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In what ways do teachers lead in public online spaces?

In what ways do teachers lead in public online spaces?

Written by Christina Cantrill
January 22, 2012

To support learning more about the ways that teachers lead in online public spaces in the context of an ethnographic research class I took last semester, I followed five of my colleagues, all writing project teacher-consultants, online for one month between September and October 2011 and then interviewed them about their work in November. I chose these specific teachers as they represented a diversity of teachers I know who do significant work online and because they are also considered teacher leaders by their peers and colleagues, both on and off-line. I mostly followed them via Twitter, using Tweetdeck.

My research question was, In what ways do teachers lead in public online spaces? And in order to define teacher leadership and to help me to make sense of what I learned about leadership by following their work, I used the core principles of teacher leadership described by Lieberman and Friedrich in their book, How Teachers Become Leaders: Learning from Practice and Research (2010, TC Press).

These principles include:

  • Advocating what’s right for students
  • Opening the classroom door and going public with teaching;
  • Working alongside teachers and leading collaboratively;
  • Taking a stand; and
  • Learning and reflecting on practice as a teacher and leader.

There are two important contexts for my study. The first is the complex of online spaces, forums and networks that these teachers are using and that I was following during the course of my study. I put together a map of my research that walks through the various spaces and gives a little context for how these spaces are used.

The other important context of this research is the National Writing Project (NWP) itself. All of us are members of the writing project network – I am national programs staff and they are teacher consultants, with various leadership roles, at their local writing projects. We all work together on different national initiatives, particularly focused on supporting digital literacy work. And because we all have the writing project in common, we share some common social practices within our work. These practices were documented in Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood’s article The Work of the National Writing Project: Social Practices in a Network Context.

These practices include:

  • Approaching every colleague as a potentially valuable contributor
  • Teachers teaching other teachers
  • Creating public forums for sharing, dialogue, and critique
  • Turning ownership of learning over to learners
  • Situating learning in practice and relationships
  • Providing multiple entry points into learning communities
  • Reflecting on teaching through reflection on learning
  • Sharing leadership
  • Adopting a stance of inquiry
  • Rethinking professional identity and linking it to professional community

This resource shares the findings I gathered over the course of the month and seeks to open conversations about what it looks like to lead in online public spaces as a teacher and a learner and what are the implications and key questions raised by this work.

Advocating What’s Right For Students

Lieberman and Friedrich write that “teacher leaders put forward a vision for education grounded in what is best for students” and that this vision “grows out of their day-to-day experiences … as well as their understanding of research and professional reading about excellent teaching practice” and that among teacher leaders, there is “a commitment to high quality teaching and learning.”

In this study, my colleagues were clearly committed advocates for high quality teaching and learning. Bud Hunt, reflecting on teacher leadership and the role of agency in leadership said,

I’m invested in the idea, in the writing project idea, that teacher
as leader is the job of teacher – to advocate for students, to advocate
for thoughtful curricula, to advocate for thoughtful management
decisions, to advocate for the cultures and spaces and opportunities
that we want our classrooms to be.

I also noticed a strong sense of advocacy for learners in general. Lacy Manship, when asked about teacher leadership, said that, to her, “teacher leadership means advocacy and activism” and then described what she hopes her leadership will contribute to:

I hope that the work I’m doing is … making space for other kinds of representations of teachers … [and] that there can be changes to material situations for teachers and their students.

Even just paying attention to just what was shared via Twitter, I could see my colleagues publicly supporting each other’s work and ways of working, advocating for important ideas and questions in relation to teaching and learning, sharing commentary, reading and resources, highlighting student work, advocating for those same students, and commenting on both youth and adult learning (including their own).

Really enjoyed @lukeneff’s visit to our #p2puedwriting session this evening. Looking forward to learning more from him.
@budtheteacher posted about a colleagues’ participation in a course Bud is facilitating.

@CBethM reminds us that reading and writing belong together. Chocolate and peanut butter.…
@budtheteacher posted about a contribution another colleague made in this same course.

@now_awake‘s twitter avatar highlights student work and early literacy practice.

RT @techsavvyed: Teacher don’t need more “tech tips”, tricks, and
gimmicks, they need time to explore, create, and develop competencies
@now_awake reposted a comment made by a colleague.

