Meet Your New PD Tool
See how these administrators are using social media to connect with peers—and improve how they run their schools.
Tiffany Della Vedova entered the social media universe gradually. She started with ASCD EDge, an online community of some 33,000 administrators and educators where she still regularly blogs. "I had been reading their publications and blog. And I thought, I'm going to join the conversation. I started blogging and reading other people's blogs. I think people gravitate toward the places that offer them their best human connection."
Then she began following people from EDge on Twitter, and once she got the hang of it, a whole new world opened up. "I realized it's like the largest virtual teachers college out there," she says. "I've learned more over the last year than I have in any kind of professional development conference."
She did so simply by posting questions on Twitter, appending a relevant hashtag, and waiting to see what she got. "We were looking at a new resource for our social studies curriculum and it was all video-based, very multimedia," she says. "I didn't know what equipment was going to be necessary. I wanted to see if somebody could give me feedback. So I ‘hashtized' my question to the social studies chat people. And I said, Is anybody using this resource and can you tell me about it?"
Della Vedova is the academic dean of the Grandview Preparatory School in Boca Raton, Florida. She's been working remotely from New York City since her husband was transferred there, so she is no stranger to technology or social media. Indeed, in order to work with her faculty and teach two English classes, she regularly uses Google Chat, Facebook, videoconferencing, and Skype, among other resources. (She also travels to Florida one week each month for face time.)
But even for her, the breadth of information she's found by way of Twitter is mind-boggling. "I feel overwhelmed. I think, Oh my gosh, there's so much I don't know. But that's the best place to be when you're an educator."
At first glance, Twitter doesn't seem like the place to gather information on how to run a school or craft a curriculum. Its haiku-like format seems more suited for the punchy humor of Albert Brooks or the off-the-cuff literary musings of Salman Rushdie, two well-known Twitterites. But a burgeoning group of administrators is taking advantage of Twitter's ability to reach large numbers of people and its simple method of hashtags to organize topics and discussions-turning it into a 24-hour international information clearinghouse.
Over the past three years, two primary hashtags have emerged among educators and school administrators: #edchat, which has spawned a variety of education-related subgroups, and #cpchat, which stands for "connected principals chat."
Twitter and the various online communities represent a powerful potential resource for administrators, says Mari Pearlman, an education consultant and former senior vice president at the Educational Testing Service. "Principals are geographically isolated-they're one to a building," she says. "They're very busy, and one of the things they really aren't allowed to do as leaders, if they want to be effective, is to share with the people they're leading just exactly how bewildered they feel. They can't go around saying to their teachers, ‘Oh my God, I have no idea what we're going to do about the math scores.'"
Principals who use Twitter echo those sentiments. "It can be such a lonely job as an administrator sometimes because of the things you deal with, how can you not take advantage of it?" says Patrick Larkin, principal of Burlington High School in Massachusetts, who is credited with coming up with the #cpchat hashtag. "I really think anybody who doesn't spend a little time building a personal network is doing themselves and their school a disservice. If we're not modeling this stuff for our teachers and students, then I don't think we're doing our jobs."
Starting the Discussion
Searches for information often start with a question posted on Twitter, generating links and leads. Thoughts and strategies develop further on blogs, some of which appear on education-focused social networking sites such as Della Vedova's ASCD EDge; the 25,000-member edWeb.net; and connectedprincipals.com, a website started by Canadian principal George Couros in concert with Larkin.
Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, uses a variety of online resources, including Twitter, when he wants information or an immediate response to a question. He often begins with Twitter-for example, the time he was seeking out ideas for a new school policy on social media. "I put it out there on Twitter. I used a hashtag with the initials NMHS for my school, which is not readily used by anyone but me. I got so many responses. Some were linked to policies, but then other people actually e-mailed me their entire policy."
He also uses Google Plus, where he has one circle for his New Milford High School staff and another for further-flung contacts. "With Google Plus, you can post an article or a question and you'll have anywhere from three to five comments that are more than 150 characters. So people can really get into a lengthy discussion on a particular topic."
For Sheninger, tweeting is like directed Googling. "Instead of doing a Google search, you're harnessing human power, a human-generated search engine driven by education professionals who are passionate and have determined that having an online presence will have a dramatic, positive impact on their professional practice."
When Sheninger wanted to develop a "bring your own technology" initiative, he consulted Twitter acquaintance Deron Durflinger, secondary school principal of Van Meter Community Schools in Iowa, whose school is known for its one-to-one technology. He followed up by visiting Durflinger and touring schools. "Seeing how they so seamlessly integrated their devices helped plant the vision of what I wanted to do," Sheninger says. "It started with the tweets."
Larkin, who also consulted Durflinger and visited Iowa before setting up his one-to-one policy at Burlington High, says one of the best things about trading ideas online is the way they can be improved upon with each iteration. "We started running these parent technology academies because of what we were doing with social media," Larkin says. "Dwight Carter, this principal out in Ohio, did a similar thing, but he invited everybody from his community and had more of a night-school approach. When you see something that you've started and somebody else tweaks, you're like, Wow, I should have done it that way, and next time I will do it that way."
Of course, even hard-core Twitterites don't resolve every issue on Twitter. Chris Wejr, principal of Kent Elementary School in Agassiz, British Columbia, has taken isolated questions on communication, discipline, and bullying to a few trusted Twitter sources (including Larkin) by old-fashioned e-mail. "They gave me some great feedback, and it's immediate within the day," Wejr says. "It's like having an online mentor, regardless of where they are."
Balancing Old and New
Pearlman, who conducts webinars and follow-up discussions on edWeb.net, says the process of developing effective social media tools for educators and principals is still in its infancy. Going online isn't necessarily the best way to cooperatively consider truly tough issues that require time and rumination, she says. "There's an element of sitting in front of your screen and typing in a chat room that's not the same as sitting in a room with humans and watching nuances of expression and tones of voice."
That's been the experience of Jennifer Gaffney, a K-12 principal in Sackets Harbor, New York, who also wears a variety of other administrative hats, including curriculum coordinator, special ed director, and athletic director.
She's not "an avid Twitterer," she says, "but maybe I will be someday." Instead she's more comfortable getting information from official state education sites. If she wants feedback from a lot of other principals online, she stays local, posting via her local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a consortium of 18 school districts.
But for truly complicated interactions, she seeks out a colleague. "There's something to be said for that conversation. You pose a question and they pose a question back. There's active listening and processing and synthesizing information in a way that probably can't be done as well through the computer."
For example, after rendering a decision on two students caught fighting in school, Gaffney called a colleague to reflect on the experience. "I said, ‘Here's what happened, what would you have done?'" she recalls. "I just needed some quick feedback, as reassurance, or if not reassurance, suggestions on how to do my job better in the future."
Indeed, the relative anonymity of the Web prompts Della Vedova to filter what she finds online by context. "If it's a research piece and there's data attached to it and it is thoroughly researched, then that's something," she says. "But if it's a blog that someone shares with me, I consider it just another perspective."
It's important to always look for the opposing opinion, Della Vedova says, especially when you're coming from a school that leans toward technology. "We wanted to see why some schools were banning technology and what sorts of activities they were doing instead," she says. "We decided we needed to create time that is unplugged, a portion of each class or each day. So that's where we are now-trying to achieve balance between technology and modern thought and good old-fashioned make-something-out-of-things-that-you-find-outside."