Growing my PLN by One and Making a New Friend (an unsolicited endorsement)

“Well this will be an hour of my time I won’t get back!”

Or, something along those lines. That is how I first approached a Spring 2016 session with Chris Vollum and hosted by my previous school’s School Council. I had heard countless ‘old people’ speak to schools about the perils of “The Facebook” and “The Twitter” and I was prepped for more “lock up your children; the Internet isn’t a safe place” messaging.

But what I heard, in the first few moments, was different.  Chris’ talk was entitled “Social Media Fitness”.  He didn’t speak at parents, he spoke WITH them. He certianly explained the pitfalls of social media. But he went on to highlight the tremendous benefits of a strong online profile. He spoke with a familiarity that was refreshing. He covered the basics of the ‘old staples’ that most parents likely knew (mainly Facebook and Twitter at the time) but also newer, younger platforms like Instagram and SnapChat. He pulled out his phone and SHOWED them how to use them, sharing posts live from his own accounts. And then he spoke about the ways people can act both appropriately and inappropriately online, provided examples, but not once – NOT ONCE – made anyone feel like Social Media was something to fear. He discussed the importance of values and character to help shape a student’s behaviour when online and how they can filter the choices they make. He spoke of goal setting, future planning and purposeful use. He made all of us reflect on the importance of “why”.

After this initial meeting, I hired Chris to come and work with the Grade 6-8 students at my previous school. I have since attended another one of his workshops in my community.  My friend Erin, who was in attendance with me, asked me why he doesn’t speak at every school. She has 3 children, with one about to enter adolescence. I will be booking him to return and work with the community of my new school in the upcoming school year.

As I re-read this post, it’s sounding more and more like an ‘endorsement’ – hence the subtitle 🙂

In some ways, it is – unpaid and unsolicited, to be sure. There is very little Chris and I disagree on when it comes to the power of appropriate Social Media use. But, most important for me and most irrelevant to his work, two years after that initial meeting, we have become acquaintances, sharing coffee and, most recently, breakfast, as well as online banter. We share ideas. We ask each other questions. We also have a similar need for continuing access to streaming services (Premium Spotify AND Apple Music account!) and the EXACT same propensity towards flashy footwear.

(Chris is on the left – I’m on the right)

What I truly wish is that he didn’t have to come into schools at all. I wish “Digital Intelligence” was engrained in the fabric of a school in 2018. With Canadians accessing Social Media an average of 107 minutes per day (according to Media Technology Monitor), it is, like it or not, a significant part of everyday life. I suspect that will increase as the students we teach become adults.  They know no other reality other than the one where people can and do connect to others at will.  Online connections are real connections.  (It is one of the reasons I am, like many other educators in Ontario, frustrated at the Ministry of Education’s decision to roll back components of the 2015 Health & Physical Education curriculum that included support for students as they navigate their digital world.)

My discussions with Chris always help me shape my outlook on school life.  As one example, my current summer discussions with Chris, both the online and F2F ones, have helped shape an upcoming workshop I am giving on “Using Digital Tools to Tell Your School’s Story”. Speaking with Chris reminds me that Social Media can be a powerful tool to share the learning that happens in schools. As educators, we can embark on this communication revolution by sharing the work we do. We can model effective use of Social Media. Our stories can, as stories often do, connect us. (I will cover this topic in-depth at my Board’s Learning Fair later this month.)

Chris speaks to me with the voice of someone who works with students but isn’t a career educator. His perspective is valuable to me.  Our communication sometimes make me think and other times make me smile.

I mean, Professional Learning Network aside, isn’t that what friends are for?