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In Other Words: Harnessing the Educational Power of Twitter

by Karen Lirenman
January 12, 2012
Have you ever been stuck in a professional development workshop, rolling your eyes, listening to someone who thinks they know it all, but really has no idea what teaching in your first grade classroom is like? You struggle to pay attention, but very little of what's being said is applicable to your classroom teaching. That is what professional development has looked like for me in the past.

Then there is Twitter. Twitter is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week professional development opportunity. The topics discussed are endless, and you can easily pick and choose what is relevant to you and your classroom setting. If you don’t like what you’re reading, you can close the link and move on. If you want to learn more about a specific topic, you can post a question and other like-minded educators will respond by providing you with relevant links and information.

But how do you get started with Twitter? At first, Twitter seems innocent enough. You log on and create an account. But then what? Twitter’s power is in the people and the hashtags (word preceded by the # symbol) you follow. But when you don’t know anyone on Twitter, it’s really hard to know who to follow. So what’s this about hashtags?

The hashtag is a universal Twitter symbol that helps keep posts organized. As people post to Twitter, they can direct where their posts will go by adding a # with a key word or label. If someone is posting something that is specifically relevant to a math topic, they may add the #mathchat tag to their tweet. Typically all tweets found under a specific hashtag are relevant to the hashtag’s topic. If you’re interested in following posts on elementary education, you search the #elemchat stream.

For me as a grade one teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, I follow hashtags that are relevant to me. I follow #1stchat because it is a place where grade one teachers post their favourite blog links and/or ask questions to be answered by other grade one teachers. I also follow #sd36learn which is my school district’s feed. It helps me stay on top of the great things happening in my school district. I follow #bced (my provincial feed) and #elemchat (a more global feed) too.

There are many different hashtags just for educational purposes. Jerry Blumengarten (@cybraryman on Twitter) has created a list of many of these educational hashtags. You can find his list as well as links to other educational hashtag lists at http://cybraryman.com/edhashtags.html. The power of Twitter is in finding hashtags that are relevant to your teaching and learning.

Now that you understand how the hashtag works, you still need to find people to follow. The best place to find people is to see who is posting in the hashtag feeds that are relevant for you. For me, I found many of the people I follow in the #1stchat feed. Once you have a few people to follow, you can look at whom they are following. If you see people that interest you, you can follow them, too.

I like to check profile information because it usually tells me enough about a person to determine whether I will follow them or not. Your profile is like your business card, so it is important that you make one that describes you well. It is also a good idea to get rid of the Twitter egg picture that accompanies all new members and add a personal photo. Most people won’t follow “egg heads.”

Now that you understand hashtags and how to find people to follow, what's next?

When I was brand new to Twitter I was trying to do all my reading and tweeting from the web-based Twitter program. Believe it or not, it is actually poorly designed for educators who want to follow specific hashtag feeds. A much better website to use is called HootSuite. HootSuite allows you to save your specific hash tag streams separately. What this means is that instead of reading your home feed (which is where all posts of the people you follow go) you read tweets by the hashtags that you have specifically chosen to follow. It is the separation of hashtags by topics that really helps keep tweets organized and makes Twitter a lot less overwhelming. This separation by hashtag and the specific tweets found in each hashtag is where the learning for educators really takes place.

So, what have I learned so far? Through Twitter I have learned about (Kidblog), which is a really safe platform to have students blog. Now my grade one students have their own blogs to do their own writing on.

I have also learned about ways I can integrate my one class iPad into my teaching program, so it’s being successfully used all day long. And I have learned about using Twitter hashtags to motivate my students with their writing. My grade one students created a hashtag, #santasec2011, and we posted secrets about Santa and invited other classrooms to join us—which they did.

What's really cool about everything I have learned on Twitter is that if I have a question about what I’m reading, I can easily ask the author by tweeting them my question. Twitter is interactive and it works two ways. People share their thoughts and ideas through their tweets and/or the links they post. They also read your links and posts and they answer questions you have posted. It does not matter where you are in your teaching career; what you have to say matters. People will listen and respond to you, too. This interactive aspect of Twitter is where so much of its power lies.

Which brings me to another valuable aspect of Twitter—the chat. Many of the educational hashtags have chats associated with them. If you follow one long enough you will soon figure out when the chat takes place. I have been taking part in a Twitter chat with other grade one teachers using the #1stchat hashtag. This chat takes place most Sundays at 8 pm EST. Our topics of discussion have included integrating technology into our classrooms, classroom management systems, writing strategies, reading strategies, morning routines, etc.

While you may Google search these topics to find new ideas, during the chats real teachers are sharing their real ideas. If you have a question about something being shared you can ask and get an instant reply. Google searches are good for finding information, but Twitter searches are better because you can interact with the person providing the information. With Twitter you don't have to wait for specific chat times to post your questions. You can post questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and typically an educator will provide answers for you. You can't do that with Google!

Twitter is an extremely powerful tool for professional development. Educators all around the world use it to share their knowledge. It can introduce you to amazing educators who can easily become part of your professional learning network. It is an unlimited source of information. If you haven’t signed up yet, what are you waiting for? You’ll be amazed by what you’ve been missing.

Happy tweeting!

Karen Lirenman (@klirenman) is a grade one teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. She has been teaching for 20 years and discovered Twitter for educational purposes in July 2011. Her interests include utilizing technology, improving her teaching, and sharing with others. Karen spent the 2009 school year teaching in Melbourne, Australia. She loves to travel and is a five-time Ironman finisher. Karen's professional blog can be found at LearningandSharingwithMsL.blogspot.com.

© 2012 Karen Lirenman. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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