Teacher Professional Development – Let’s Get Social!

guest written by Karen Greenhaus

There are a lot of resources and advice out there these days to support teacher’s use of social media in their classroom.  From creating classroom blogs, wiki’s, Facebook accounts, and podcasts, to how to incorporate Twitter into formative assessment – you name it, you can probably find it. However, for many teachers, the thought of using social media is an overwhelming task, especially trying to incorporate it effectively into instructional practice, particularly with the controversy surrounding student safety and privacy issues. What I think is more prevalent, (keeping in mind my only proof is my personal observations and anecdotal evidence), is that there are a handful of teachers in any given school that might be using social media in some form in their classroom, but for the most part, teachers are not using social media in any consistent, pervasive way.

Is this a bad thing? My feeling is yes, because social media offers so many opportunities for students and teachers to collaborate with others, learn and connect globally, and instill communication and creativity into learning. Which leads to another question – how do we get teachers using social media as an instructional tool? There are, of course, probably several answers to that question, but one thing that won’t work is simply telling them they must use social media and offering a day or two of training on specific social media tools and expecting them to change their practice. That doesn’t work with anything (if you haven’t already figured that out). My suggestions – start small and start personally.  This means make social media a learning tool for the teacher first, allowing them to see and experience the power of the medium for them personally, and then build from there into classroom integration and use with students.

What do I mean by making social media a learning tool for the teacher first? As in any profession, teachers must and should be continuing to learn – learn more about content, new technologies to improve instruction, new instructional strategies.  Teacher professional development is a requirement for recertification but also an obligation of any teacher to improve their practice for the benefit of their students. Just as we wouldn’t want a doctor using an outdated method of surgery when there are new and better methods, we shouldn’t want our teachers using outdated instructional tools and strategies when there are new and better ones available. Teacher professional development is an important need for all teachers, but unfortunately, especially in this era of budget woes, professional development is one of the first things eliminated or reduced. My suggestion therefore is to use social media as a tool for providing teachers with professional development to improve their own knowledge about their craft. This will allow them exposure to the power of social media while providing a cost-efficient resource to support continuous teacher learning – learning about their content, their practice, and how to enhance their practice to help their students.

How to start? Start small and start personally. Choose only one thing (start small) – i.e. a blog, a Twitter account, department wiki, etc. to begin. Make it personal for the teachers (start personally) – relevant to their needs (content, instructional, time) and relevant to their technical ability and interests.  Below are some of my suggestions from both an administrative view, for leaders who are trying to get social media into your school as a whole, and from a teacher view, for individual teachers who want to get started in social media but are not quite sure where to begin. (Note: My suggestions are not necessarily recommending specific tools or services, but more from an overall perspective, focusing on trying to create a culture of use and a beginning point.  Any specific social media I do name is based on my own personal experience with social media, which is still in its infancy – I am a novice, starting small and finding my own personal meanings as well).

Getting Social – School Wide/Administrative Suggestions

  1. Start a school blog (or Facebook or wiki). Post events that are happening at the school or great things you are seeing in classrooms.  Have each department contribute a post each week or assign a week to each department where they post what topics are being covered or things that students will be learning in the next unit.  Ask specific teachers who are doing interesting or innovative activities with their students to share, including pictures of the classroom.  The blog can be a place where parents and students go to find out what’s happening at the school but also a place for teachers to share what’s going on, develop a culture of celebrating and valuing the great things that are occurring in your school.  It will encourage teachers to support and be interested in their school and colleagues.
  2. Start a school Twitter and ask all school personnel to create a twitter account and follow the school.  Create a school hashtag so that all postings by anyone use the hashtag and it creates a record of activity specific to your school.  Much like the blog, post daily events happening at the school.  Tweet about classrooms you observe – mention your teachers.  Again, ask each department to post a weekly tweet or two about what’s happening in that department. Encourage teachers to tweet on a weekly basis about what’s happening in their classroom.  Make this be a place for sharing with teachers and the community – connecting the school, teachers, parents, and students.
  3. Encourage each teacher to create a Twitter account and provide each department with a specific hashtag to follow relevant to their content (i.e #mathchat, #sciencechat…there are most likely hashtags specific to each content area). Encourage each department to check in with the hashtag at least once before the department meetings and bring an interesting article/blog/posting to discuss to their department meeting.  This sharing and reflecting on content related topics will foster collaboration, reflection on practice, bring new ideas or create topics for debate to help teachers learn and grow in their knowledge and support each other.
  4. Find relevant webinars or live conferences or live tweet chats and provide the time for teachers to meet and participate in these. Everyone could be on their own computer and participate and respond or you could have them in smaller groups with a designated computer person who responds (usually these live events provide avenues for responding via chat panels, twitter responses, etc.)
  5. Create an online community, such as Moodle, where resources are shared, discussion topics are posted and teachers can respond and reflect, ask questions.  Post a weekly discussion and give teachers time to respond asynchronously. Provide ‘live chat’ times where you or another teacher leads a topic of discussion relevant to content or education or strategies or new tools, etc.  This provides a non-threatening forum for participation and collaboration.

