Taking wing: Why Twitter matters to my professional development

My, oh my. The last couple of weeks have been trying on this little laptop. I’ve worked the tabs on Chrome to their nubbins. I’ve streamed webinar and hangout one after the next. And I’ve tweeted – oh, how I’ve tweeted!

I remember distinctly when I began teaching four years ago that I made a point to poke fun at Facebook and Myspace, but especially at that newer, brasher cousin of theirs, Twitter. I saw so little of value in it, so little to grasp. I fell in line with the masses who derided it for its “couch-surfer update” sagas and its version of Chuck Grassley. I scorned its 140-character limit, and scoffed at its hashtags and @-driven usernames. But I was alone.

All drama aside, I’ve been a follower of all things tech and social media, but not a very quick adopter of anything – Facebook being the exception. I watched and read as Twitter became the place where comedians tried new material and CNN sought on-air opinions. I laughed as athletes and actors alike made endless fools of themselves and their “influence” on society. Never did I imagine there was a benefit to having a handle, let alone having one as a teaching professional.

A little more than a year ago, I attended a workshop with Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGtoGo) at the invitation of my colleague Vicki. I knew Kelly’s books – in fact, I had read and used ideas from several in many lessons. The workshop was a bit of a lame pitch for a new textbook, BUT it was amazing to see and hear from and watch Kelly in action as he worked with us on a Saturday in June. One of his ending comments to us was a note about Twitter. I’m sure I shifted uneasily in my seat. He implored us to ignore the Kardashian and LeBron James chaff. I remember he said that he only followed educators and Steve Martin. And he said that joining the network had allowed him to connect with people he would have otherwise never met, and allowed him to share resources with a vast collection of educators who are similarly passionate about their work.

I ran home and created a Twitter handle, @MrOConnorJHS – simple, elegant, professional. All shiny and new, it gleamed in all its egg-profile-pictured glory. Yet still I knew not what to do with it. I followed Kelly. I followed Penny Kittle (@pennykittle). I followed Jim Burke (@englishcomp). I followed Jeff Anderson (@writeguyjeff). I stopped. What if my students found out? What if parents found out? What if – gasp – I was the next Chuck Grassley?

For months, I lurked on the account, occasionally venturing into the world of the retweet, dipping my big toe in slowly before darting back to the safety of my chaise lounge. I followed author John Green (@realjohngreen) and Giants fan and sports blogger Grant Brisbee (@mccoveychron). Their tweets dominated my feed; I learned an awful lot about a lot of things, and I came to feel comfortable with my list of follows at about 15 or 20 certified accounts. Followers? Zero. Yessssss.

I learned this year that my students tweet. Prodigiously. So there was that: Twitter was also for underage teens who act older than they are and reveal more than they should in a never-truly-private sphere.

It took me a while to admit to my wife that I had started a Twitter. It was that bad. I thought I was doing a dirty, dirty thing. I figured I might as well be following Perez Hilton and tweeting pics of my besties from our nights on the town. She laughed a bit, then started her own, following practically every news and political certified handle she could find. A large weight was lifted that day. An imaginary embargo had been lifted. It was on.

Now I have participated in various educational Twitter chats on all kinds of topics. Am I an expert? Hell to the no. But people follow me. When I say things. Or ask questions. It’s crazy! There’s this whole universe of educators out there full of people who want to learn and get better, all on their own time. These chats are available literally every day, and if there is not a chat to suit your needs, you can start one. There are people like Jeff Blumengarten (@cybraryman1) who help to catalog all the chats and times they take place, on top of keeping tabs on enormous sites of curated links and information, all ed-related. It’s mind-bending. Here I had been sticking to Google (and go figure that Google is the one seemingly humbled in this story!) to try to find information related to 1:1 educational programs, or flipped classrooms, or English lesson plans for a Common Core era, or new tech tools for better presentations, or ___________________. This stuff practically falls into my lap in Twitter chats. And now that my Professional Learning Network is growing (my follows and followers), I’m getting boatloads of info (way more than I can possibly manage, actually) that I never even really knew I wanted or could use. 

Whew. I have some more links from the #ELAtlap chat and #patue chat tonight to pick through and sort. Tomorrow is another day for learning how to get better and better at this, and I can’t wait – I’m not alone.

TL;DR: Join Twitter. Follow educators. Start with people you know. Branch out from there. Participate in chats about education. Stay away from celebs and big-name personalities. But Chuck Grassley is good for laughs.

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