Helping Educators Take the Mystery out of Twitter
If I told you there was a global network of passionate educators available to converse with you -- on any subject and at any time -- would you be interested? What if I told you this amazing worldwide network was also free? Would that peak your interest?
by John Padula
If you think such an environment can’t possibly exist, it can and it does -- right on Twitter.
Now, I’m not talking about the “What did Kim Kardashian have for breakfast?” Twitter. I’m talking about a facet of Twitter that doesn’t get enough exposure in the media. Every day, every minute, thousands of educators are conversing on Twitter. Within those brief 140-character messages, lesson plans are being swapped, strategies are being discussed, issues are being raised, and passionate educators, mainly those in the trenches, are responding with expertise, thoughtfulness, and compassion.
Let me share my Twitter story:
Four years ago, I reached a crossroads in my teaching career. As I finished my fifth year in Boston teaching Social Studies, I was informed that next year I was going to be the only Social Studies teacher in our middle school. Up to this point, I had been solely responsible for seventh and eighth grade Social Studies. Now, I would be taking on grade six as well. In essence, I was going to be the entire middle school Social Studies “department” for the foreseeable future. I felt like I was being marooned on an island without a Friday to keep me company. In past years, I had tried connecting with other teachers in the district, but there was always something that prevented any sustained discussions on lessons, resources, or ideas. Now, with a third curriculum to teach, I was going to be that much more isolated from teachers who might help me plan and strategize.
In the midst of this upheaval, I attended a two-day seminar on educational technology, which included a segment on Twitter. We dutifully signed up for an account during the class and our instructor walked us through some simple activities within Twitter: We read messages, sent our first message (called a ‘Tweet") and replied to each other -- all in all, nothing very spectacular. Then, we were introduced to the concept of a hashtag, and my perspective on Twitter changed forever.
For those that may have heard the word "hashtag" and wondered what all the fuss is about, let me explain. Twitter messages get sent out mainly as broadcasts. If you log into Twitter and just watch your incoming message window, you can see just about any message that gets sent. Twitter realized that this was way too much information to take in (and who would really want to see so much stuff?), so they allow users to label their messages by including a descriptive tag. This tag can be any combination of letters and numbers, but it has to be preceded by a “#” (or hash) symbol. The “#”, together with the tag that follows, is called a "hashtag" by Twitter users.
So, why bother with a hashtag? It’s just a way to label your message so that other users know what it’s about. Consider the following messages that a history teacher might send on Twitter:
“Anyone have a good explanation of the US Constitution’s fifth amendment for a third grader?”
“Anyone have a good explanation of the US Constitution’s fifth amendment for a third grader? #Civics”
In both examples, the message is broadcast to the Twitter universe, and it asks the same question. However, the second message includes a “#Civics” hashtag to alert Twitter users that this message pertains to civics.
Hashtags become powerful because users can filter the Twitter messages they see and one type of filter involves hashtags. As a civics teacher, I am always on the lookout for anything interesting related to civics. Rather than read every Twitter message and try to pick out the ones that involve civics, I simply ask Twitter to only show me messages that include the hashtag “#Civics”. I do this by entering “#Civics” in the Twitter search bar. This lets me skip so much of the social media-type messages that are flying around on Twitter and allows me to concentrate on just what interests me.
When I searched on “#Civics” today, here’s just a sampling of what filled my screen in about 5 seconds:
- a link to an article on state-mandated civics tests
- a mention of civics requirements for third graders in Alabama
- an exchange on what a ’filibuster’ is
- a link to a new online civics activity
- mention of a new study guide for the AP US Government exam
Can you imagine what you might find if you searched on “#ELA”, or “#Geometry”, or “#ESL”, or “#AmericanHistory”? Beyond the rich content that would certainly appear, the real magic of Twitter comes from coming into contact with educators who share your interests, who want to share their ideas, and who will often lend an ear to issues you might raise.
From that one technology seminar, I began to devote 20-30 minutes a few evenings a week to exploring Twitter: Searching, reading and, over time, even responding to questions raised by other educators. I found hundreds of Social Studies teachers who were willing to share their knowledge, expertise and common sense with me. Over time, I built up a network of educators that I converse with -- some from as far away as Australia. Their insights and ideas continue to make me a better teacher today.
What can you do? If you’re not already on Twitter, consider creating an account today. Think about what topics are most important to you and come up with a few hashtags to explore. (If you want to see a list of about a thousand well-known educational hashtags, visit Jerry Blumengarten’s hashtag page.)
Once you’ve found a few tags that resonate with you, try a few searches and see what appears. You will be amazed at how many of those Tweets -- and those educators -- are relevant to your teaching world. Reach out to them and get the full impact of Twitter. When you share ideas with other passionate educator, your own drive and enthusiasm will be recharged, and we could all use a lot more of that!
If you get stuck or need help, or would like to let me know what happens with your own adventures in Twitter - feel free to contact me at @PadulaJohn (on Twitter, of course!)
The opinions expressed here are solely those of John Padula.
John Padula is an Educational Technology Specialist in the Brookline Public Schools. He transitioned to EdTech after teaching middle school Social Studies for seven years in the Boston Public Schools. Prior to teaching, John spent over 20 years in a variety of positions in the software engineering industry.