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Cross-country Collaboration: It All Started with Twitter


This was originally posted on my blog: My Squirrelly View of Education and on the NWP eAnthology 2010.

I don’t know about you, but I am continually amazed at our world of instant collaboration and communication. The tool doesn’t seem to matter, be it Twitter, Facebook, or Skype. What matters are the people. Over the last couple of years, online I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of dynamic educators who willing share their knowledge and support.

When I began my teaching career in the late 1970s/early1980s, collaboration and support from colleagues was limited. Mostly, we relied on the veteran teachers in our buildings to guide us. If we wanted to try something new and different, building colleagues would often respond negatively saying, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” These comments kept getting repeated even when something wasn’t working in the classroom; the inhabitants of the staff lounge wouldn’t admit to it, or they’d tell you to keep plugging away because it would get better. Today the faces of the denizens of the lounge may have changed, but the old, tired and worn-out ideas continue to be repeated.

In order to be exposed to new ideas, we were limited to three options: take a class at a local university, attend conferences, or read current books and journals. While each of these had value, they were missing the vital component of ongoing professional support, those real relationships with other teachers. Occasionally, at a conference or in a class, I’d meet and make brief, often fleeting, acquaintance with other teachers. We’d attend sessions together, share phone numbers and addresses, and promise to stay in contact. Somehow those opportunities never panned out. Those letters never got written and phone calls were never made.

However, we now live in an age in which we can very easily establish meaningful, ongoing professional relationships with educators across great distances. The Internet has allowed us to form professional/personal learning communities (PLCs) through which we can talk to each other daily and immediately with little or no monetary expense.

So where did I find these amazing people that now make up my PLC? It all started on Twitter.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the point of Twitter. Why would I care what people ate for breakfast? It wasn’t until I attended a mini conference that I began to get the idea. Leslie Fisher, a featured presenter at technology conferences, showed us how she used Twitter. What struck me at the time was that I could instantly communicate with colleagues on the other side of the room or on the other side of the world. How amazing. My first posts, I must admit, were more like the notes passed between kids in class. It took me awhile to figure out that following celebrities was a huge waste of time. I probably would have missed the opportunity of Twitter if I hadn’t started following my county’s tech guy, Jim Dornberg (@jdornberg). I explored his list of followers, added some of them to my list, and then sat back and watched for a few days. I started noticing his interaction with Ira Socol (@irasocol), a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State. Very few posts were personal. They contained links to resources, solutions to classroom problems, or they were part of ad in-depth discussion of an issue related to education. I was amazed to find deep thinkers on this supposedly frivolous network.

Then I had my first revelation: Twitter was about the people you choose to follow. Carefully, at first, I started following those who shared my interests and those who actively used this service. My second revelation came quickly: Twitter was about sharing your knowledge with others. So I jumped right in and asked and answered questions. I noticed that the more I participated, the more other interesting people started to follow me. Through our conversations, I began to build relationships and friendships.

At some point I realized that this growing group of people were becoming my “go-to” guys if I had problems in my classroom. If I needed help with assistive technology for one of my special education students, I consulted @irasocol. If I needed someone to get me to try something different, I listened intently to@linda704, a literacy coach from East Detroit Public Schools. Nowhere in my district was I able to receive this much support. As I watched my Twitter feed, I gathered and bookmarked the newest and often the best links to articles and tools that I could use. How I wished Twitter had been there when I first started teaching. At this point, Twitter was all about what it could do for me.

My move to collaboration happened one morning when @tidertechie, a teacher from Louisiana, asked for help with a handicapped student in her class. I responded with some quick resources I had bookmarked and suggestions of others she could ask for help. From there I began to see myself as someone who could collaborate with colleagues, a major change in how had I viewed myself professionally. I now believed that I had something to offer. This change in attitude opened many professional options.

It was through my Twitter network that I learned about the first season of The Ed Tech Classroom Podcast hosted by Burt Lo and Joe Wood. Originating from California, this podcast began as a series of ongoing discussions between friends about the challenges of integrating technology into a real classroom. This podcast resonated with me and quickly became one of my favorites. I began to visit their blog and comment on the show. To my surprise, they mentioned me during one of the episodes. Then, one night while I was on Facebook, I started chatting with Burt about using technology as a learning accommodation for special education students. Evidently, this was something that he knew very little about, and he asked me to be a guest on their show. I tried to convince him that there were more knowledgeable people, but he insisted that they wanted a “real” classroom teacher. I agreed, and our cross-country collaboration began.

During a follow-up conversation on Facebook, I mentioned that if they ever needed someone to fill in or be a cub reporter, I’d be interested. Shortly thereafter Burt invited me to be the third co-host for the second season. Joe and Burt encouraged me to take a chance and present at professional conference (which I did this past March at the Michigan Reading Association Conference). We continually challenge each other with different ideas and suggest books that we have read. It has become the most fun thing I do professionally, and I miss it when we don’t record regularly.

This past year, using the connections I had made on Twitter, we invited Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and his wife Sara Beauchamp-Hicks to be guests. (Troy is the director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, and Sara has her roots in the Upper Peninsula Writing Project.) While we had invited them on to discuss Troy’s book, the conversation quickly moved to the National Writing Project and what an outstanding professional opportunity it was. By the end of the podcast both Joe and I were ready to sign on the dotted line. We applied to our local sites and we were both accepted as fellows for this year’s Invitational Summer Institute.