RT @steve8071: Checking out @smccabe29 s session on Storify and storytelling through social media at #NCETA11 too cool! #unccwp
@now_awake reposted a comment by a colleague and shares with her UNCCWP community specifically.

Love working with colleagues who freely share ideas/lesson plans, push your thinking and make you want to step up your game. #blessed
@mrami2 commented on what is important to her about working with colleagues.

4th grade teacher – @utalaniz has an excellent blog, check it out! #engchat #ntchat
@mrami2 recommended a colleagues’ blog for others, particularly in the English Chat and New Teacher Chat communities she is part of.

welcome to tonight’s #engchat with @angelamaiers – we’re discussing passion driven learning for students and teachers. Pls join us!
@mrami2 welcomed teachers to the weekly “engchat” twitter chat on Monday night.

if you’re new to #engchat community, check out our site for archives etc:…
@mrami2 is mindful that some people will be new to this community at any given moment and often sends out posts such as this.

“[a teacher] can focus…on building a classroom environment in which his/her voice is not necessary” by @stevemiranda
@chadsansing sent out an idea and a blog post of a colleague.

“We learn together or test alone” on re: ESEA/NCLB waivers & responsibility in the clssrm
@chadsansingsent out a blog post he wrote in response to the issue of ESEA/NCLB waivers at the time that they were announced.

i write to hold myself accountable for the changes i want to make in teaching & learning #whyiwrite #nwp
@chadsansing shared a response to the prompt #whyiwrite and sharing that with the writing project community.

Blocks. A moment of Quinn.

Just built towers with a 19 month old. Mostly, she did the
building. I just watched. Magical. Whatever you’ve got world, I’m ready.
sharing a moment with his daughter Quinn

Lots of ways to look at the world. This was Teagan’s today.

sharing something his daughter Teagan created.

An exciting cast of innovators will be joining us on this week’s Teachers Teaching Teachers. Come keep it real b…
@paulallison invited others to join this week’s TTT webcast.

New post on #engchat: “National Safe Schools Day is October 5th”
@mrami2 sent out a link to a resource of importance to her and other educators.

Hey. Inputs. Not outputs. I think I’ve said that before.
@budtheteacher responded to an article about incentives.

In a middle school teacher’s classroom. 2x in the five minutes I’ve been here, he’s referenced learning from previous years. Looping rocks.
@budtheteacher shared thoughts and celebrating his colleagues work.

A teacher nearby has me attached to her student writing Google Doc Collection. 1st graders. Watching them write is a treat. #whyiwrite
@budtheteacher responded to the #whyiwrite prompt and celebrating the work of a colleague and her students.

I’ve been working on a curriculum guide for involving my students in the real-life lessons Occupy Wall Street pr…
@paulallison shared a link to a resource he has been creating. 

I’d love for Krystal to get responses to this piece. Where might she go next in this inquiry?
@paulallison posted a link to a student named Krystal’s work posted in Youth Voices.

I invite you to share a comment with Elizabeth, a high school
student from Salt Lake City who writes: But now the…
did the same with another student named Elizabeth.

Please give these 3rd-grade VoiceThreaders a boost with a comment on Youth Voices. Thanks!
encouraged feedback and participation in this 3rd grade project. 

Go ahead @youthcouncil_LA!! RT @youthcouncil_LA: We are at Arne Duncan’s townhall in Pico Rivera read to speak our minds.
@now_awake encouraged a group of youth leaders while also highlighting their work for others.

in solidarity w/ #occupywallstreet & all its sisters, “#occupyedu: challenge schools to change”
@chadsansing expressed solidarity with Occupy Wall Street while also announcing the #occupyedu campaign.

Opening the Classroom Door and Going Public with Teaching

Lieberman and Friedrich write that “sharing one’s teaching, and the successes of one’s students, serves as a powerful mode of teacher leadership.” They write that “going public with teaching means sharing one’s own practice and inviting colleagues to share.”

The work I have been researching is intentionally public. And the teachers I interviewed are intentional about their public participation too. Bud, for instance, when introducing himself during our interview said, “I have been online in various forms and fashion intentionally for six years now …” and Chad followed by saying I’ve been “back into blogging and tweeting with more of a purpose, or more of a perspective, at least.”

