

Step 3. Conduct a lesson study that focuses on designing tasks with student motivation in mind. Using this collegial protocol, Protocol_Designing for Motivation & Mastery, one teacher can describe to the group a lesson or unit in which students seemed especially motivated (or not). What were its learning goals? How did the teacher connect the task to what individual students valued? How did the teacher make sure that every student could expect to succeed at the goals? What input from students did the teacher have available?



For examples of what students are thinking about teaching and learning, check out these one-minute videos from the Just Listen series at What Kids Can Do.

WKCD’s 6-minute animated “Insider’s Guide to the Teenager’s Brain” now appears on Zaption in a self-paced guided video discussion version for teachers (free signup required).

Kathleen Cushman is co-founder of What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit that documents the experiences and insights of youth to increase equity, opportunity, and powerful learning for all. Her new multimedia e-book The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids Minds on Fire is available free to educators on any web browser or iOS device; contact


Thinking Differently about Learning- Bringing in an Expert

Cross posted on Langwitches Blog by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano

I am working hard at being a “connector” at my new school. I want to help shift the culture to thinking differently about learning. Bringing in experts from around the world to make a topic and content come alive, to answer questions and taking learning off the pages of a book is a critical component of modern learning. I don’t want a Skype call to be an isolated incidence, but to be part of:
  • how we learn
  • how we dig deeper into information
  • how we research, analyze and evaluate information
  • how we become aware of different perspectives
One of our 7th grade Humanities class is on to something BIG! They are STORYTELLERS. They are developing a story that soon the entire Graded community and the WORLD will share. Shhhh…. I can’t and don’t want to give too much away, but be prepared… it is BIG :)
Just a tiny clue…
In order to prepare, they have called in an expert, Christine Weitbrecht, a transmedia storytelling specialist,  to answer some of their immediate questions and guide them as they are developing their storyline.
Students were well prepared for the Skype interview (which makes THE difference between a Skype call and a LEARNING call) and shared the responsibilities to introduce our school, the project, give an overview of the storyline so far and then dig deeper into questions.
These 7th graders articulated their questions:
  • How can we best introduce the story to others? What would be the best way to start? What should the timeline be?
  • What about interactivity? Will the audience have a say in how the story continues?
  • Why does Ms. Weitbrech feel that transmedia is the future of storytelling and marketing?

On my school blog, I have posted the following questions to the students after the Skype call:

  • What were the advantages of bringing in an expert via Skype to the classroom?
  • Could students have learned the answers to their questions simply from a book?
  • Will the Skype interview support and shape students’ future work on their project?
  • What are some other opportunities in school, when bringing in an “expert” via Skype could help students learn?
  • What do you think?

If you can spare a moment read their comments and maybe even leave them a reply. I do want to highlight a few excerpts of the comments for you here though.

Mr. Beck (teacher):

[…] I think the skype conference with Christine took this project to a new level. Without her expertise, we would have been guessing rather than being deliberate in our decisions on how to actual tell a story using the interactive power of transmedia. As a teacher I learned that even if you don’t fully understand new developments in your field, you can reach out to experts in the real world who can not only serve as excellent facilitators for student learning, but can also be inspirational.

Juan Carlos:

Since she was an expert and we were just starting to learn about trans-media, we learned a lot of things that we needed to know but before we didn’t know. She gave ideas and suggestions that by ourselves I think we couldn’t have come up with. I also think that some of the answers to our questions couldn’t have been answered by a book. For example the question ” Why does Ms. Weitbrech feel that transmedia is the future of storytelling and marketing ? ” couldn’t have been answered by a book because it has to be her own opinion

Ji Won

[…] I think that this Skype interview would be way better than reading off of a book. Although, books are an amazing way of learning and educating, this Skype interview with Christine, an expert, would be much helpful because we got to ask questions unlike a book. Also, books have a limit of information. It only teaches us what is written in it, but an interview is more “interactive.” She gave us suggestions in how we could start our project. Since this project is based on a new type of story, it helped us a lot in how to manage it while it is running. A Skype interview with an expert helped a lot because Christine is an expert in Transmedia and we were beginners. I think that a Skype interview would really support and shape students’ future work.  […]


[…] She gave us information to improve on our story, and to really give it that “push” that it needs to get of the ground. Also I think that it was useful to talk to her because most of us are not used to writing a story like this. We can wright essays or papers and maybe even a short story. Were as she helped us out with something we had not experienced before.[…]

I am asking YOU the same questions than we asked the students. How have you, as an educator, taken learning off the pages of a book by bringing in “experts” via video conferencing?  What are some other opportunities in school, when bringing in an “expert” via Skype could help students learn?

