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Jim Burke, High School English teacher and Ning Network Creator, recently won the 2009 Edublog Award for Best Educational Use of a Social Networking Service. When I came across this article announcing the Edublog Award, I was interested to hear what inspired Jim to create English Companion Ning and what he learned along the way. With over 11,000 members, it is clear that English Companion Ning created a much-needed space for High School English teachers. Jim discusses how he found his audience, and uses his audience to build and maintain a successful environment. Thank you Jim, for sharing this advice, and congratulations on the Edublog award!

Why did you create The English Companion community?
I created the EC Ning community after attending the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) convention in November 2008. I realized while there that few teachers under 30 attend the convention, join the organization, or participate in the larger conversation about the profession and our work since they are so often isolated in their classrooms or at home doing the work. I wanted, originally, a space for new teachers—I imagined it as something like our own treehouse, a club just for them—but then the third person to join was a librarian from New Zealand and I thought, “Well why wouldn’t we want librarians? And people from other countries?” I quickly realized that you just don’t tell people on the Internet what to do; it’s a powerful tool that encourages people to want what they want and find or create those resources to satisfy that desire. Also, there was really nothing out there like this English Companion Ning. The NCTE created one, but it was for the convention and was thus not seen as an ongoing community but tied to a specific event.

When did you discover that you were filling a much-needed niche? How has this helped you grow your network?
I created our ning between grading a couple papers for my senior English class. I had signed on to the NCTE Convention Ning and liked the idea of it. I was, as I mentioned above, wondering what I could do to help new teachers join the professional conversation and community and had an epiphany! Oh, I could create one of those Ning things. Took me, honestly, five minutes, and I was back to grading papers. I sent out the URL to a few key friends and by the next evening had 100 people signed up. As an author of many books, all about teaching English, and a successful website (www.englishcompanion.com), I had a large network of people, each of whom came with his or her own network. For example, I could send an email with a description of the EC Ning and the link to the directors of National Writing Project sites or the heads of organizations, and they would check it out and send it out to their people. So it went somewhat viral. Also, I should say that the EC Ning grew out of reading Seth Godin’s book Tribes, which led me to ask myself who my “tribe” is and whether I was doing all I could to lead and support them. I made several other decisions right away that turned out to be crucial to the success of our community:

1. Paid the money to keep ads out: Teachers want a sheltered space where they can talk, share, support—but not be bothered about buying. This reduces the level of “noise” on the site and improves the quality of the “signal.” People expressed their gratitude early on for this and I just decided one of the missions of the site was going to be to help not to earn.

2. Clarified my own role: I could either host the party or join and enjoy it but could not do both. If I committed myself to posting and participating actively every day, I would burn out—I still teach and write books and speak around the country—and get no work done on my books, which is what earns the money to pay for the EC Ning. I just finished reading An American Prometheus, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Now I am NOT comparing myself to JRO, but I found it very instructive to read about his experience when he first set up the Manhattan Project. He was a renowned physicist at that time and wanted to contribute his intelligence to the project but realized he could not do that and run the Los Alamos project, so had to clarify for himself and others what his role was: to see that everyone enjoyed the conditions they needed to have the conversations and do the work they needed to do.

3. Made it clear that the English Companion Ning was OURS not mine. Everything on it that has led to attention and awards was done by all of us, not me. Even this interview, which I appreciate!, makes me feel like I am taking credit for the great ideas discussed at the party that I simply invited people to attend. So whenever I send out notes or my weekly News and Notes letter on Sundays, I always use “we” and “our” and “us,” not I, me, or mine.

What has the feedback been from your members? How has that helped you shape your network?
The feedback is tremendous. I am not sure any of us realized how isolated we feel in our work until we could come together and discuss it. We have had nearly 11,000 join in little over a year and it just keeps expanding. Within two years it is very possible that it will be the largest organized community of English teachers in the world. One thing that we have achieved, which I think we are all especially grateful for and find so rare is the tone: I would say that in a year we have had essentially no flaming or otherwise aggressive attacks. It is the most supportive, engaged online community I have ever been a part of. People send suggestions all the time about how to improve efficiencies, features to add. One constraint is my own time: I would love to have time to learn more about Ning Apps and other widgets to add features. We have found, however, a pretty elegant efficiency through the current design. I have found the basic features of the Ning software incredibly easy to use and powerful. I have no real background in web design and would not describe myself as a seriously techy person.

What has been the most useful feature for your network?
The Groups feature, for sure. There are so many different situations out their in the schools, so we need a very flexible structure on the EC Ning to allow people to accommodate their needs. The Teaching Texts group, which allows people to set up a new discussion strand for a book they have to teach, is the biggest and most lively as that relates to what we must do every day in our classes. I really like all the features, though I would say that the most essential are: groups, forums, blogs, and text boxes where I can insert notes and information about, for example, the latest book club.

Are there any other tips you would like to share with fellow Network Creators?
Here are a few other random things we have done that I think have made a major difference:

1. Monitor and weed members based on postings and profile questions: spam and other junk undermines the experience and leads to wasted time which causes people to leave. We approve every member as they sign up and ban immediately or do not permit membership if they are not serious.

2. Ask for help: While I created it and oversee the general EC Ning, the membership joining-rate reached a point where I needed help. So I recruited five others who are major users on the EC Ning and gave them administrative access. This also turns out to be very important in the event, which has happened several times, that something goes wrong—a major spam attack from some new member—while I am traveling.

3. Create buzz and build community: I promote the good work of the ECN community through my Facebook page, my tweets, and my blog, as well as my keynotes and workshops.

4. Create special events: As we are an English teacher community (or rather, a community dedicated to helping English teachers or those who are in the process of entering the profession), we like books! I take advantage of my connection to publishers, authors, and organizations by inviting authors to host book clubs around their own books. The author has to lead it. These have been wildly successful and very important in fostering new discussions and creating professional development opportunities with some structure. We just learned that E. D. Hirsch is willing to run a book club discussion this summer on the English Companion Ning about his latest book The Making of Americans. We are thrilled!

5. Communicate regularly to your community. I send out a note every Sunday with a welcome to all who joined, news about what is going on, notes about particularly important discussions, links to any news about the ECN, and reminders about what is coming up, sometimes inspirational notes or otherwise encouraging words. I use the Broadcast Message feature, another feature I really like, though I think you have to use it sparingly, otherwise you just become part of the noise that pours into our Inbox.

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Comments

  • I think maximum one weekly blast is tolerable, but I will definitely check out the article that Laura mentioned.
  • Hey Michelle - there's a conversation about broadcast best practices here: http://creators.ning.com/forum/topics/broadcast-message-best
    But, you may want to start a new discussion about it too!
  • We're having a debate about how often to send out broadcast messages - currently we average weekly but are considering paring down. This is currently the main way we communicate with members. What do others think?
  • That's got to be one of the toughest steps - handing over control and trusting the human element to provide the same kind of experience that you as the network creator would. But it's also essential. No one person can do it all themselves! We are building communities, not islands. And to do the site ad-free... even more impressive!
  • NC for Hire
    Very informative article on the inner workings of a successful community. It is amazing that there were only 5 additional admins needed to manage an 11K plus community.
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