Throughout the institute, I have been expanding my online network by using Twitter to connect fellows from a number of other National Writing Project sites. They have quickly become valued colleagues as we compare notes, share ideas, and laugh at the high jinx occurring at sites. All of this tweeting caught the notice of Paul Oh, a NWP Program Associate from Oakland, California. On his blog he wrote about how much he was gaining from all of the tweets. Paul Allison, Tech Liaison for the New York City Writing Project, caught wind of this and devoted an episode of his “Teachers Teaching Teachers” weekly Ed Tech Talk Channel podcast to it featuring Paul Oh and some of the people he mentioned in his blog post as guests. Clearly, Twitter is creating and strengthening relationships and encouraging collaboration between colleagues across great distances.

Twice during this institute, I have been able to reach to both coasts to collaborate. Joe Wood graciously agreed to “Skype” in from the Area 3 Writing Project during my demonstration lesson to discuss how he uses Google Docs to collaborate in his position as a technology coach for the San Juan Unified Schools near Sacramento, CA. His guest appearance helped me show my cohort another tool for their technology arsenal. Later on in the institute, I was asked by Damien Baxerica (@damian613), a school psychologist from New Jersey, to “Skype” in to a district professional development workshop in New Jersey to talk about using Skype in the classroom. Both of these helped strengthen connections with my network.

As I sat talking with Doug Baker, Eastern Michigan Writing Project co-director, it became clear to me that without the relationships I have made through technology and the ever-expanding world of social media, I would not be here, nor would I be able to face the challenging upcoming school year with any kind of hope.

Even with the ease of communication and the availability of these tools, most teachers fail to take advantage of these opportunities for ideas, resources and support. Just think about how much more you could enrich your professional life if you participated and collaborated in one online professional community.

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<p>I have been avoiding Twitter like it's the plague, but this resource brought up some really valid points that make me want to plug into the community. I guess I suffer from not knowing where to start. I am a preservice teacher so I don't have any one county or district to plug into. What tips would be good to getting my feet wet?</p>
<p>I'd love to help you get started. First it is all about who you follow. I have created a number of lists on my twitter page of people who I follow. http://twitter.com/kchichester. I have one list dedicated to NWP people <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/list/kchichester/nwp">http://twitter.com/#!/list/kchichester/nwp</a>&nbsp;. Any of these would be good folks to follow. I suggest you visit each person's Twitter page and see what things they post. This will help you select who to follow. I started by following 25 and now I follow 725 most of whom are educators.&nbsp;</p> <p>Once you've chosen who to follow, sit back and read their posts for a bit. Read the articles they link to. Feel free to post any comments or questions that you have about their posts. Start a conversation. You'll discover that everyone in on in the education community of Twitter is really helpful. As you feel comfortable, start following the people that respond to those you are following. Another way to find quality people to follow is to look at the people your initial group of people follow.</p> <p>To aid in buliding your network, be sure to complete your profile and be sure to state that you are an educators so that fellow educators will follow you back. Additionally, I suggest that you do not protect your tweets. A number of us won't follow people who protect their tweets. Twitter is about openness and sharing. Protecting your tweets hinders the interaction.</p> <p>If you want to jump start your involvment, participate in #engchat on Mondays&nbsp;at 7pm Eastern. @mrami2 is the host/creator and an NWP TC from Philadelphia. She is a great Twitter Resource Person. She has a piece here on Digital Is... about how she started #engchat. <a href="http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1802">http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1802</a>&nbsp;</p> <p>As you network grows.&nbsp;consider using a Twitter Client like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to help you organize your tweets. I find this helps me a lot.&nbsp;</p> <p>Remember to think of Twitter as a river that you can dip in to as you wish. Don't try to read everything or you will drown.</p> <p>I hope these ideas give you a way to start tweeting. Feel free to follow me on Twitter and to contact me with any questions.</p>
<p>Thank you. That was really helpful. I'm hoping to get plugged in using Twitter so I can start contributing more at Digital Is. Those are really great tips to make it a less intimidating process so I won't be inundated with information overload and will be able to follow some worthwhile contributors.</p>
<p>I am intrigued by the idea of "using technology as a learning accomodation for special education students." &nbsp;I think that, if implemented well, it can serve as a great leveler. &nbsp;I work with a student with special needs who typically does not participate in class discussions. &nbsp;We were in a class where all of the students were sharing one common google doc and there was a lot of chatter on the back channel - he asked me if he should "say something" and I encouraged him to do so - it was probably the first time he voluntarily participated in a class discussion all year. As in this case, if implemeted well, twitter and other social media can be a great leveler. There is not a lot of data on using twitter in the classroom, but I do believe that students would experience the same increase in satisfying academic relationships as Chichester found in her professional ones.&nbsp;</p>
<p>Your Twitter presentation this morning was impressive. You were inspired by Chichester's work. I doubt my district permits student use of Twitter, but your strategy with passing note card within a team that each student was responsible for "tweeting" on was great. I think students will relate to the idea right away. I will let you know how it goes as I intend to use it in September.</p>
<p>Thanks so much for your comments which I wholeheartedly agree with. As a high school special eduation teacher, I really believe that technology can be the great leveler. You might be interested in my other Digital Is piece about using Google Docs to with special education students. You can find it here: <a href="http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1814">http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1814</a>&nbsp;Assistive Technology is mandated by IDEA, but is often overlooked. Administrators think it is expensive so they ignore it. While doing this they also ignore free technology like Google Docs and social media. They mistakenly fear it.</p> <p>If you think Twitter is a possibile way into discussion for your students, but need a more controlled solution Today's Meet <a href="http://todaysmeet.com/world">http://todaysmeet.com/world</a>&nbsp;. It was developed by a son for his father who is pursuing a Ph.d in Special Ed. The father, Ira Socol, is dyslexic and truly believes in using techology in the classroom. Today's Meet acts like Twitter, but the chat rooms are time limited and membership is restricted to those in your group. &nbsp;Lots of teachers use it for class discussions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>