What the iPad Is and What it Isn’t

By Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano

Cross posted to the Langwitches Blog


As teachers are seeing more and more iPads in education and either using their own devices or being given a teacher iPad or a class set, it is important to realize what the iPad is and what it isn’t.

The first realization needs to be that the iPad is not (yet) intended to be a replacement for a laptop. It falls short in several areas when comparing it with a laptop, such as:

  • memory storage
  • ability to allow for easy use of multiple users
  • heavy typing tasks
  • traditional software programs such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, etc.

With the increased usage of cloud storage, 1:1 programs (where devices are not shared among users), as well as the shift away from specific software programs to web based tools, cloud synched and apps, the iPad’s future seems to be looking brighter as a one-and-only device.

The second understanding educators are embracing is the realization that there is more to iPads than finding and loading many apps to the device. It is not about finding apps as substitutions to worksheets, nor automated “kill and drill” activities to practice multiplication facts or spelling words. Educators are looking to using iPads as a tool for:

  • reading
  • presenting
  • curating
  • creating.

This takes us to the third understanding about the iPad. Originally seen as a device for consumption only, the iPad has grown up and continues to change constantly.  The iPad has become a tool for creation. A tool to personalize learning and for personal learning. It grew from a device to consume information to a thinking tool.

What is and isn’t the iPad for you? Share your thoughts.

What Motivates Students to Meet a Challenge? Student Answers and Teacher Actions


By Kathleen Cushman and Allison Zmuda

When we question our students about “what it takes to get really good at something” and give them the space to respond, it is amazing how insightful they can be—and how much of it lines up with the neuroscience of learning. Here are nine answers that students gave in the book Fires in the Mind, along with related teacher actions to consider incorporating into your regular practice.

1.  Let us see what we are aiming for

  • Show models of exemplary work
  • Show real-world connections to questions, problems, challenges that experts are facing in various fields

2Break down what we need to learn

  • Identify the knowledge and skills needed
  • Set realistic goals to create an achievable challenge

3.  Give us lots of ways to understand

  • Present concepts and skills in different ways to help students find a foothold

4.  Teach us to critique and revise everything we do

  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to make changes as they learn from mistakes
  • Keep good records of student progress on key concepts and skills

5.  Assess us all the time, not just in high-stakes ways

  • Use diagnostic and formative assessment to monitor learners’ progress
  • Focus less on the grade and more on the information you receive about your teaching from looking at student work

6.  Chart our small successes

  • Make sure all students know their individual goals—and acknowledge their progress towards them

7.  Ask us to work as an expert team

  • Teach key skills of collaboration (how to come to consensus on a plan, how to manage time, how to make sure everyone pulls their weight)
  • Evaluate collaboration skills when assessing a group project, presentation, or performance

8.  Help us extend our knowledge through using it

  • Build meaningful applications of concepts and skills into daily instruction and larger projects

9.  Use performances to assess our academic understanding

  • Seek out audiences for student work so as to underline its authenticity and relevance
  • Make time for students to rehearse, critique, and revise before their presentations


Two more suggestions to make this come alive in your classroom or school:

  • Give your students the list above (minus teacher actions) and ask for their input. What would they change about it, and why?
  • Have your students create their own list of advice. You might use this free publication by What Kids Can Do: “First Ask, Then Listen: How to Get Your Students to Help You Teach Them Better.”

Finally, don’t forget your part. Make your own contract to the students in support of their motivation to learn.


Kathleen Cushman is co-founder of What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit that documents the experiences and insights of youth to increase equity, opportunity, and powerful learning for all. Her new multimedia e-book The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids Minds on Fire is available free to educators on any web browser or iOS device; contact

Allison Zmuda is an author and education consultant whose focus is creating dynamic learning environments for like-minded educators, parents, and kids. She has authored six books and her latest book, Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning, (ASCD, 2010) inspired the development of her new website Just Start! Kids and Schools. Allison serves as co-founder and curator of the site devoted to re-imagining what schooling looks like through the exchange of ideas and examples. Allison can be contacted via email: