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Published in Print: September 30, 2015, as Teachers Turn to Twitter for Solutions, Connection

Teachers Turn to Twitter for Solutions, Connection

—Illustration by Ross Brenneman

Educators say the social media platform offers immediacy and practicality lacking from school PD programs

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For several years, growing numbers of teachers have been taking to Twitter to network and learn from other educators, often through education-related chat groups.

There are now dozens of Twitter communities for teachers, featuring weekly scheduled chats as well as continuous, ongoing discussions. Most every kind of K-12 niche is represented, often many times over: Science, English, leadership, professional associations, and state-based educator connections are all represented.

But even as so many online Twitter communities flourish—as old ones get bigger, new ones sprout up, and even school PD coordinators start to jump on the bandwagon—the value of Twitter as a source for professional learning remains anecdotal.

"We have recent converts who have tons of enthusiasm for what they're doing [on Twitter], then they turn to their peers, and their peers say, 'OK that's great, show me the results, show me the difference it makes,' " said Mark Weston, an author and ed-tech researcher who helps moderate the ubiquitous #edchat. "And we as a profession don't have an answer."

Still, many teachers maintain the professional development they get from Twitter is better than what they get through their schools—in part, they argue, because it offers opportunities for dialogue and continuous feedback from fellow educators that much school-provided PD does not.

"Twitter has afforded teachers that opportunity of engaging with each other in a professional way that doesn't really occur in their school or district," said Weston.

Professional Discourse

There's no foolproof way to gauge how many practicing educators participate in Twitter chats, or even how many are on Twitter to begin with. #Edchat is the granddaddy of education Twitter chats, having grown so big that "#edchat" is now the de facto hashtag for thousands of education-related tweets each week; a casual observer might forget that there is still a scheduled weekly chat associated with the brand. (Two, actually, every Tuesday.)

How is it that a continuous stream of 140-character snippets is inviting or helpful to teachers?

For the uninitiated educator, it might not appear to be helpful at all.

The kinds of instructional changes that come about because of Twitter chats tend to be "small and incremental," said Brian Sztabnik, a high school English teacher in Long Island, N.Y., who founded #APlitchat about a year ago, geared toward Advanced Placement English teachers. But Sztabnik noted that the conversations can also expand teachers' understanding of a topic or issue in their field.

On a Monday evening late this past summer, members of #APlitchat debated the merits of teaching excerpts of literature, as opposed to whole novels. The Common Core State Standards, with their emphasis on close reading, have pushed many educators to reconsider teaching whole novels and instead use selected portions, a move detested by some English teachers.

On one side of the chat was a vocal component of teachers uninterested in excerpted text, while others argued for its usefulness.

Sztabnik finds that kind of discourse fulfilling: "I thought you shouldn't really excerpt text because it doesn't do justice to [the book]. But then you see other people articulate reasons why you should. And I don't know if I would necessarily change completely, but [the chat] allows you to be more, perhaps, empathetic, more understanding that there's more than one way to skin a cat."

High school English teacher Kristen Nielsen of Baltimore County public schools is a follower of #APlitchat, where she first heard of the "two perfect sentences," a strategy for literacy instruction proposed by Wisconsin teacher Brian Durst to meet common-core expectations.

"In some ways, the #APlitchat is revolutionizing what I'm willing to do this year in terms of more direct instruction," Nielsen said. "Looking at how I can teach analysis in a more discrete and concrete way to a bunch of different types of thinkers."

Nielsen says she doesn't "do Facebook, and I don't really like social media much." But she started playing with Twitter after hearing about a chat being conducted by the National Council of Teachers of English, which had invited novelist Laurie Halse Anderson to be a special guest.

Nielsen finds such chats to be more stimulating than the in-school PD she is often prescribed. "So often, it's bought by the county, people are paid that don't have any real knowledge of students or what is needed; instead, they're just selling their product," she said.

But many school leaders are beginning to see Twitter's value as a professional learning tool. Adam Welcome, the principal of Montair Elementary School, in Danville, Calif., said he works to establish a school culture in which teachers are encouraged, though not required, to experiment with social media for professional development.

"Teaching isn't that collaborative," Welcome said. "Twitter opens up your classroom all the time, every day, all day."

It also gives teachers opportunities to share content on an ongoing basis and establish lasting dialogues with other educators.

"If you go to a one-day Saturday seminar, you can't get that," Welcome said. "[But] this is happening right now, in the classroom, and it's free, and you can do it from your phone. If your principal says, 'Put your phones away'—they're wrong, because it's a teaching tool."

Seeking Community

Teachers might turn to Twitter because of a PD vacuum at the local level, but it may also take some time to get what they're looking for.

Rusul Alrubail, a former college educator in Canada who's now an education consultant and writer, joined Twitter a year ago, and for a while, was unable to find good discussions reflecting her interest: social justice in a school context.

"Not seeing it on Twitter felt like, well, I guess educators are not allowed to talk about that kind of stuff because they don't have to go through that, they don't have to deal with issues of race because Twitter is all white," Alrubail said.

Alrubail then found the #educolor group, a community focused on intersectional issues in K-12 education.

"There was a hashtag for it, there's a chat that's going on [where] we're going to talk about this issue," Alrubail said. "So I said, 'I have to join.' "

She is now a full-fledged #educolor member.

Founder José Vilson said that #educolor occupies a unique space between advocacy and professional development—not quite an #edchat derivative, but still a "safe space" where teachers of any color can delve into cultural issues.

"Cultural competence is professional competence," said Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City. "How do you actually treat your students if you don't know who they are?"

Vilson added that there's been a demand for PD materials focused on cultural competency, which the #educolor movement provides on its website as well as within its robust Twitter community.

"When the Trayvon Martin situation happened, I got a lot of emails and comments from teachers—white teachers as well as teachers of color—saying, 'We need resources,' " he said, referring to the young black man fatally shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Florida in 2012.

And other groups, like #HipHopEd and the organization Teaching Tolerance, have also been working to draw diverse conversations to Twitter's K-12 practitioners.

Teachers Engaging Teachers

Despite the resources and connections to be found on Twitter, not all teachers want social media shoved down their throats. Sztabnik, who also runs the Talks With Teachers podcast and co-founded another Twitter group, #edugeekchat, said he used to push colleagues toward Twitter, but has backed off in recent months.

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"It's almost like you feel you're a proselytizer, and that just has a bad vibe," he said.

Putting aside concerns about spending precious time adapting to Twitter's frenetic pace, there's also the fact that some teachers—and, best to sit down for this, it may come as a shock—do enjoy having a personal life.

"It's tough to tell someone after spending a full day of school teaching, to go home for an hour and hop on a Twitter chat and talk more about teaching," Sztabnik said. "There's something to be said for being a teacher and then being an individual person outside of school and having your own identity."

To Weston, the #edchat moderator, it doesn't matter where professional conversations take place, so long as they do.

"Good things happen when teachers engage with other teachers about teaching," he said. "And that's true whether it's in the hall in their school, on Twitter, on Facebook, or church."

Vol. 35, Issue 06, Page s16

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