Teachers helping teachers online

The World’s Largest English Department is online, reports Education Week.

Hired to teach 8th grade language arts, Laura Abercrombie turned to The English Companion Ning, “where English teachers meet to help each other.”  One of the liveliest of nearly 7,000 K-12 nings, it has 6,000 teacher participants. She saw “pages of groups, forums, curricula, and multimedia resources,” but didn’t know where to start.

. . . Around 10 a.m., she posted a picture of herself, listed her credentials, and started a discussion under “New Teachers.” She titled it “HELP!!!” In her short message, Abercrombie was blunt about her situation—she would be starting her first year of teaching and she needed support. Her students would be reading Walden over the summer and responding to questions online, and then there was the issue of a “rustic, outdoorsy” trip with students in the fall. She wrote, “I am in the overwhelming process of preparing for the year and I am STUCK. There are no instructional materials for the class and the last teacher isn’t too keen on sharing. I have NO CLUE where to start. Any help would be great.”

Less than 12 hours later, there were roughly 60 responses from novice and veteran educators from across the country. Teachers offered book titles to help her bridge the gap between Thoreau and the class trip; professional development resources on reading strategies; an inquiry about the “essential question” for the year; and a healthy dose of encouragement.

What’s a ning? It’s an online platform used to create social networks. I didn’t know either.

About Joanne


  1. Well, now I know I will be spending my entire Saturday! The site looks amazing. It is just what I need. Thanks!

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    Strange that no one advised her to read the book itself and select a few passages for close reading and discussion.

    For instance, this would be a great way to begin the year:

    “The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can ‘see the folks,’ and recreate, and, as he thinks, remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and ‘the blues;’ but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.”

    Or this:

    “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded and interpreted in his favor in amore liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

  3. Nings are great for finding people. I’m more of a Twitter user, personally. If somebody wants to find teachers with common interests there, they should really check out this wiki with tons of teachers categorized by subject area.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Her biggest problem may be that eighth graders are supposed to read “Walden.” The vocabulary and the way sentences are put together will create significant difficulties for almost every 2009 14 year-old. Many will skate over the words, missing most of the meaning, and a very significant number will not read past the first few paragraphs.

  5. The ning is great. My students have greatly benefited from the ideas I’ve found and some of the collaboration I’ve done with other teachers in developing lessons and units.

    It is not a snarky place. We’re all put in untenable or confusing positions from time to time, and the emphasis is on helping each other navigate them with some success for the students.

    If that’s the advice you think she needs, Diana, post it.

  6. I disliked Walden when I read it in high school — probably in 10th grade. I thought Thoreau was smug and anti-Irish. We were assigned to write a Walden-like journal and I made it a parody.

  7. While it may just be the recent climate in Education, it seems that this field is about to undergo major changes especially with regard to technology. The idea of getting computers in the hands of our students is becoming much more viable as computers can now retail for less than $200. I think that teachers need to make sure they understand how to use major online platforms not only to understand and support their students, but to support each other. Some colleagues of mine and I started a wiki recently for social studies teachers that can be found at: http://socialstudiesteachers.wikispaces.com/

    Basically we’re trying to get free resources to teachers out there in an uncomplicated, straight-forward way. The wiki is just one way to do that.

  8. The problem with the wiki or ning or whatever is still the non-tech problem with advice from strangers:

    if you don’t know enough to know what you don’t know, you won’t know good advice from bad.

    There’s no rational way anyone anywhere in the entire field of education can defend that new teachers need to create lesson plans from scratch. Letting them copy the outlines, lecture notes, assignments, and the rest from well vetted courses is the right thing to do.

    But no, there’s no possibility of that.

    What would be better would be using ning or similar media to establish peer review. At least then the materials could be critiqued and rated in a reasonable fashion.

  9. I think this platform is helpful to all educators-not just new teachers. What a great tool to use to find support or inspiration when you need it. It is hard to remain “fresh” and inspired year after year! I look forward to reading your blog!

  10. Mmh. It’s not an either/or, though, Allison. Lots of teachers upload materials to the ning. I’ve used some of it – but none without serious edits. Personalizing those materials allows me to become more familiar with them and with what I’m trying to accomplish with my unit, which may not be the same as for the original author.

    Secondly, since the ning is quite active, people don’t just give advice (for the most part). They recognize that each situation is unique and share what has or hasn’t worked in their experience, and in most cases, explain why.

  11. Are any school districts or teachers’ groups/unions encouraging participation in nings?

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    There’s no rational way anyone anywhere in the entire field of education can defend that new teachers need to create lesson plans from scratch.

    That’s one of the reasons there are textbooks.