Twitter: Feel Alone at the Top?
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Editorís note: This month Eye of the Storm author Kate Messner partners with contributor Dr. L. Robert Furman, author of Instructional Technology Tools: A Professional Development Plan, to share their insight into using Twitter as a professional development tool. Next month Kate and Rob will look at Twitter in the classroom.

Q: How can being on Twitter be like attending an ongoing PD conference? And how do you maximize that benefit?

Kate: I find that itís helpful to think of Twitter as a big virtual faculty room Ė the sort of place you might pop in and say, ďHey, does anybody have an idea for historical novels that will help fourth-graders understand the American Revolution?Ē Somebody in that room full of educators is going to have an idea theyíre happy to share. In the great virtual faculty room of Twitter, the room is much larger Ė made up of thousands and thousands of like-minded teachers from all over the world. Ask that same question, and youíre likely to get a great variety of great responses.

I think the key to maximizing that benefit is being a helpful, friendly member of the community. That means being on the lookout for opportunities to help and answer questions, and sharing resources as well as getting help. Simply being part of the conversation is a great way to get started.

Rob: The best thing about Twitter is that itís become this professional learning community. You choose the people you want to follow; as a result, I have 700 educators who are constantly sending me things to read. Typically in the past, you would have shared those at an annual conference or one-on-one. Now thatís happening on an hourly basis. Weíre constantly learning from each other, and it takes away the need to attend a conference merely to interact with colleagues. Itís also a wonderful opportunity to network and ask questions. If I put a question out there right now, Iíd probably get 50 to 60 responses. Itís like having an instant community of ideas around you all the time.

Q: How can an educator benefit from Twitter when facing challenges in the course of an average day?

Kate: Again, that idea of a virtual faculty room comes in. If your morning has been filled with students struggling to understand fractions, you may want to take a few minutes during lunch to tweet: Who has websites to share or other great resources for helping third-graders understand fractions?

Itís a simple question Ė but if youíre following and interacting with other educators, itís one that many will rush in to answer, and your teaching toolbox will be bigger and more diverse when those students return after lunch.

Rob: You can send out a query about how to deal with discipline issues, how to handle challenges with parents, or even the best way to do a fund-raiser. We can always have a conversation about anything that involves education. Thatís huge. Contrast that with Facebook, where the topics are all over the place. One person may have a status about potty training; someone else may have a status about a speeding ticket. But most of the readers donít care about those things. Twitter allows more specificity in the flow of conversation and provides immediate gratification Ė a key consideration when you need immediate input on that discipline issue or that difficult parent.

Q: One popular education forum is #edchat. What kinds of topics would educators find there?

Kate: Topics Iíve seen have run the gamut from classroom management and strategies for starting off the year to idea-shares for getting families more involved and active in education. These chats are often just the beginnings of great conversations.

Rob: I follow #edtech and #edchat. Another nice hashtag is #Scholastic. I use #edtech when Iím looking for something with technology. These forums make your job easier. They make you a better leader and educator because youíre constantly being surrounded by this wealth of information. Itís almost like having a supercomputer going through the card catalog of the Internet. But the thing is, it only benefits you if you read it.

On #Scholastic, people will not only talk about their Book Fairs but will also share ideas. Iíve used the Scholastic hashtag to come up with new ideas, such as the Ugliest Guy contest we just had at our Fall Fair. But thatís only the beginning of whatís out there for literacy.

Thereís a hashtag out there for every area under the sun. There are even virtual books on hashtags. Youíll want to find the one that would give you the best concentration of information that youíre interested in. Then you can collaborate with people on the same hashtag.

Q: Describe the sense of community that educators establish among people in their various affiliations as a result of using Twitter.

Kate: Twitter is like any other large community in that the subgroups tend to find one another organically. If you love books, youíre going to discover teachers and librarians who share that passion and begin having more and more conversations with them. You might make it a point to connect with other fourth-grade teachers or other high school science teachers to share resources. All of these communities exist — and thrive — on Twitter, and the connections made there can be lifesavers for teachers in smaller districts where new ideas might be in short supply.

Rob: One example is that the community Iíve created on Twitter has boiled over to The Huffington Post, for which I blog. Reciprocally, a lot of my Twitter people have become fans on Huffington. They all have become my virtual colleagues. Theyíre not down the door to my left, but theyíre as close to anyone in my building if I have a comment or concern. I would go to them with a question as fast as I would go to anyone else right now. Thatís where that sense of community comes in. It comes from simple things like, ďHereís a really cool article,Ē to ďIím going to Dave with a cyber question.Ē Weíre helping each other.

Q: How does participating in these ongoing forums compensate for the sense of isolation that can come with being an administrator?

Kate: Well, by their very nature, I think administrators can feel ďalone at the topĒ sometimes. Even in a larger district, there are a limited number of people who do what you do. Twitter creates a larger community Ė one where your colleagues are suddenly not just the principals in the next building but the principals across the country and beyond.

Rob: The middle manager is a very lonely job. When youíre the only principal in the building, it can be lonelier than if you have an assistant principal around. With Twitter, you have a sympathetic ear, and you have people who are walking in your shoes, though maybe in a different state or country. It really makes a difference if you need to vent for two minutes. You have a lot of people listening to you, and they get it.

Q: What are the limitations of Twitter for professional development? How can you get beyond them?

Kate: I think itís important to remember that ideas from your Twitter community of educators arenít necessarily familiar to the colleagues in your building. Where the real power of social networking comes in, I think, is when an individual is able to join that larger conversation online and then use it as a catalyst to effect change and get ideas popping back at home.

Rob: The next level of personal professional development is getting your teachers involved. Iíve been trying to get my teachers to follow me so I can communicate more effectively with them and make them aware of the many educational opportunities out there for kids. The surface hasnít even been scratched yet in terms of professional development for teachers.

Regardless of going on Twitter, you have to do the learning. It doesnít matter how many awesome articles or ideas are put out there, itís ultimately you who has to implement it. And remember that it doesnít make you an excellent educator to read it. You have to be an excellent educator to implement it.

Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. A middle school teacher for 15 years, Kate earned National Board Certification in 2006.†Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner.

Dr. Furman is a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. Email tips or questions to him at Rob@FurmanR.com, or text him directly at 412-999-0449. Follow him on Twitter @DrFurman.
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