This principle of opening the classroom door and going public with teaching was a shared practice and intention of all the teacher leaders I followed. Both in the ways they are public with their work as well as in how they encourage colleagues by creating spaces and opportunities for them to share too.

Paul Allison, who founded and facilitates a weekly and participatory online show called Teachers Teaching Teachers says that this show

really is just a staff room conversation that [teachers] have always had in lots of different ways but we are [now] able to have [staff room conversations] with anyone we can get to come and join us. … Allowing other people to ease drop … and see what happens.

Lacy also talks about the potential of the public nature of the work in “making visible the really hard parts of writing and hard parts of teaching.” Meenoo too talked about the “generosity and curiosity” of teacher leaders she follows in public spaces online and how important it is for her own practice that these teachers “are constantly trying to find new questions and new answers and they are generous in sharing [their] thinking process.”

Chad remarked that he is “really interested in making places … where everyone feels safe talking to one another about the problems in public education … and then the solutions or needs that they need [filled] from public education ….” Chad is part of a cooperative weblog called Cooperative Catalyst whose tagline is “Changing Education as We Speak” and during the course of this study, members of the Cooperative Catalyst including Chad, set up the #occupyedu campaign in solidarity with #occupywallstreet.

About #occupyedu, Chad writes:

Children, parents, educators, community members – all are invited. We cannot re-imagine or recapture schools without the stakeholders they serve

Anyone who considers themselves a stakeholder is encouraged at #occupyedu to share their “powerful stories of learning” on twitter or the weblog while also posting a picture of themselves or with an accompanying message about education. (This was modeled on the campaign “A Virtual March on Wall Street”).

Several years prior to this research, Paul had established the Teachers Teaching Teachers (TTT) forum as place for teachers to share their “staff room conversation” in public and open ways. The TTT show has now happened weekly since it’s beginning in 2006 and has well over 200+ shows in it’s archive. Throughout the period of my research then, Paul continued to tweet weekly invitations for teachers to join TTT along with the list of guests and topics for the week, posting reminders and updates, and then linking to the archive of the show for download afterwards. Teachers can join during the show via video and/or chat.

Youth Voices too, a youth social-networking site related to TTT,  was founded prior to this research in 2003 by Paul and some writing project colleagues. Youth Voices is a school-based network that invites teachers and students to engage around youth interests and passions. During the course of my research, Paul tweeted links to youth writing from Youth Voices asking for others to respond or support students in thinking about the next steps of their interests or inquiries. All of this work is public and open. The website explains more about the intention behind the work while also inviting other teachers and youth to participate and collaborate:

We have found that there are many advantages to bringing students together in one site that lives beyond any particular class. It’s easier for individual students to read and write about their own passions, to connect with other students, comment on each others work, and create multimedia posts for each other. Further, it’s been exciting for us to pool our knowledge about curriculum and digital literacies.

Bud is an avid and, at this point and prior to my research, well-known and respected educational blogger who writes under the moniker “Bud the Teacher”. During the course of my research, Bud tweeted “Identified in a meeting today as ‘the guy who makes teachers write.’ I’m okay with that.”

In following Bud online, I could see that this was true. He often creates spaces for teachers to write, and to write publicly. This was true in his work creating and facilitating a course called “Writing and the Common Core: Deeper Learning for All” at Peer-2-Peer University (P2PU) in collaboration with the National Writing Project. During the course of this research Bud facilitated weekly meetings and discussions, often linking to share resource he set up in pubic collaborative spaces. For example, he posted the Common Core standards themselves in an annotatable space so that teachers could response directly to the text; each week’s tasks, like creating reading, tool and technique lists, prompts for reflective writing, etc., were posted in editable and publish Google documents too. These resources were meant to be used by class participants initially but were open to all and remain open resources today for sharing and further collaboration.

Bud noted that a big piece of his job now is helping teachers to get comfortable in new spaces and new environments online. And in doing so he says he “spend[s] a lot of my time getting them comfortable in having an opinion [to share publicly].”

