While reading up on all of this week’s required materials, my head is swimming with ideas, supportive feelings and disagreeing arguments. With all these ideas roaming around, none is taking foothold. What the heck am I going to reflect on this week? And who out there cares what I think?

When all of a sudden, from the loft space in my house, my 6th grade son (who just finished packing for his Classroom Without Walls trip) yells out to his computer game, “Mashed Potatoes.” And with that, everything begins to gel!

Four years ago, I was moved from teaching grade 2 to grade 1. “Oh crap! The reading year! What made my Principal think could do it?” I certainly didn’t! Having been a personal blogger for years, I began independently inquiring about first grade. With my curriculum documents in toe, I began following a boat-load of blogs from other early years inquiry-based educators; I watched and subscribed to a dozen YouTube videos about Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop in the grade 1 classroom, and, unbeknownst to me, I joined Web 2.0. As a means of surviving my first and only year as a first grade teacher, I had constructed a PLN (Personal Learning Network) in much the same way Jeff Utechts refers to it in his book Reach: Building Communities and Networks for Professional Development.

But upon further reflection I realized, I had been doing this for years!

  • At 18 months, the afore mentioned son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder called Asperger Syndrome. Without hesitation, my husband and I had built a live PLN by attending workshops, reading books, joining discussion boards, talking to experts, heeding and disregarding advice, and meeting with others who had children on the spectrum.
  • In college, I worked for a Nuclear Science Research Company because I desperately believed in nuclear energy for the future, but after discussions with a PLN of scientists, employees, and computer scientists affiliated with my passion I learned that this career path was Not. For. Me!

I have PLN stories from high school and elementary school as well, but I’ll stop here… you get my gyst.

For true inquirers, building a Personal Learning Network is not a new concept. What better way to learn about the stuff you’re passionate about than going to the resources that have the expertise you desire? I’m sure we can track this back to the cavemen making fire or communicating through cave paintings. But in the last decade someone way smarter than I, put a name to it.

And thanks to the wireless global community in which we live, the ease of creating, becoming part of, and resourcing one’s own PLN is easier than ever.

So how does this all connect back to mashed potatoes you ask? Well, as my Belgian husband would attest–good mashed potatoes are an art. The right balance of potatoes, butter, cream, salt, nutmeg (or your own favored recipe ingredients) must come together to craft your desired flavor profile and texture. But if you peel back a mashed potatoes recipe to it’s core–the success or failure of the recipe is rooted in your potato choice. (OK, OK, I’m done with the potato puns.) If the potatoes aren’t right for mashing, you’ll end up creating paste rather than a lovely accompaniment to your Grandma’s meatloaf or grilled salmon.

A successful PLN requires the right ingredients. It requires a network of like-minded resources you can pull from and source for whatever recipe you’re trying to concoct. Whether you’re trying to figure out some great ways to support a flipped math lesson about building arrays as a strategy for multiplication or investigating strategies to help an Autistic child in your PE class, your PLN needs be a solid one. If the PLN you have crafted is not credible, reliable, knowledgeable, or trustworthy, the end result will be a big pile of mushy glue. And we educators don’t have time for that. We’ve got to get in, get out, and get cookin’!

It’s is a bit ironic to me that the mashed potatoes and PLN connection came to me from my son who just finished packing for his upcoming Classroom Without Walls trip. Isn’t the idea of a good PLN in a connected global society just that–a classroom without walls? That’s a lot of what Will Richardson discusses in his 2008 article, World Without Walls: Learning Well With Others.

You out there, in my PLN, have become my teachers, my collaborators, and my cohort. Some of you can be described as the bullies that slapped “Geek” on my back in the hallway before Chem class. But in my classroom there are no walls. It is just a mish mash of wires strewn around the world from which I pull great ideas, provocative questions, thoughtful musings, instrumental techniques, and great lessons about how to deal with meanness in a virtual world. Thanks to the potatoes you are all offering to my pot (even those potatoes that are a little bruised on the edges)–my mashed potatoes taste pretty damn good!