English Teachers Find an Online Friend: the English Companion Ning
By: Grant Faulkner
Date: March 31, 2009
Summary: The English Companion Ning brings English teachers a professional community that they sometimes lack in their schools. Teachers discuss books, lesson plans, and a panoply of classroom topics via discussion forums, blog posts, and multimedia.
If you ever question the maxim, "Build it and they will come," check in with Jim Burke, a high school English teacher in Burlingame, California.
Burke, who might just be the busiest English teacher in the nation—not just in the classroom, but with his blog , website , books , and Twitters —started a Ning, English Companion , for English teachers to congregate and talk about teaching. Almost overnight, membership exploded to over 3,000 teachers, and he estimates that it could reach 10,000 by year-end.
A "Ning" is an online platform for users to create their own social networks around specific interests and is used by diverse groups, including the National Writing Project (NWP) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The English Companion Ning allows English teachers to discuss books, lesson plans, and a panoply of classroom topics via discussion forums, blog posts, and multimedia.
It's "a cafe without walls or coffee: just friends," as it's described on the website.
The genesis for the Ning came about spontaneously and without grand expectations. When Burke returned from NCTE's Annual Convention in November 2008, he realized the extent that new and younger teachers were not involved in the conversation about teaching—despite "the great things NCTE is doing to try to draw in and support new teachers," he says.
So he started the English Companion Ning on December 5—literally between papers he was grading. He invited a few of his contacts to join—fellow authors like Carol Jago, Penny Kittle, and Maja Wilson, as well as NWP colleagues like Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Mary Ann Smith—to spread the word. By the next day 100 people had joined, and then another 100, and soon it was essentially a case study of how social networks can spread virally online.
An Online English Department, Except Better
"Teachers really want and need community, because at school we are too often busy in our rooms," says Burke. "The Ning is the English department we all wish we had, but without the meetings: a daily community with people who are there to support you if you ask. It's the largest English department in the world!"
Teachers on the English Companion agree. "I feel like I am off the island!" exudes a teacher named Dave on the Ning. "Beyond coworkers who I may or may not see and have a chance to talk to during the school day, I very rarely get the chance to talk about English stuff with people who are in this field. It is exhilarating."
Burke says the Ning grows out of the same spirit James Gray talks about in his memoir about the NWP, Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the Writing Project.
"It's based on trusting in the wisdom of teachers to come together and share with each other, in their own voice, what they know works."
In fact, Burke is careful to note that the Ning is not his—he doesn't shape the English Companion Ning as much as it shapes itself, because its heart beats to the rhythm of its members.
"When I created it, I thought I would decide what it was all about and who would join. I learned almost immediately that you don't tell a community what it does or does not want."
The Ning serves many needs, but Burke says the Ning first and foremost speaks to teachers' most immediate concern: the classroom.
"I think the Ning is situational, intentional. For example, I am a new teacher and have to teach To Kill A Mockingbird. I go on and create a discussion under Teaching Texts [a discussion group], which sends out a signal that I need resources, recommendations, and guidance."
For example, when Mary Worrell, a preservice teacher from Norfolk, Virginia, recently created a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender literature and asked people to offer resources, she received ten posts with a variety of reading lists, links, and observations—all within an hour.
Discussion topics range from "Incorporating art and music in the English classroom" to "Frankenstein and human responsibility" to "Looking for great mentor texts."
The larger social network of English teachers further segments into more than 70 different mini social networks made up of groups of teachers interested in particular topics. For example, there is a Teaching with Technology group, a Teaching Texts group, a Professional Development group, and a New Teachers group.
"Teachers value having a place to use and cultivate their professional voice," said Burke. "It's wonderful to get published in the English Journal or Ed Week, but not everyone has the time to perfect those articles or feels ready for prime time. The Ning provides a proving ground for people to shape that voice—something I hope will help to develop the next generation of professional writers of books and articles for our journals."
The teachers' words say it all.
"The first semester I was groping my way along, trying to not completely implode," said Rachel E., who is teaching high school students in El Cajon, California, for the first time. "But second semester something amazing happened. I found this Ning. And it has literally changed the way I teach. I feel like I have insight from some of the best teachers out there. I can listen in to conversations that would never happen in my staff room."
Steve Shann, who hails all the way from Australia, says that it's not only about the content but the spirit of the conversation. "There's none of that 'this-is-the-right-way-to-think' tone which stifles really good dialogue. There are strong opinions and occasional big disagreements. But unlike in some other forums in the non-virtual world, there seems to be little of that insecurity which breeds intolerance and a closing of the mind."
Professional Reading Online
Burke is now kicking off a new feature: a regular discussion with a featured author in the field of English language arts called The English Companion Ning Book Club . Two NWP authors will open the featured discussions.
The first discussion will feature Maja Wilson, author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment , who begins discussing her book on April 1. Wilson, a teacher-consultant with the Crossroads Writing Project in Michigan, is now pursuing her doctorate in composition studies at University of New Hampshire.
The second featured book will be Readicide , which was penned by Kelly Gallagher, co-director of the South Basin Writing Project at California State University Long Beach.
"I wanted books that would be short and inspire good, even heated (but productive!) discussions," said Burke. "Maja's book is really a book about authentic writing, developing and being committed to student voice. Writing, real and authentic writing, is threatened by so much of the testing culture we are living through right now."
Burke wants the book group to "be a `goodie,' not an additional burden. It should be something we get to do instead of feel we have to do."
Burke has published 20 books himself, but says the English Companion Ning "is the most exciting thing I have created: it is a community, it is an experience."
"I am reminded every day of the incredible complexity of our work," says Burke. "People who say we just teach reading and writing should take a tour of the English Companion to see the range of issues that arise within the English classroom."