Meenoo also created a now very popular space for teachers to share publicly via Twitter called #engchat. #engchat is a weekly conversation that happens via Twitter every Monday night at 7pm.  When asked about her work online, she described the establishment of #engchat this way:

I knew this model of #edchat existed  … [but] no specific chat for English teachers. And I really wanted to learn from other teachers. I was in … a small English department and I wasn’t sure I was learning as much as I wanted to. So … I took a leap of faith and I said, well let’s try this idea of bringing English teachers together via twitter.

Since then #engchat has grown tremendously in the number of teachers participating as well as its reputation as a resource for English teachers (or teachers in general). In the course of my research, I regularly saw Meenoo facilitating this community (which is active now throughout the week) as well as the Monday events. On Mondays, she would introduce the weekly hosts, point to the weblog where the hosts would usually post some introductory text and prompts for discussion, participate in chats mostly by posting resources and retweeting questions posted by others, welcome participants as they join, and thank others for participating. Throughout the rest of the week I would see her capture what happened that Monday in an online archive at, announce the host for next week, and respond here and there to tweets that were tagged with #engchat as well as post her own.

Lacy, like Bud, worked across a variety of public spaces during the course of my research, to share her work and surface work of her colleagues. She was constantly supporting their work in being more public to larger audiences. I saw her posting to the weblog she created and manages at the UNC Charlotte Writing Project, cross-posting to the UNC Charlotte Writing Project Facebook page, as well as posting and retweeing twitter comments using the #uncc and #nwp tag too about her colleagues’ work.

Tensions in being public were mentioned. For instance, in my interview with Chad, he talked about the dynamics of race and gender in speaking in public online spaces. As a white male he said that he has advantages in online spaces that others may not and that this is something to think and discuss more about when making spaces for others. He also spoke about push back from and to authority when  leadership itself comes from “teaching and learning in authentic ways in public despite being afraid of how peers or the system might judge us.”

Working Alongside Teachers and Leading Collaboratively

Lieberman and Friedrich write about how teachers in their study uses many phrases to describe the often behind-the-scenes work of leadership. These include “working alongside” other teachers and leading “collaboratively” … also “grass-roots” “helping people find their strengths” “teacher to teacher” etc. They write, “teacher leadership is equalitarian and respectful of teachers’ knowledge.”

In my research and interviews, this came up in various ways. I saw these five teachers being explicit about these collaboration as well as noticed them working “behind-the-scenes”.

For example, in relation to the significance of the work that she does online, Lacy talked about relationships being key. She said ”the significance … about talking with teachers [online] are the relationships. … [and the] sustaining or availability to touch back to people.“ Her online activities demonstration this whether she is tweeting out something said by a colleague, sharing a resource with another, celebrating a success, or giving feedback to a colleague on their work.

Meenoo talked about teacher leaders she looks up to being “generous and curious” and she said that “teacher leaders are generous not only when they do something well, but when they fail at something.” During the course of my research, Meenoo was profiled in an article of the New York Times Learning Network about twitter chats, Teachers Teaching Teachers, on Twitter. In her interview, Meenoo was quoted as saying,

Teachers have collective wisdom and we can crowdsource some of common issues we all face in the classroom. By participating in these peer-to-peer forums, teachers are really teaching other teachers. They are willing to share their expertise and are also willing to learn from other teachers. There is real power and potential for positive change in education in these niche communities.

And, in my interview with her, Meenoo also named that it can be hard work to do.

it’s hard to do [these] things in thoughtful and in meaningful ways that not only allows you to follow your own questions but also helps others .. learn along with you.

Paul, reflecting on his work as well as the weekly nature of #engchat that Meenoo facilitates and the relationships that Lacy mentioned, said that he feels “an important part of leadership … is always being there.” He goes on further to explain, “People knowing they can do something else for awhile and then come back and reconnect.“

Lacy responded to this idea and related it to the way a community like the writing project is also there for teachers. Here is a conversation about this between Paul and Lacy:

Paul: … those of us who are [online] all the time allow other leaders to come up and down. If everyone came and went then it would be really confusing. So having some established places allows for people to come up and be a leader for a few weeks and then pull back.

Lacy: I was … thinking about the idea of space and some kind of organization that allows people to flow in and out. And I was thinking about the writing project as that kind of idea, not [just] as a physical space but this common project that allows people to come in and out and have this connection.

