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.