Sunday, September 28, 2014

Building A Culture Of School Collaboration Using Twitter

Liberty was just featured in an article in Edutopia about our use of twitter to help drive professional learning for our teachers, communication with our families, and an overall sense of positivity and possibility in the school.  However, the author of the article, Elana Leoni never took credit for the critical role she played in the development of our twitter strategy, so I wanted to spend some time explaining our journey and thanking her for introducing us more fully to this powerful tool.

I have had a twitter account since spring of 2011.  For the first two and half years of having my account, I think I sent a total of 150 tweets, posting my 140 character message a few times each month, and reading the messages of those I was following while waiting in line at Starbucks.  I was a very passive twitter user, and in doing so, didn’t reap the tremendous benefits that can come from thoughtful use of this social media tool.

A New Twitter Paradigm

My lackluster use of twitter can be tracked to two elements a) it was never a priority for me because I didn’t see the purpose in it and b) I didn’t feel like I had anything valuable to tell the world.  Enter Ms. Leoni who I ran into at an informal Edcamp session at last year’s South By Southwest Edu.  I believe her great gift to both myself and my school was to systematically unpack why my two holdups around twitter were wrong.  We talked about various ways that schools had found purpose in twitter usage including letting parents know what is going on in classrooms, connecting teachers to external resources, building a learning community, recognizing teachers for their work, and advertising upcoming events.  More importantly, she helped me overcome my humility, by addressing hold up number two and letting me know that Liberty was a wonderful school, with outstanding things to share, and important messages for other urban schools around the country.

Upon returning from the conference, I utilized the next staff meeting to introduce a new twitter initiative at Liberty.  I explained to my staff the epiphany that had occurred in Austin and made a pitch for why this could be important for our students and community.  We did a little workshop talking about the twitter lingo and I helped to ease the fears of some staff members (many of whom are not digital natives) that twitter functioned in much the same way a text message worked.  Staff members were encouraged to tweet out great things going on in their classroom and parents were encouraged to follow the feed to see updates and get a sense of what was going on at school hour by hour. 

Tweets Started To Trickle
The tweets started in trickles, just a few postings each day.  I would try to model the practice by going into classrooms and telling teachers I just tweeted about the activity I had just seen or the learning that had just taken place, but they would need to harness the software to see what I had said.  I would similarly encourage teachers who I knew had accounts to tweet things from their classroom when I saw spectacular feats of learning.  “That was really great use of technology, make sure to tweet it out so others can see” or “Fantastic small group activity, make sure to tweet it out so all the other first grade teachers can apply the same strategy”.  What we saw were teachers learning from another; great activities that were planned in one class, got posted onto the feed, were seen by teammates, discussed at team meetings, and ultimately applied in another classroom, with twitter as the vehicle for this informal learning community practice.

We also targeted the parents to try to get them in on the action.  Postings in the weekly school newsletter identified this new strategy and welcomed parents to ‘join the conversation’.  Using the Tweetbeam program, we have the #Liberty64 hasttag on constant loop in the office so all teachers, students, and parents can see what people are posting throughout the building.  We also did a twitter training for parents at Back To School night and the first PTO meeting to get people acclimated to basic vocabulary, let them know why they should post, and explain the connectivity that could be generated by following the feed. 

A Current Assessment Of Progress
The system is far from perfect.  I still have about 1/3 of my teachers who post frequently, a 1/3 of teachers who post once or twice a week, and 1/3 of teachers who do no post at all.  Similarly while we have made a push with parents, there are truly only a few who have taken advantage of this (yet).  But ultimately, this is a free service, that takes little investment of time, and has the potential for a lot of positive. 

I think just in terms of helping to build a learning community, raising morale, serving as a communication medium, and connecting good teachers with good ideas to one another, it has been an overwhelming success.  I assume my story is not unique, and that many individuals working in the educational space feel the same trepidation I felt at the beginning; who cares about what goes on at our school, or my classroom on a daily basis (the answer is, lots of people, imagine if you were a parent and your child was in your class) and what is the purpose behind tweeting regularly (I hope this blog post has helped to frame some meaningful purposes).  I will leave you with a few practical tips and strategies to get your system going.  I am looking forward to following your school/classroom hashtags.  Happy tweeting!!!

A Few Tips To Get Started
·       Leadership Matters- As with most things, leadership matters.  It is hard to encourage others to tweet if you are not tweeting yourself.  This provides a great opportunity to model the behavior you would like to see, while also improving moral, and highlighting positive things going on in your classrooms.  You would be surprised the dividends that is yielded from a tweet about a positive practice being identified in your school and broadcasted to the world.

·       Have Teachers Develop Individual Twitter Goals- Our teachers have developed individual twitter goals.  This is an initiative that by nature will need to highly differentiated, particularly if you have a lot of digital immigrants on your staff.  We had the teachers each set up an annual goal that could range from a plan to tweet out once a week, or once a day, or perhaps just set up a handle and follow the conversation.  There are so many ways for people to be involved, both actively and passively.  Ultimately, I think initiatives that occur organically through professional diffusion have the best chance of working.

·       What If Your School System Blocks Twitter?- It shouldn’t matter, most staff members these days have smart phones that are on their own wireless plans that do not connect to the filter.  Don’t let this fear block you’re ability to take advantage of this twitter use in your school environment.

·       Take Advantage Of Tweetbeam- this is an excellent tool for any office kiosk or lobby television which you have looping your school events.  It allows you to set the program to a handle or hashtag and it loops popular tweets in a very visually friendly interface.  There are paid versions for professional presenters, but in the school context, the free version works very well.

·       Suspend Your Trepidations- this was really present throughout the blog, but don’t believe that your story is not worth hearing.  Educators are often very humble and think what they say to the world is not important.  Your messages are critical, to your families, to fellow educators, to policy makers, and your colleagues.  Never deny your importance in the educational conversation and use twitter to let your voice be heard.

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