Teachers take to Twitter to improve craft and commiserate

January 21, 2012

After her first year teaching history in a public high school in the District, Jamie Josephson was exhausted and plagued by self-doubt. Teaching had been more grueling than she ever expected. Law school began to sound appealing.

Then she stumbled onto Twitter. In the vast social network on the Web, she discovered a community of mentors offering inspiration, commiseration and classroom-tested lesson plans.

“Twitter essentially prepared me to go into my second year and not give up,” said Josephson, now in her third year at Woodrow Wilson High in Northwest Washington. “I never would have imagined that it would have been the place to find support.”

Josephson (known to fellow tweeters by her handle, @dontworryteach) is one of a small but growing number of teachers who are delving into the world of hashtags and retweets, using Twitter to improve their craft by reaching beyond the boundaries of their schools to connect with colleagues across the country and around the world.

They say the camaraderie and free, instantaneous help they find through Twitter — and its steady stream of pithy messages, maximum 140 characters each — is far more useful than traditional school training programs, which often feature fixed agendas, airless rooms and canned speeches by hired experts.


Images show excerpts from Twitter discussions among teachers who share tips and other information.

“I always tell people the the most valuable 15 minutes I spend, in terms of my professional growth, is when I jump on Twitter at night and see what’s going on,” said Greg Kulowiec, a virtual colleague of Josephson’s who teaches in Plymouth, Mass.

When news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on a Sunday night in May, it prompted immediate and furious tweeting among social studies teachers, Kulowiec said.

Within little more than an hour, they had pooled links to Web sites, documents and other resources, collaborating to write Monday-morning lesson plans aimed at helping students understand the event.

Tweeting tips

That same group of teachers has used Twitter to share tips for everything from using newfangled education technologies to facilitating classroom discussions and teaching about the Cold War.

“After a really good chat, all you are is excited to go back to work and try something,” said Kulowiec, an eight-year veteran of the classroom. “It’s very motivating to see other people motivated.”

The edu-tweet movement began in earnest in 2009 when three teachers, seeking a way to find others interested in talking about education issues, started a weekly Tuesday-night Twitter chat open to anyone in the world.

At first there were about a hundred participants, according to co-founder Shelly Terrell. But the conversation grew steadily as stars in the education field, such as author Alfie Kohn and historian Diane Ravitch, joined in.

Now there are more than 2,000 participants each week, Terrell said. Organizers added a second chat, at noon, to accommodate teachers tweeting from distant time zones in Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

Chatters determine the topic to be discussed each week by voting in an online poll. They mark their tweets with the hashtag #edchat, making it easy for anyone to search for the conversation, read and contribute.

Their discussion topics have ranged from the practical (How to use class blogs to improve student writing?) to the philosophical (What’s the real purpose of school?). They’ve tweeted about the pros and cons of homework, hashed out ideas about designing fair teacher evaluations and discussed how to improve working relationships with principals.

‘Better than just Googling’

The original chat has spawned dozens of others.

There is the Monday night social-studies chat — #sschat — to which Josephson and Kulowiec frequently contribute. It draws about 80 chatters each week.

Music teachers (#musedchat), psychology teachers (#psychat) and special-education teachers (#spedchat) all tweet to one another weekly. So do specialists in gifted education (#gtchat), foreign languages (#langchat) and Jewish studies (#jedchat). And of course there is a chat for math teachers (#mathchat) and one for teachers of English (#engchat).

“Some teachers find writing in front of students intimidating, but I think it helps to show kids it takes work — even for you,” tweeted Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) during a recent #engchat about motivating students to write.

“I tried this idea — typing directly onto SmartBoard & talking out loud as I go. Hey Mikey, they like it!” replied a middle-school teacher known as @kenc18.

Most groups have Web sites to archive conversations. They don’t confine themselves to talking during scheduled chats. Teachers say that anytime during the week, they can tweet a request for help with a lesson plan and expect to receive a half-dozen responses within minutes.

“When you get expert educators sending you these things, the quality of it is just surreal compared to what I would get on my own,” said Becky Ellis, an instructional coach in Ogden, Utah, and another faithful #sschat participant. “It’s a lot better than just Googling.”

‘Energy and inspiration’

Not everyone is convinced. Tweeters say plenty of teachers look askance at Twitter as little more than a platform for celebrity navel-gazing and inane commentary on the mundanities of life.

“They think of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and what are you having for breakfast,” said retired teacher Jerry Blumengarten (@cybraryman1), who has put together an online catalogue of education-related Twitter chats. “I say no, no, no! That’s not it.”

Converts include new teachers as well as hardened veterans from affluent private schools, struggling inner-city schools and everywhere in between. Participants say teachers who go out of their way to collaborate online tend to be creative, motivated people with high standards for their own performance — the type who would rather try something new than pull out the yellowed lesson plans they’ve been using for years.

Nineteen-year educator Ron Peck teaches in a small public high school tucked up against the rugged Klamath mountains in southern Oregon, hours from the nearest big city.

Resources in his district are limited, he said, and innovation is slow. He said Twitter has been a lifeline to the larger world, infusing his classroom with new ideas and technologies that he wouldn’t otherwise know about.

It’s also kept him excited about his job. “The energy and inspiration is one of the best things about it,” he said. “If I was still isolated in my classroom after almost 20 years, I would probably feel burned out — but I have colleagues who are like-minded and who I can talk to daily.”

Among those colleagues is Josephson, who said she, too, has built solid relationships with #sschat participants around the country, from New York to Kentucky and beyond.

She is among a group — including Peck, Ellis and Kulowiec — planning a springtime face-to-face gathering for #sschat-ters. Meanwhile, on Twitter these days Josephson is as apt to share her own links and tips as she is to ask fellow teachers for help.

And she’s planning to go to graduate school next fall — but to study education and history, not law. Afterward, she intends to return to the classroom for at least another dozen years.

“I’m just getting the hang of things,” she said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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