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How school districts are leveraging Twitter to become rock stars

In a climate where Twitter is the center of so many tempestuous news stories, schools should be turning to the social media giant now more than ever—here’s why.

When a student tweets at their school’s Twitter handle, chances are they don’t expect a response–it’s like tweeting at Starbucks, or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency—you feel like you’re talking to an entity that’s far too busy and important to ever respond to you. That’s why students in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District were so surprised when they tweeted their district, begging for a snow day—and their district tweeted right back.

Not only did the district respond, but the responses were sassy and high-spirited. When one student asked why the district was ruining her life, the district responded, “I have the club for you: drama. It’s so you.”

In a climate where Twitter is the center of so many tempestuous news stories, thanks to our Twitter-happy president, schools should be turning to the social media giant more than ever to share news, gather feedback, benefit from other educators’ expertise, react instantly to breaking news—and sometimes just lighten the mood.

Here’s how innovative school districts across the country are leveraging Twitter to become rock stars:

1. By Hash(tag)ing Out Ideas

Stuck in lesson plan purgatory? Twitter’s a great place to spitball ideas with your peers. For example, when an educator in the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Marion County, IN wants to figure out a problem or brainstorm a new lesson idea, they don’t have to wait for the next teacher in-service. They just start tweeting.

The district created the hashtag #warrenbl to facilitate real-time discussions where teachers can share successes, commiserate over problems, and look for solutions. Last fall, they discussed physical layouts in the classroom, and whether or not it’s okay to use the same one for the entire day.

The responses came fast and furious. “HA! Sometimes 1 design feels like it barely works for 10 minutes,” tweeted Sarah Keller, an instructional specialist. “Our previous custodian called me Martha [Stewart] for changing up my classroom so often,” joked fourth-grade teacher Kyle Reeves. Second-grade teacher Stephanie Faust adds: “What works for a student in the morning, may not work in the afternoon.”

Administrators at Warren say the spontaneity of these exchanges is part of the point of #warrenbl. “Originally, when we started Twitter chats with hashtags, we just wanted a way for people to collaborate in a way that’s most effective for them,” said Ryan Russell, the district’s assistant to the Superintendent. “What we found was that it was a safe, less intimidating way to share about practice in a way that a lot of our staff was using to communicating anyway.”

2. Jump into a Larger Convo

Wondering what to tweet about? Pull up a chair and join one of the informative, lightening-fast ed-themed discussions that are happening online right now. An Internet search for popular hashtags among educators turns up dozens of the frequently used keywords like #Education, #Learning, and #FutureReady, which was created by The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology.  Superintendents can join #suptchat to share successes in their districts, discuss what they’re learning at conferences, and pose questions to other educators.

Another popular education hashtag, #WhatIsSchool, started by Laura Hill and Craig Kemp, accompanies teacher Twitter chats on Thursday evenings. The conversations focus on “re-imagining the future of education.” During one chat last December, for example, educators explored ways to use the holiday season to expand students’ understanding of other cultures.

“#WhatIsSchool is one of those forums that sprang up organically and took off like wildfire,” Hill wrote in a blog post. “That can only mean one thing: the ideas and topics discussed are immensely important to . . . thousands of educators around the globe.”

At my own organization, we’ve used the hashtag #whyipersonalize to encourage conversations around personalized learning successes and to get people to reflect on their goals and why they engage in this work. At our Personalized Learning Summit the last two years, we started using #plsummit to tag related tweets; we’ve seen the hashtag to continue to be used to share resources throughout the year. It is a great way for educators across the country to stay in touch.

If a school is on social media, it needs a hashtag, says Andrea Gribble, a social media specialist for schools. “Encouraging the use of one hashtag for all things related to your school will be extremely helpful in getting your story out to the world,” she said. Russell agrees, pointing out that even members of the U.S. Department of Education have followed and commented on his district’s hashtags.

Social media has been accused of keeping people in a bubble, but it can also help uninspired educators break out of theirs.

(Next page: More tips for leveraging Twitter for district success)

3. Meet Your Work Spouse

As a teacher, you’re around other humans all day long, but it can be hard to carve out time to bond with your coworkers. Teachers get lonely, too! For example, in Warren Township, educators don’t actually see each other a lot, says Russell. Twitter allows them to bond over shared issues, ping-pong information back and forth, and generally bypass formal structured lines of communication in a way that’s not just useful, but serves community development.

“It’s a great way for professional development outside school hours,” says Leslie Koomler, the district’s Instructional Specialist. She’s seen hashtags “open the lines of communication between schools in the district,” encourage teachers to “collaborate instantly,” and quickly connect teachers who continue their conversations about the classroom outside of Twitter chats. Might we call that…friendship?

4. Get a Little Informal

But here’s the thing about Twitter: it works best when people feel like they’re engaging with another human, as opposed to a soulless corporate bot. That’s why the Cherokee County School District made so many headlines—because its Twitter activity was so pleasingly contrary to what we’ve come to expect from our schools’ Twitter accounts.

Don’t be afraid to joke around with students or other educators, share interesting tidbits that aren’t directly related to, say, your school schedule, and chime in on broader ed-related discussions happening across the globe.

Sure, you might spend all day trying to get your students off social media, but Twitter-happy teachers and districts can turn the platform into more than just memes and noise (though a well-tweeted meme never hurt anyone, not even an educator).

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