Learning to Connect, or Connecting to Learn?

Cd7uoPIWwAADI09If you’re reading this, chances are that you are probably living. If not, we are all in serious trouble.

By virtue of being a living creature, we all go through constant cycles of growth, from the moment we are born, to when we take our last breath. Sometimes the growth is obvious, such as the onset of puberty, with all the joys of cracking voices and acne. Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle, such as those that occur in the mind.

When I created a professional Twitter account for my work as an educator, I never thought that it would be a catalyst for personal growth. It’s been a smidge less than three years, and I am already a different person than when I began. Being able to connect with educators all around the world has given me a much deeper level of understanding, and introduced me to viewpoints drastically different than my own. It has made me a better educator and a better person.

EduMatch is a PLN-building platform that was established in September 2014. One Friday night, in a Voxer conversation with my good friend Rafranz Davis, the conversation shifted towards gamification in math. I noted that she and my cousin, a former New York City math teacher, had similar ideas and that they should connect. Right then, I had the idea to create a platform that would accomplish this on a broader level. With her encouragement, the EduMatch (@edu_match) twitter account was born.

9WlzR8U_In all honesty, EduMatch began halfway as a joke, and halfway as a “what if” moment. However, educators around the world responded to it right away, demonstrating the global hunger for ways to connect. Our first participant was from Australia, followed by a few others in the United States. Soon afterwards, a website was established, and it grew from there, thanks to the suggestions of all of the members. Currently, we have a presence on Twitter, Voxer, Google Plus, Slack, Instagram, Facebook, iTunes, and WordPress. We also held an edcamp online, Edcamp #EduMatch, in August, 2014.

Of all the ways we offer to connect, my favorite is the Voxer group by far. The members of the EduMatch Voxer family have created a place for discussion of issues ranging from the light-hearted to the very serious. Although I love hearing about it all, the toughest conversations are usually my favorite. Those are the ones from which I learn the most.

One particular weekend in February, for example, many members shared their perspectives on topics such as race, religion, politics. Not everyone sees eye-to-eye, and sometimes we have debates. However, we are able to have these discussions about sensitive matters, and learn and grow with each other. I have quite often seen such conversations go very wrong in other forums, or be swept under the rug entirely. What is secret to having respectful, open dialogue?

The answer to this question is often revealed in the Voxer messages of the group members. Certain phrases emerge as themes: Community. Family. Friendship. Relationships.

In our Voxer group, we talk about ideas such as solid pedagogy, educational technology, and many others. Not only that, we also lean on each other for support. As much as we talk about ideas related to instruction, we also joke and tease each other, as family members tend to do. There have been a couple of spin-off groups that have emerged, furthering the friendship and relationship building.

Although most members have not met face-to-face, we are definitely real life friends (shout out to EduMatcher Tammy Neil for noting this). You can tell when we finally do meet each other offline for the first time. Whenever this happens, members often report back to the group, “it’s like we’re old high school buddies.” Conversely, sometimes we argue, and feelings are unintentionally hurt. This happens in friendships all the time. When you have a solid foundation, a little friction works like a muscle: sometimes it tears a bit at the fibers, only to come back stronger.

Rita Pierson, in her famed TEDTalk, implied that relationships are the foundation upon which learning occurs. This is also the case when we decide to learn together. When we break down the walls that we often build around ourselves, and choose to connect as friends, this is when the magic happens. Personally, I prefer tools such as Voxer and Google Hangouts, because being able to hear voices helps us to be able to relate to the humanity of one another.

The EduMatch Crew

The EduMatch Crew

A lingering question for further discussion is how to extrapolate this to other venues, such as face-to-face in edcamps and conferences, where we typically do not have time to establish relationships with other people in the room. As a solution, some event organizers and attendees have created “pre-channels” (as opposed to back-channels), where people can build these connections virtually. These may prove particularly helpful for annual events, where participants can nurture connections over time, strengthening them when they convene in brick-and-mortar buildings.

Why connect? Why not. We owe it to our students to further our learning as educators. We owe it to ourselves to grow as people. The solution may just be in the palm of your hand.

thomasSarah Thomas is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Education at George Mason University.

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Sarah Thomas

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