Paul also talked about “minding the gap” as an essential part of teacher leadership. He described it in this way,

there are a lot of exploratory and wonderful things that I see other teachers doing that I’d like to do too. But if I can’t do it with relatively free tools [and] if I can’t imagine my colleague next door doing it … then that is not the most important part of my work. …

Bud began with a reflection his own learning and then brought this back to the various ways that he continues to share his learning:

I came to blogging because I was trying to figure out a way to make writing instruction relevant for my high school students. Along the way I rediscovered why writing was important to me.

He then goes on to say that he is also now intentionally using the tools and spaces in such a way that might model for others, and demonstrate what he “would like to see in the discourse” such as “sharing stuff, wondering about things, writing, play.”

As Chad talks about agency and creating spaces where teachers have “permission to speak” as something important to his leadership, he was carefully not to say that he was giving permission to others but rather that,

‘permission to speak’ are spaces where people give themselves permission … where people come and realize they do have permission to speak and they can claim that authority for themselves. And it’s all going to be okay.”

And, in the “working alongside” model, he says “teacher leaders shouldn’t be concerned with sharing their discoveries so much as they should be concerned with helping others make their own moral and intellectual discoveries.”

During my interview with Meenoo too, she elaborated more on being a teacher leader in a way that I think is both self-reflective and mindful of the ways others start to emerge as leaders. She said, “you don’t just wake up one morning and [say] ‘I’m a teacher leader’! Someone had to trust you and give you that space … you are really scared at first, and you have the support whether that is local support or someone across the country. And I think that more teachers need that.” She spoke about teacher leaders that she respects being those who are also willing to push back sometimes and that this kind of questioning has shown her the depth of the work as well as the respect for each other and the craft of teaching.

Taking A Stand

Lieberman and Friedrich note that while teacher leaders often working behind-the-scenes they also “stay true to their principles and stand up for what they believe.”

In this study, all of the teachers are taking a stand by being public in the ways they present themselves, their work and the work of their students and colleagues. In my interview with Bud, drawing upon his past experience as a journalist, he spoke about this sometimes more subtle form of action and advocacy by acknowledging the agenda he is setting through what he chooses to post and what he doesn’t. He also spoke about his intention to be aware and reflective as possible about the choices he is making.

Chad spoke about his intentions online too. During the course of this study, the tweets he posted were written in a way that was meant to publicly respond to other bloggers and policymakers about his beliefs and to build, over time, a clear set of arguments for his thoughts, his reasons and as well visions of change and possibilities. And this was done in the communities of practice in which he is connected, including Cooperative Catalyst and the National Writing Project. In this way we see him enacting his “permission to speak” philosophy as he extends himself to speak directly and consistently about these matters within a community of peers and educational stakeholders.

Also, in the course of this study, Chad, along with others from Coop Catalyst, started up and participated in the #occupyedu campaign. A set of example tweets by @chadsansing related to this work and campaign include:

NOT WORKING @joe_bower shares news of a schl that links privileges to scores; this happens w/o cards #occupyedu #ows

reading “Time to Start Thinking Differently” & hoping for schools that are willing to stop being schools

stand against the standardization of children & schools: #occupyedu a new space for sharing OUR story #occupywallstreet

parents, students, educators: challenge our test-addled notions of school; help change teaching & learning #occupyedu

re-reading “Time for Freedom Riders for School Reform” from @dropoutnation #occupyedu

revisiting “Children can educate themselves without the control of adults” via @InnovativeEdu; still much to ponder

here’s how to contribute to #occupyedu: kids, parents, & educators: be heard for making schools more relevant & meaningful

This campaign was not just an online campaign but a call for the enactment of a core set of practices in ones own classroom. In Chad’s post “Occupy your Classroom” on October 4, 2011, he writes:

If you would occupy your statehouse to keep your job, pay, and benefits, please also consider occupying your classroom.

  • Give your students at least a day a week to follow their passions.
  • Get rid of your furniture. Help kids borrow, bring, or build their own.
  • Get rid of your textbooks. Or redact them.
  • Ask kids to make sense of the world as it happens across media and technologies.
  • Build communities instead of reinforcing expectations.

