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Episode 19: Sustaining Support — Remote Professional Learning Networks

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

As we move into this upcoming school year, it's going to be essential for all of us to continue to build professional learning networks. With so many conferences, and Edcamps, and CoffeeEDU's canceled around the state, we really need to think about how we can continue to press in to other educators and build our understanding of the world and of education, through those networks that we have...remotely.

In this episode, I talk with three different educators about what they're doing, and how they're building out their professional learning network to continue to grow as professionals and as people.

At the New Jersey Department of Education we believe that, although professional learning networks may look different than they did last year and in prior years before that, they're so essential to continue as you look to the future of what education is and what education can be for the students of New Jersey.

Kelly Cerbone, Brick Township Public Schools

Ken: Why don't we start, could you just introduce yourself - name, district, and position?

Kelly: Sure, my name is Kelly Cerbone. I teach in Brick Township Public Schools. And, um, I teach seventh grade math, science. And I’m the last year’s, well it’s 2020 so the new one’s coming up, but the 2020 Ocean County Teacher of the Year.

Ken: Excellent. Thank you so much. 

So, I wanted to talk today about professional learning networks and the move to remote professional learning networks and how you are navigating that. You’re someone who’s super active on a lot of different platforms, so I wanted to first just ask you how a professional learning network sustained you through remote instruction. And how have you been preparing to continue those professional learning networks during this upcoming school year?

Kelly: So I’m…I actually, absolutely love this question because for me, I had a Twitter account. Um, didn’t really use it that often. And then once we were in quarantine, it actually all started with – here’s a little story. So, Cory Radisch from the Department create a CoffeeEDU Jersey Shore PLN {professional learning network}. And initially, before the quarantine, they were meeting at Barnes and Noble—like that was kind of a middle ground for everybody that was involved—and having PLN conversations. And I learned about that through Beth English, who is last year, 2020’s Monmouth County Teacher of the Year.

And so when we were in quarantine and I saw that it became a virtual experience, it was an invitation that I couldn’t pass up. It was like, okay, so I can meet with these people that are all over the state and have these fun conversations about education—these deep conversations, very meaningful—and not leave my home.

And as I can speak from my own experience in PLNs, PLNs in my school are usually with a subject area or my grade level. So, um, I’m very comfortable with that conversation. But the idea of being able to talk to people around the state and they all come from different fields and they have different lenses that they see through. And their districts are very different. They teach different subjects. Like all of these things intrigued me to be able to grow and learn as an educator.

Ken: Awesome. So yeah, it sounds like this has been a time where you’ve really pressed in and doubled-down on professional learning networks and on the relationships that you have with other educators. It’s just so important during this time when a lot of us are feeling very isolated, kind of away and separated from others, it’s excellent that you’re able to do that.

One thing thought that I want to follow up with is when I talk to those in my professional learning networks, they often say that building a deep PLN often happens when you meet with folks, both on Twitter and in-person at EdCamps, CoffeeEDUs, like you mentioned, PLCs {professional learning communities}, and professional organization conferences.

So how have you been able to sustain professional learning networks in a completely remote setting?

Kelly: So I love that question too. I think it’s different for everyone, but the more you involve yourself with different types of educators and different themes, or what—inspiration for yourself or what you see in other people, you’ll make connections with people or you’ll resonate with certain people. And you, I feel like you just organically make it personal, but you really just have to take that opportunity to kind of jump in and get your feet wet.

And I basically started from nothing. I really did. But I at least had the courage to believe that, you know, I belonged in this PLN, the CoffeeEDU one that Cory started. And you just have to…if you have a common thread, a common passion, you’re going to have something to contribute. And even if you just go to listen and just hear other people speaking about things that you’re passionate about, your likelihood is that you’ll eventually be comfortable enough to voice yourself, even if that’s not something you might be comfortable with in the beginning. You find inspiration if you’re looking for it. And it can be very empowering. And it – the days that you might be down, someone might send you something or make a comment that was just what you needed.

So I feel like just even the mental health aspect of it, it’s so powerful in that way also.