Getting Social – Teacher Suggestions

  1. Start a Twitter account and choose one hashtag relevant to what you teach (for example, #mathchat, #edtech, #edchat, #science)  Once you do, simply read posts and click on links and read the articles/blogs that the links direct you to.  If all you do is read some interesting things related to your topic of interest, even if you never tweet yourself, you are learning.  And, as you read you will notice some of the same folks posting really interesting information on a regular basis, and these then become the people you start following.  Once you find some interesting, relevant people to follow, look at who they follow and slowly build your network.  Eventually, start tweeting yourself – reply to someone’s interesting comment, or thank them for providing the link, or ask a question.  You will begin to find more people with great ideas.  If nothing else, you will be informing yourself and learning and getting ideas. Eventually, try to participate in a live tweet chat (times and topics for these are usually posted by hashtags you follow – for example, #edchat has a live tweet chat every Tuesday at 11 pm Central).  The first time is a little overwhelming, but reading the reflections and thoughts of everyone participating really gives you ideas, things to think about, relevant links and posts, and when you start contributing to the conversation, you then make connections and find others who can become part of your learning network.
  2. Find some relevant content-related blogs to follow.  Do content blog searches – read some posts.  Set aside time every day, even if it’s only 10 minutes, to read one post. Eventually start responding and leaving comments – participate in the discussions.  It provides again, links to others who can support your own professional learning and in turn, connect you to others.
  3. Join a community forum, such as Linked In, or The Math Forum, or Learning without Frontiers.  Within a forum, there are usually group discussions – find a discussion of interest and read what people are saying.  Contribute your thoughts and ideas to the discussion.  Begin a discussion topic yourself.  This will again, let others out there hear and see your ideas and provide you with a network of peers who can challenge you, provide you with strategies, and help you with struggles.
  4. Start your own blog. For professional learning, you want to focus on posting ideas relevant to what you are teaching – so content, strategies, technology, etc.  Start small and just post maybe what’s happening in your classroom.  Or, perhaps after reading an interesting article or viewing a great video on YouTube, write a reflection on that.  Comment on something happening in the educational arena, like teacher layoffs or the Common Core standards. Any article/video/blog you reference, link to it and let whoever wrote it know you are mentioning them – this begins a relationship and connections and helps get other followers.  If you respond to someone else’s blog posts, reference your blog so they can find you. It’s about building a community and networking.  But, even if you don’t have a single person following your blog (which, if you post consistently, you will eventually have folks reading you), if you are posting reflections about what’s happening in your classroom, or thoughts on things you have read or tried or seen related to your teaching or content, you are learning.  You are reflecting and considering your approaches and strategies and beginning a process of improving your practice.

Clearly, this is only a few suggestions on how to get started – I know there are so many other things that someone can do to start using social media.  The key is to start – start small and personal. You will find it leads to some amazing learning opportunities and connections.  Those of you out there with other suggestions please share them – I want to learn myself, as I am still just beginning this journey of being social.


About the author: Karen Greenhaus is currently the Director of Education Technology Outreach for Key Curriculum (http://keypress.com), a math technology company that sells The Geometer’s Sketchpad (http://keypress.com/gsp), TinkerPlots (http://keypress.com/tinkerplots) and Fathom (http://keypress.com/fathom).  She provides professional development for teachers all over the country via face-to-face workshops, blended learning, webinars, and online courses. Karen taught in public schools for over 17 years as a math teacher and math administrator at the middle and high school levels.  She has a BA in math from Virginia Tech, MA in Curriculum & Education from Virginia Commonwealth, and is currently working on her Ed. D. dissertation on professional development in education technology at The College of William & Mary.  Her passion is helping teachers integrate technology effectively into classroom instruction. Karen blogs at http://greenhauseducation.blogspot.com

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