Chad then used forums like his own blog, Coop Catalyst as well as #engchat, TTT and NWP Digital Is to share reflections, questions and thoughts as he and his students do the complex work of building the classroom and school environments they want to see.

Learning and Reflecting on Practice as a Teacher and Leader

Lieberman and Friedrich write “teacher-leaders constantly seek to broaden their knowledge base. They read widely and stay informed of new research and professional literature related to the field. They reflect on their teaching and on the work that they do with their peers. They constantly seek to improve their teaching and leadership practice. They emphasize they do not have all the answers and often turn to others.”

In my research, I noticed these teachers being reflective practitioners and leaders throughout and turning to others for further insight and support. Meenoo talked in our interview about how she values this process of learning and reflecting and sharing among her colleagues. She said that the points of inquiry – where there are new questions and new answers – are what interest her.

Chad told me that he began to blog with others at Coop Catalyst when he was new at his school because:

I was trying to figure out how I was going to be a more democratic teacher and have a more joyful classroom and blogging to a certain extent was an act of writing my self into existence as the teacher I’d like to be.

Bud, like Chad, also referred to his blogging/writing starting when he was trying to figure out something in his classroom for his students. He said that he is still doing that too, ie. consciously “thinking about stuff” in front of others where there is opportunity for response and dialogue around these ideas and questions too.

Lacy talked about the public nature of the work surfacing both the “hard parts of teaching and the hard parts of writing.” During the course of this study she worked hard with her colleagues to surface inquiry about both writing and teaching through facilitating a small group to draft, respond, and eventually to publish their individual, and collective, converations about their work on the NWP Digital Is website (see: Digital Is (K)not).

About the (k)not they write:

If Digital Is, what is digital (k)not?  Is digital work new and innovative or just the same ole hogwash, only stored in digital clouds?  What are those (k)nots and tangles that tie us up and hold things together?  … This wondering—this thinking about the cultural work that digital stories do—surrounds the work of the Urban Sites group of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project.  This wondering complicates and supports our teaching—this wondering sustains our community—this wondering pulls us into reflection, inquiry, and action.

Taking on the opportunity of a shared writing prompt to reflect on her learning, writing and teaching, Meenoo posted this on #engchat:


I write to remember and to forget, to understand and explore and to play with ideas roaming my mind. I write because sometimes it is easier to speak to a page than a person.  I write even though it is not easy at times.

I write because as a teacher of writing, I want to experience the struggle, anxiety and pain of having to produce writing on demand. I want to remember the experience of feeling less-than-confident about what you’ve produced often at the request and demand of others.

Over the past few years, my writing has become more public. This was not a natural evolution in my identity as a writer.  Even now, I have fears and hesitations about sharing my experiences as teacher and learner with the larger world.  Nonetheless, I find value in the feedback, the continuing conversations around a topic.  My ideas gets better when they are shared with others.  This is why I write.

Occupy Wall Street also was a topic of shared inquiry for some during this study. Situated in New York City, Paul and his students took the lead, along with colleagues around the country, in learning more about it as part of a larger “Local Knowledge/Global Attitude” curriculum. Again, using the forum of Teachers Teaching Teachers to engage colleagues across the country, Paul inviting Chad along with many others to talk about what was being learned from OWS that was important for teachers and learners (see: Learning from Occupy Wall Street). At the same time, a “mission” in Youth Voices for students and colleagues was created to further support collaborative and partcipatory inquiry for those who were interested (see: Occupy Youth Voices).

A Map of the Project

This prezi gives an overview of this project and walks you through some of the main public online spaces these teachers worked in over the course of my study.

In what ways do teachers lead in online public spaces? on Prezi

Meet the Teachers

These introductions were transcribed from my interviews:

Paul Allison, New York City Writing Project, @paulallison

I am Paul Allison and I am an English teacher in the Bronx right now. I have been teaching for 29 years in the NYC school system. And joined up with the New York City Writing Project shortly after I began teaching in 1985. … Six years ago I started an online show called Teachers Teaching Teachers and about the same time we started a site called Youth Voices.