Ken: That is powerful. It reminds me of, uh, a week ago I shared with someone in my professional learning network that, you know, I was struggling with some changes that were happening, and he was able to really just talk with me and help me as a thought-partner think through how I could really revisit those things, reimagine those things, and think about the future possibilities that they represented, even though it was change and it was something different, how I could really take those and look at those as an opportunity. And that really is part of the power of the PLN, is just having those different perspectives and having folks help you change your focus. And the insights that they bring help with that in so many ways.

I wanted to also ask how you’re thinking and how your PLNs are thinking about bringing those brick and mortar experiences of professional learning networks to remote setting.

Kelly: If you’re someone who just is kind of like, you’re on Twitter but you really just follow people. And, you know, see what people are saying. That it really is in your best interest to jump in and get involved. And just find people who inspire you, maybe that intrigue you, and begin interacting with them and just trying to build that core group of people that not, just maybe they don’t think the same way as you, but they might actually push you to see things from a different perspective. Because I feel like that has been, I’ve had more growth as an educator in the last four months or five months than I’ve had in a real…—and this is my 21st year—I’m gonna almost say, in the whole first 20 years of my teaching career.

That, um, I’m grateful for everyone that has, um, pressed me in a thought, or asked me a question related to a perspective that I may have had—may have had, that has just made me reflect and think about how I see things in the world. And, um, I think a lot of times we kind of shelter ourselves to those that think the same way as us. And so I challenge educators to just kind of branch out and just embrace all that there is, because there’s so much there, you just have to look for it.

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Dr. Keri Orange-Jones, West Orange

Ken: Earlier this month, the Department held its Equity in Action conference. During the conference there were so many great sessions and so much learning around issues of equity for all types of student populations. This next conversation is one that really focuses on equity and how we, as a state, can expand equity even further into our professional learning networks.

Keri: Okay, my name is Dr. Keri Orange-Jones. I am a fifth grade science and social studies teacher in West Orange, New Jersey. And I am also an adjunct professor CUNY working in the School of Professional Studies assisting with curriculum and assessment with online business programs.

Ken: So, what are some innovative professional learning network practices that you’ve seen, both in the K to 12 setting and in the university setting that you’re working with. What has really…captured your attention?

Keri: I recently did the Drew Writing Project and completed that, which is part of the National Writing Project. And the usage of Zoom and breakout rooms so you can have smaller groups. People who are running the PLNs are more adept at doing it. So, there’s, like, smooth transitions.

I’ve also been into Twitter more and more. And I know in my school district we started having Twitter chats with questions and answers. And there’s so much information out there, um, relative not just to education procedures and techniques, but you know, with everything going on currently in the discussion of equity and things that need to happen in the classroom, I’m seeing so much more being used on Twitter and these Zoom meetings and professional development workshops that are being given.

So now we have the access in terms of people’s tweeting out texts and books and links and videos and articles. So everyone has access as opposed to you being in your own little bubble. You have broken down the global wall. And you might be across the country and we can collaborate on a project which is things that I’ve been doing as a result of this increased usage and management of technology.

Ken: Educators right now have a lot of responsibilities getting ready for this upcoming school year.

Keri: Yeah.

Ken: And a lot of times things like professional learning networks can get lost. Why do you feel like it’s important for folks to still engage in those professional learning networks, especially when it comes to issues related to equity?

Keri: Well, it’s really important now because, again I’m – I work in a district that is, it’s very diverse, yet, um, there are people that I don’t even get to come into contact with. I mean, while doing the Drew Writing Project, bring that up, I met someone who works at the high school, which is literally ten steps away from my school. So the PLN helped me make this connection with someone, you know, she teaches English Language Arts and I teach social studies, so now we’re having these discussions about what the students at the social studies level in fifth grade are doing versus what’s happening in the high school.

So because of this PLN, we’ve made this connection and now we started talking in-depth about, “what does a diverse classroom look like? What does the literature look like in a high school classroom versus what does it look like in a social studies classroom in the fifth grade? What are we doing to integrate more multiculturalism and diversity and equity into our lessons daily?”

