National Writing Project

Tweeting in the Summer Institute and Beyond

By: Grant Faulkner
Date: July 29, 2010

Summary: Teachers in summer institutes across the nation connected via Twitter this summer—discovering a social platform to share viewpoints, resources, and connections—as they built "personal learning networks" that continue on.


Twitter is shaking off its bad rap in some Writing Project teachers' minds.

Although Twitter has long been derided as a platform where celebrities (such as Ashton Kutcher, with five million plus followers) post crumbs of trivia about their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and new movie openings, many Writing Project teachers find it anything but trivial.

In fact, Writing Project teachers have found Twitter to be a serious learning tool. Many sites across the country integrated Twitter into their summer institutes this summer, and teachers have built "personal learning networks"—groups of people who casually join together to communicate and collaborate on common topics—where they discuss serious educational issues.

Steve Moore , a first-year teacher from the Greater Kansas City Writing Project, said that using Twitter helped to promote continuity and conversation between his fellow participants and others around the country in his summer institute.

"What Twitter does for me is what an extra stack of amplifiers does for a Fender Strat, helps you to rock even louder," said Moore, referring to the viewpoints, resources, and dialogue he participates in.

Karen Chichester actually applied to the Eastern Michigan Writing Project's 2010 summer institute because of Twitter connections.

As with many, she started out as a Twitter skeptic until she realized two things, which she wrote about in Cross Country Collaboration: It All Started with Twitter : 1) Twitter is about the people you choose to follow (her advice is to choose those who share your interests), and 2) Twitter is about sharing your knowledge with others. Skip the lunch updates in other words.

Twitter in the Summer Institute

"I have to admit that I was at first nervous about the use of Twitter at our summer institute this year," said Katie Kline, director of the Greater Kansas City Writing Project.

After the site's summer institute in 2009, Kline said that facilitators—like many classroom teachers—were challenged by the distractions caused by how easily participants could use their laptops and phones to visit websites not related to the summer institute.

"I suspected that Twitter would only compound issues related to group coherence," said Kline. "How wrong I was! The facilitators and I—our whole leadership team, really—were amazed by the ways in which participants used Twitter and other technologies to enhance the sense of community and amplify the reach of their conversations."

Likewise, the Marshall Writing Project in West Virginia didn't have any grand ambitions when April Estep gave a five-minute "Twitter Talk" to the 2010 summer institute fellows. The plan was simple. If you already tweet (post updates on your Twitter page of up to the limit of 140 characters) and you tweet anything related to the summer institute, use the hashtags #nwp #muwp so other institutes can see what yours is doing.

Hashtags are any word that begins with a hash (#) symbol, which then allows Twitter to aggregate posts by topic.

"We had five or six established tweeters out of our group of eighteen, but when I started talking about using it to connect with other institutes, the rest of the group immediately went to the Web and signed up for accounts," said Estep. "It was very exciting."

One thing that made it exciting was how tweeting changed the flow of information and dialogue in the institute.

"We had a lot of tweeting about our demos as they occurred," said Estep. "Having that real-time instant feedback that didn't interrupt the flow of the lesson was great. On the rare occasions someone had to miss a day of the summer institute, they stayed connected to the group by following what was happening on Twitter."

Not all fellows were eager tweeters, of course—at least to begin with. Estep recounts the story of one teacher who emphatically said that she didn't see a use for Twitter after the institute was over. Now, though, she's retweeting others' links to resources and replied to one of Estep's tweets: "This is a terrific website! Thanks! I am now seeing the value of twitter!!!"

"There is no question that our tweeting at the Greater Kansas City Writing Project brought in new information, from other sites or otherwise, every single day of the summer institute," said Moore. "Those of us online were constantly sharing and taking in more suggestions from other sites, questions from larger organizations like the #EdChat (a global weekly conversation about education), and information about the world in general."

Sharing Through a Personal Learning Network

Meeting others takes on a whole new meaning when tweeting. A summer institute can quickly become virtualized and go coast-to-coast and include teachers across grade levels and content areas—and those connections last past the summertime.

"Those teachers I 'met' through tweeting the summer institute are now part of my personal learning network," said Estep.

As a case in point, Moore is a first year teacher, Estep is a high school music teacher, and Chichester is a special education teacher, and they're all in conversation with each other around topics posted with the NWP hashtag.

"As a writer and teacher, I find the world is instantly flattened for me through Twitter, and I can collaborate with any of thousands of educators about my burning questions," said Moore.

In fact, Moore routinely posts questions such as "How do you define 'critical thinking'? I'm exploring and writing about its definitions in various contexts" and "How can we help students build a sense of hope for each other?"

"The beautiful part about Twitter is that once you have worked to build an audience of any size, you can always count on answers and replies," said Moore.

As a writer and teacher, I find the world is instantly flattened for me through Twitter.

Chichester wrote about the infectious thrill of collaboration when a teacher from Louisiana tweeted for help with a special-needs student in her class.

"I responded with some quick resources I had bookmarked and suggestions of others she could ask for help. From there I began to see myself as someone who could collaborate with colleagues, a major change in how I had viewed myself professionally. I now believed that I had something to offer."

Moore mentions that through Twitter he's been exposed to such things as teacher blogs, publications he didn't know about, E-Anthology posts, and opportunities to write about his practice.

In the end, though, the consensus is that it's about the people, not the technology.

"It is the best learning tool I have ever used because it is not about the technology, some kind of neat gadget, it is ultimately about people," said Moore. "Twitter allows you to connect with other people and their ideas in powerful ways, and there's nothing healthier for a learner, leader, teacher, or writer than that."

"The tool doesn't seem to matter, be it Twitter, Facebook, or Skype. What matters are the people," echoed Chichester. "Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to meet online hundreds of dynamic educators who are willing share their knowledge and support."

Media from Writing Project Sites on Twitter

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