Bud Hunt, Colorado State University Writng Project, @budtheteacher

I am Bud Hunt. I’m an instructional tech coordinator in Northern Colorado. I have been online in various forms and fashion intentionally for six years now … I am the father of three. I have been working, this semester and during the time [of this study,] on a master’s thesis so I am living a bit in the english world and a bit in the tech world right now and spend most of that time bridging the gap between school and infrastructure wherever I go.

Lacy Manship, UNC Charolotte Writing Project, @now_awake

I’m Lacy Manship and … my background is in early childhood education …. I taught kindergarten and first grade in our public school district in Charlotte for eight years and became involved with the National Writing Project at that time. Over the last three years I’ve been a graduate student and working for the UNC Writing Project doing a lot of professional development and consultant work as Associate Director. I am [also] adjunct teaching … in the childhood family studies dept in the college of ed and first year writing.

Meenoo Rami, Philadelphia Writing Project, @mrami2

I am Meenoo Rami. I teach in the Philadelphia school district. I’ve taught there for the past six years. I joined the Philadelphia Writing project through the SI in summer 2010 and since then I’ve had opportunities to learn more about the writing project and the interesting work teachers are doing and I’ve had a chance to write and reflect about my practice in the classroom. … I think I have grown tremendously because of the exposure to wider ways teachers sort of exist in various educational systems and experiences and its been really interesting for me.

Chad Sansing, Central Virginia Writing Project, @chadsansing

I’m Chad Sansing. I teach Humanities classes at a VA charter school that is an arts-infused and literacy focus for non-traditional middle school learners. I probably got started with social media about the time that I came to the school, so maybe three or four years ago. Primarily, at first, it was just as a collector of interesting tweets and resources, [but] since then, [I am] back into blogging and tweeting with more of a purpose, or more of a perspective, at least. I’ve got two kids who both go to school in Central Virginia.

Implications and Further Questions

The act of naming the work that my colleagues are doing online as teacher leadership opens up new ways of considering their work and the communities of which it is a part. As Lieberman and Friedrich write in their introduction, there are over three decades of attention to the role that teachers’ leadership plays in education and for students. Therefore, noticing the ways that teacher leaders are working online could potentially help to expand this work, as well as open new opportunities and ways of talking about the work teacher leaders are doing too.

In the introduction to their study, Lieberman and Friedrich note that “although numerous articles and books advocate for teacher leadership, few, it any, focus on how teachers learn to lead in their own words.” My study also did not focus on how teachers learn to lead in online spaces, but I think the act of calling them teacher leaders then brings this question to the forefront – a question that is increasingly important as both digital literacies and networked learning continue to shift the modes of learning and teaching itself.

Lieberman and Friedrich also write that “in many ways [the teacher leaders in their study], through their actions and through their writing, help build teacher knowledge about how to lead.” (p. 99) I wonder then, as networking opportunities for teachers expand into online environments, what new and repurposed knowledge is being surfaced for learning about leadership itself.

Through my research, I can see some interesting places where more could be learned or further questions asked, including:

  • What are the implications of taking a learner-centered approach to the ways that we think about teaching and learning in general?
  • What can we learn about the social aspect of learning from paying attention to online communities of practice?
  • What are the possibilities of being public with practice and inquiry within community in a digital and networked age?

What are the implications of taking a learner-centered approach to the ways that we think about teaching and learning in general?

In paying attention to the ways that teachers advocate for what’s right for students, I noticed these teachers advocating what’s right for their colleagues, their family and community members, and learners in general. While these spaces I followed were mostly used among colleagues (although not exclusively), the consistent shift I noticed towards being learner-centered allows for potentially new possibilities in the way we approach thinking about teaching and learning in general.

My experience with the writing project leads me to believe this learner-centered focus is significant. A key piece of what we know about teaching and learning at the National Writing Project is that when practitioners themselves have an opportunity to be learners of practice they can then better support their students in being learners too. Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood in their 2002 study of the National Writing Project, National Writing Project: Social Practices in a Networked Context, write:

WP teachers [talk] about the importance of turning learning over to students so that they would develop a sense of ownership for it. Without that sense of ownership, they argued, learners are rarely truly engaged or motivated. In this spirit, the WP insists on professional development opportunities that are solidly teacher-centered. Teachers name their own problems and articulate their own problems and then have the freedom to design learning experiences around these. (p. 6)

A strong belief in the power of collective learning, especially within a rapidly changing communications and information environment which can at any moment, be new to all, was a prevailing feature of the work that I studied. And these public online spaces themselves provided a wonderful lens through which to see the enactment of this perspective and making the learning visible to others.