And, you know, having that point of view from a person who’s teaching high school, so it gives me an idea of where my students are going to end up eventually and what I need to show them, so that they can look at, not just me, but look at the text in the classroom and I can tailor my education, like how I’m teaching them to meet their particular needs.

And a lot of teachers, you have veteran teachers, I’ve been teaching 23 years, but I’m also a person who’s an alternate route teacher, so I’m always grasping for a challenge and learning something new and different. And I’m not afraid to take those risks and be a renegade.

However, some people aren’t comfortable with taking those risks. And in this current climate with history, you know, I’ve run two book clubs, one on Stamped and one on the book White Fragility. So with history coming to the forefront, people are, you know, I wouldn’t say scared, but maybe reluctant to have some of these deeper conversations about race.

So now these PLNs are teaching people how to collaborate and have these conversations and these dialogues about how to talk to children at the elementary school level, at the middle school level, at the high school level. And these PLNs that I’m a part of, we support one another and bounce ideas off of one another. And I think that helps people become, not just brave in the sense of presenting the information, but also being color brave. And being able to empathize and understand other cultures and what students might go through in day-to-day life as a person of color, or even someone who identifies in the LGBTQIA community.

So I think that’s why it’s really important to continue with PLNs, because now people aren’t so isolated. Because I guarantee there’s a person out there who might have the same feelings or ideas and needs assistance. And thus, you know, we can join and help each other regardless of where we are in the world.

When you read a book, you come away with a different perspective every…even, regardless of what the text states. It’s like reading a poem. I could read a poem. You could read the same poem. We’re going to have different interpretations of the poem. So these book clubs, we have the one focus and then we have discussion questions. And people get them in advance so it gives them a chance to sit and really think about, ruminate with, questions. And then it, I think it just has a deeper meaning, because, you know, everyone comes to the table with their perspective and their answers. But then you have this good dialogue and healthy dialogue, because the focus is around a specific topic. And then there’s a non-threatening environment.

Every district has its own culture and climate, and their own nuances and issues that they have to deal with, but ultimately the goal is to educate the children and make sure that the children see and receive an education as reflective and respectful of their abilities. Because they vary of their cultures. Because they definitely vary. And that we’re very careful about microaggressions and biases and stereotypes. Making sure that we do what we can to dismantle racist thoughts and acts and beliefs.

And sometimes you don’t, I’ve always said [to] people, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And I think we’re all in a learning process right now. And I believe the professional learning networks are going to help educators navigate this very crucial time in education history. Because it is historical, what we’re all experiencing right now.

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Luigi Laugelli, Red Bank Borough Public Schools

Ken: The last interview featured in today’s episode is about how districts and charters can organize professional learning and build up professional learning networks and professional learning communities in their sites of practice virtually.

Luigi: My name is Luigi Laugelli. I am the Assistant Superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Red Bank Borough Public Schools, which is a preschool through grade eight district in Monmouth County.

Ken: So for you personally, what has the transition been like from having face-to-face professional learning networks to more going more remote with professional learning networks and with interactions with the teachers in your district?

Luigi: So once we realized that we were going to be full remote, we implemented a variety of different protocols and meeting types. We were so used to face-to-face and being able to troubleshoot things in person, but now going to a full remote type of setting really brought about a new set of challenges.

So, the first thing for us was really assessing what staff needed and in what particular areas they were having difficulty with to meet the needs of their learners and to meet their own needs for professional learning during this time.

So we implemented a series of professional learning opportunities called “PD in your PJs” that was facilitated by teacher-leaders, instructional coaches, leadership team members, and really anyone who had a particular passion or expertise for a particular rea.

And so with that we would have groups of staff sign up for different sessions based on where they were in their own professional journey and what the needs of their classes were. And we know we all have different types of learners and so that really ran the gamut from pre-school through grade eight.

And with that what we found was that a lot of people were coming together that maybe prior to our professional learning opportunities that were more grade-level based or building based, you really have enough people across the continuum come together virtually. And it just didn’t mean that it happened during the 8:30 to 3:30 time frame. It may have been 7:00 at night. It may have been on a weekend. It may have been on a day that was traditionally off.

