How I Became a Twit(ter-er)

As little as six months ago, that’s how I referred to people on Twitter: twits.

When Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Lady Gaga have Twitter accounts and their every move is big news on Access Hollywood, that’s not something that gets me too excited. I don’t want to keep up with celebrity gossip and Facebook already kept me in touch with family, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t see the need for one more digital plate to spin, another digital identity or virtual self I’d have to maintain like a self-cloning Neopet.  But here I am, an enthusiastic proponent of social media in education. I consider myself to be open minded about technology and social media, but I am a late-bloomer when it comes to blogging and Twitter.

During an Edutopia tweetup while I was in San Francisco for the annual ASCD conference, I met Steve Anderson (aka @web20classroom) whom I had first “met” through #edchat. I’m definitely a newcomer (about 3 months) and he asked me point blank: Why? What was it that enticed me to start tweeting? What happened between month 4 and month 3? His questions made me pause. The change had happened so gradually, I hadn’t really paid attention. Around the same time, another educator I follow on Twitter, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a link from his blog, “Why Educators Should be Using Twitter.” Somewhere down in the comments, a person wrote a scathing post condemning social media and calling into question the motives one might have for participating in social media. After both of these experiences, I decided to give some serious thought to my transition, to share my reasons for joining the Twitter bandwagon, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that may play a role in shaping the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents who haven’t been drawn in to the social media community just yet. This isn’t a “you-should-join-’cause-Twitter-is-so-awesome” blog post. There are plenty of those around.

This is my story and I think others may see themselves in my experience.

In the Beginning

If I’m honest, my Twitter journey started about two years ago. I’d already created a Facebook account and made peace with the privacy/oversharing demons. I liked sharing interesting articles I read with my Facebook friends, but my posts usually didn’t generate any conversation or feedback. I wondered if maybe I was just annoying people. I read something in one of the blogs in my RSS feed that linked to a tweet. I wanted to read more.  Being an adventurous person, I thought I’d see what Twitter was all about. I made an account, looked for a few famous people, read disjointed conversations, and felt utterly bored and confused.

You could say I found Twitter to be confusing and overwhelming at first.

WTH was up w/@thisandthat #Blahblahblah RT #BeiberFever? What’s a bit.ly? So many acronyms and symbols! What did it all mean?

For once I felt out of my element with technology. These “twits” were speaking a different language and I didn’t belong with the cool kids speaking their secret code. I had no followers, except for AT&T who assigned someone to follow me after I complained about cell phone reception in my neighborhood. (Gee, didn’t I feel special.) I’m a huge fan of jazz musician Jamie Cullum so it was a natural choice to follow his tweets and get information about upcoming tour dates. I didn’t know anyone personally who used Twitter, so friends and family were off my list. I didn’t really want to use Twitter with friends and family, though. I had Facebook for that and I felt safer using Facebook to limit my contacts and guard my identity. After a day or two, I put a privacy fence around my tweets and promptly forgot my password.

Looking for a Place to Belong

In the second half of 2010, I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, severing myself from the only professional community I had known. I missed the teacher-leader and agent-of-change conversations I’d had in graduate school and my school’s program to develop teacher-coaches. I knew there had to be others out there who felt the way I did and could challenge me or teach me and help me stay sharp. I polished up my digital resume and joined Linked In. I wanted more professional conversation and hoped Linked In would be the place where I would find it. I attempted to contribute to professional conversations in the many available groups, but often days or weeks would go by without anyone saying anything–or I would simply be redirected to a magic-bullet educational product for sale. ASCDEdge proved equally limiting, but at least there were plenty of thought-provoking blog posts for me to browse.

NaNoWriMo and Blogging: Getting Warmer

In November I participated in my first NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The moderator encouraged participants like me to follow NaNoWriMo’s word sprints on Twitter. It felt nice to be connected to a group of writers who were all working hard on their writing like me, but the word sprints were broadcast posts. They didn’t invite conversation, they were commands. At this point, my impression of Twitter was like a platform in the mall where anyone could step up on a box and shout an announcement into the room. I read the tweets but didn’t post any replies.

At the same time I was working on my book, I started thinking about writing a blog. There had been so much conversation in the news about education and reform. I was sick to death of teacher cliches and misinformation and wanted to do something about it. I decided to start a blog (now defunct) based on a daily Google search using the term “teachers should.” I used a pseudonym and posted three times before I gave up. Who was I to write such self-serving fluff? Who would want to read it? Why did I care so much? I’d already tried (and failed) to have these types of conversations on Facebook and Linked In, so what was left?

I shifted tactics and started creating a personal website that would be a companion to my Linked In profile. I was dabbling more, playing with technology and Web 2.0 tools. I started looking for advice and test-driving different options for blogs. Before long I had “discovered” social bookmarking and was working up quite a list of useful classroom tools. That’s when I came across Edublogger, Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), and Pernille Ripp (@4thGrdTeach). I subscribed to their blogs and started down the rabbit hole. The more I read, the more links I followed, the more blogs I added to the RSS reader. It was exactly what I had been looking for–smart people, great ideas, and a chance for me to learn something new. I dusted off my Twitter account, changed my handle, and added a picture.

I started seeing tips for educators to “follow” and before long I stumbled across Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) and my first #edchat. Before adding the hashtag, I had been tweeting into the ether. I knew what I was thinking, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. I watched the #edchat tweets roll in, saw the same names and faces sharing, questioning, linking, RT-ing (whatever THAT was). The mystifying code began to give way and I started following the conversation. I lurked for a while and decided to formally attend the next scheduled discussion. I stopped broadcasting and started engaging others in conversation. That decision has made all the difference.

In the last three months, because of the men and women I have met through Twitter I have:

  1. Started this blog.
  2. Commented on blogs to extend conversation.
  3. Challenged my philosophy of education.
  4. Participated in a webcast.
  5. Attended an #ntcamp as a virtual participant. Many thanks to Burlington High School’s principal, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for the Ustream window into learning. (Who knew backchannel tweeting and collaborating on a Google Doc would rank as one of the most valuable professional development moments in my career thus far?)
  6. Attempted Voicethread, Voki, Diigo, Evernote, Skype, and Prezi (among others).
  7. Engaged thoughtful people in conversation across disciplines, age groups, and backgrounds. (@lookforsun and @delta_dc)
  8. Been humbled to have my ideas shared and discussed.
  9. Connected to thinkers and writers I admire.
  10. Actively participated in shaping my professional footprint.

It’s not a stretch to say that Twitter has been my “gateway drug” to new educational technologies and ideas. It has forced me to define my professional beliefs and encouraged me to be part of a community of thinkers, writers, and innovators. (I’m glad they let me hang out–and I’m proud to be a Twit.)

Thanks again to Steve Anderson (@web20classroom) for challenging me to reflect and to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) who encouraged me to write.

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