What can we learn about the social aspect of learning from paying attention to online communities of practice?

Online is an interesting place to see social learning happening within communities of practice. It would then be interesting to further map or follow-up on questions about how these practices might influence the ways that teachers in networks learn and how this impacts their work with their students. We have seen the impact of this at the writing project, ie. participating in supportive reflective communities of practice can support shifts in deeply held core beliefs and practices (McDonald, Buchanan and Sterling, 2004). I am curious about the potential for this in more generalized online spaces too.

Lave and Wenger’s work on communities of practice and what is considered “legitimate peripheral participation” I think is an important part of some of the dynamics you can see online and ways that teachers connect within these online communities. I noted the intention with which my colleagues are being public online, within communities of colleagues, and what feels important to me here is the intention with which they talk about supporting their colleagues in going public with their work in similar ways too. This starts to get to the “how” that Lieberman and Friedrich talk about in their study. Therefore, points of interests might include paying more attention to these spaces overall as well as how do they specifically support participants in being community members, in taking an inquiry stance and being public, over time.

Tensions around being public in these communities were also named by my colleagues – it can be risky and complicated and requires critical attention to power dynamics as well as fostering and support. In what ways do these teachers bring attention to these matters would be another approach for further study.

What are the possibilities of being public with practice and inquiry within community in a digital and networked age?

In my study, there is clearly a shared belief in the power of being public with practice, particularly within an-inquiry driven community. And these teachers are creating spaces all over the web for this to happen. Lieberman and Wood’s work studying the NWP seems important to bring back in here as it speaks to the way that the writing project has historically supported teachers in going public with their work and creating collegial forums for critique and discussion. Described as key to breaking down classroom teachers “isolation and silence” they write that writing projects support teachers in learning to give and receive critique in professional ways that further support their leadership. Through doing so, they also found that within the writing project community, teachers “developed common investment in the quality of their public contributions.” (p. 6)

I think it is significant too that these teachers are publicly leading with an intentional inquiry stance towards their work. And because they are such active participants in creating and promoting emerging online spaces that supports this kind of inquiry, they are leading in shifting power dynamics in the field itself too.

Lytle and Cochran-Smith in Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Knowledge for the Next Generation call for an expanded view of practitioner researchers not only as teachers who work in dialogue with leaders but as leaders themselves. Lieberman and Friedrich, in reflecting on teacher leadership within the conclusion of their study, talk about the relationships between academic research and teacher knowledge and their intentions in creating the conditions that foster and demonstrate how “teachers and researchers can collaborate to deepen our knowledge about teaching, learning and leadership.” (pg 102).  In my study, I believe my collleagues are contributing to these conditions for collaboration and role-shifting through their public leadership and inquiry.

In the course of this study I also interacted with spaces, like Youth Voices, where there is an intention to create inquiry-drive community/ies of practice that includes both youth and adults (or teachers and students). Although my study did not focus on that work to any depth, the act of opening the classroom door and going public with practice clearly provides the opportunity for these kinds of learner-centered interactions across ages and roles and this would be another important area for further study with a community like Youth Voices which is working to make this happen.

#Occupyedu too was a powerful example of stance-taking that I was excited to be paying attention to during the course of this study. Modeled off of a campaign, we culturally continue to learn how to act and mobilize in online (as well as off-line) spaces, so this is an interesting example to learn more from in that light. Specifically interesting here too is to learn more about how teachers are standing by their beliefs about what is best for students and learners and leading advocacy and activist efforts in support of the kinds of communities and opportunities they would like to see.

Most importantly, forums like these — as well as TTT, #engchat, Coop Catalyst, and the other blogs and social media that my colleagues and other educators are using — demonstrate, in increasingly visible ways, what is possible when teachers work and learn together as professionals in inquiry-driven communities of practice.

Many thanks to my colleagues for their important work and participation in my study.

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