So you had people coming together now that you started creating a different type of dialogue because they weren’t just homogeneously grouped. They were grouped based on their needs. And you saw a lot of extension and a lot of collaboration even beyond that particular session with staff members that really created some great dialogue and discussion. And really, the type of articulation that you always look for, but sometimes just within the parameters of your school day is difficult to happen.

Ken: I love that idea of “PD in your PJs.” Uh [laughing]. It’s – it makes things so much fun and so low pressure, and really allows for that camaraderie to take place between teachers.

So, what benefit have professional learning networks had for you over the past six months as you went to remote instruction, and, as an educational leader, had to navigate some very, very complex times?

Luigi: Well, I think the first benefit was that, with a virtual platform, it truly is 24-7. Now, if it worked better for a staff member to do something perhaps at, you know, 4:30 in the afternoon, and they could still attend to their other obligations, it worked. Or maybe 8:00 at night was better for them. So I really think that that 24-7 access is fantastic.

You also have the opportunity to actually record sessions. So if staff needed something repeated or wanted something step-by-step that they could go to and reference later, they could do that. And you rarely have that opportunity when you are face-to-face.

And sometimes, even just a basic feature such as a chat, someone brings something up. They have a question. And someone has an idea or resource, they can put that in that chat message and really extend the conversation, which is fantastic and a little bit more challenging, again, when you are in person.

So I think that, although it didn’t start off as the ideal, we really had some powerful dialogue and some fantastic outcomes from this situation, especially when it deals with professional learning.

Ken: How about for you personally, in terms of your own professional learning networks and getting support from other administrators and educators, either from around the state or other senior staff in your district? How have you been navigating building your own professional learning network and getting what you need as an educator to sustain your work?

Luigi: You know, no matter what type of a district you’re coming from or no matter where you’re coming from, whether it’s a different state or even a different country, people were having the same struggles. And I think that sometimes, you know, every location is so unique to the needs of their population, but really, with this, everyone was truly in the same boat.

So I found that we were struggling with some issues that maybe never were an issue for us, and vice-versa. Some districts struggling with connectivity or maybe it is professional learning or different SEL  {social and emotional learning} issues, you know. And not just SEL for kids, but SEL for staff. They themselves were dealing with their own issues and their own families. And they were also looking for support.

So I really think that that was my “aha” moment, that it’s everyone. It just wasn’t something that was specific to our part of the world. And sometimes, and sometimes seeing those other people have those struggles as well gave us hope and made us feel like, “you know what, we’re all in this same boat and we’re all struggling a little bit. But if we rely on each other,” that’s the great thing about a PLN, “we can get through this together.”

And a tremendous amount of on-the-job learning. You know, none of us went to college or grad school and took a course, you know, [on] navigating a pandemic or how to transition in 24 hours from in-person learning to remote learning.

If you think that there’s an area that you need support in, or a particular area that you’d like to know more about, you are not alone. And really, the power of Google and social media, you can find an answer to pretty much anything. We’re no longer in the world in education that you have to wait for somebody to provide you that training. You can go and you can find it very easily on your own, and you can do it whether it’s 1:00 in the morning, or whether it’s on a weekend. It’s really up to you. It is truly 24-7. And if you need to hear something three times, that’s okay. You can do that in the privacy of your own home.

So, I just think that our education community keeps evolving. And definitely knowing that there’s resources out there that you can find no matter what your area is, someone else is dealing with the same issue as well.

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Ken: One theme that came through loud and clear in this episode is that we, as educators in New Jersey, are not alone. We have colleagues worlwide, statewide, district-wide, school-wide, who want to support us and who want to continue professional learning networks, even as many of us are not able to continue them in person. 

One way that those of us in New Jersey practice joining together in the professional learning network is our third-Tuesday #NJEDPartners Twitter chat. For the month of August, it will be on Tuesday, August 18 at 8:30 p.m. (EST), to discuss your professional learning networks and how you're thinking about them.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.

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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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