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Twitter and blogging as guerrilla professional development

June 14, 2011

A few days ago, Shawn Cornally left the following question I’ve been wrestling with for some time on a previous post:

This amazing blog/twitter community we all have is going to turn education on its ear, if it already hasn’t. Case-in-point, I was a loser, grade-everything, points-for-attendance teacher two years ago. Then I read one sentence written by Dan Meyer, and now I love my job and my students.

Now, how do we convince teachers who are unconnected to get online and start their own guerrilla professional development?

To me, this is a hugely important question. The teachers I see that truly embrace the online world—those who move from simply consuming neat ideas and bookmarking cool applets to engaging in the conversation and sharing what they do—see a leap in their growth in teaching that can’t be matched by any workshop, conference, degree or professional growth plan.

The recent fun I had with the Les Paul Google Doodle serves as a perfect example of this. Let’s step back in the time machine and explore how I came to this point.

  • 2007: I discover these things called blogs. It’s so long ago that I can’t really remember the first blog that struck me, but like most people, I think it was Dan Meyer. Not long thereafter, I come across dot physics.
  • I remember reading these two blogs with great joy, always excited to go on the site and see a new post (I didn’t use google reader back then). I viewed these posts as little nuggets of fun; at first they didn’t really affect my teaching, it was just always cool to see what Rhett and Dan were up to.
  • I remember reading Rhett’s post on the Physics of Fantastic Contraption. I was totally blown away—we could actually discover new physics by exploring the physics video games! At the time, one of my 9th graders had just introduced me to the game, and I showed him a couple of Rhett’s posts, and he really got excited. Of course, I was too tied to my curriculum and too scared to really leap and explore it, so the idea sort of died on the vine.
  • At some point, I started to add a comment here or there. By this time, I was starting to use google reader to chew through dozens of interesting blogs, and more and more, these ideas were creeping into my classroom and totally changing the way I taught (hello, SBG).

All this was really good and all, but I don’t think things clicked for me until last summer, when I committed to starting a blog, getting active in twitter, and participating in the conversation.

And just this past week, I have pretty good proof that things come full circle very fast when you join the conversation:

  • Rhett Allian joined us for a meeting of the Global Physics Department (an idea totally born out of a couple of tweets between physics teachers and professors), at my invite, via twitter. If you’d told the 2007 me that an awesome physics professor three states away would know who I am, be interested in what I have to say, or speak to a bunch of high school physics teachers late at night, I would have never believed it. Here’s one of my educational heros—willing to answer my questions—awesome.
  • Talking to Rhett totally inspired me to try to do my own dotphyscis-like analysis of the Les Paul Google Doodle.
  • Rhett read my post and tweeted about it:
  • Since he’s followed by just about everyone interested in the physics of the virtual world, it didn’t take long for lots of people to start checking out my post (and helping me to fix the errors I was making in determining the frequency spectrum of the guitar).
  • Soon enough, Alexander Chen, the freakin’ creator of the doodle himself, posted on a comment on my blog. Alexander was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I came away with a great appreciation for all the work that goes into building a Google Doodle.
  • Alexander also gave me a link to his website, which features the totally cool Musical NYC Subway map he designed, which I’ve decided to put in my file for fun projects for students to explore in the future.

Three days later, I’m still pretty amazed by all the pure physics phantasticalness that blogging and twitter have brought me into contact with. The fact that in less than a day, I could post a few musings on the google doodle, and hours later, the creator could respond to my thoughts. Had I been in class, I could have instantly morphed this into a lesson, and instead of having my students do some boring old experiment where they measure resonant frequency of water filled tubes, they could have been analyzing the physics of the google doodle and checking their results with the designer himself. We’re talking hot, fresh-off-the-internet problem-based, inquiry-driven investigations here!

For me, the crucial step in realizing this transformation was deciding to move form simply consuming all the cool stuff on the internet to trying to share some of what I’m doing and participate in the conversation. At first, I was totally worried I wouldn’t have the time to keep this up, that no one would be interested in what I have to say, or that I wouldn’t know what to post. I’ve found all just the opposite.

Blogging and tweeting save time. Simply in writing down what you are doing and thinking, you are improving your work through self reflection. Sharing it with the world leverages this incredibly powerful hive mind that takes crappy lesson plans and ideas and spins them into pure gold often in less time than it takes to google up a halfway passable idea yourself. The community of teachers I’ve met online are unbelievably generous with their ideas and time—they are always willing to share some constructive feedback, or a new approach. And, once you start sharing, you’ll find the ideas never stop.

I know it’s possible to be a great teacher and have no online presence whatsoever. I’ve know many teachers like this, and have learned so much from them. But more and more I think what could that teacher be, how could she/he improve, and selfishly, help me to improve if he/she would join the conversation? Could all of those teachers getting online change education as we know it? I’m certain of it. Just today, we got Salman Khan to pause and ask his viewers to think about a question (I’m giving all the credit to Frank Noschese for that one).

So what’s stopping you from joining the conversation?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    June 14, 2011 9:02 am

    My history is so similar to yours it’s scary. For me it was Stephanie Chasteen’s blog ( that got me to start commenting and contributing. I had a blog a while ago but without twitter I didn’t really have an easy way to get people looking at it. In the last eight months I’ve made more of a commitment to blogging and have started using twitter and it’s made just the sorts of differences you’ve talked about here (though apparently I’m not cool enough to get a google engineer to comment).

    I just wrote up my yearly “faculty information form” yesterday and it was really fun to talk about the Global Physics Department in there. I’m not sure what the review committee will make of all the new social media stuff on that form but I was really inspired by Rhett explaining to us that his SM exploits really are his contributions beyond teaching at his institution.

    Thanks for the great post and for continuing to take the time to talk with us, especially me. I really appreciate it and appreciate you, John, for your insights, energy, and positive attitude. -Andy

  2. June 14, 2011 9:57 am

    *lol* I have to disagree that blogging saves time. I spend the exact same ludicrous number of hours on teaching that I did before — it’s just that now I accomplish ten times as much. Oh, and I find my mistakes more quickly. Which propels me into spending more time changing things…

    My path is strewn with remarkable resources and I get a downright unlikely amount of thoughtful feedback, none of which I am forced to use but all of which is irresistibly interesting to think about. I agree that it’s worthwhile encouraging teachers to take advantage of these opportunities — computers are better at searching and sorting than we are, and we should take advantage of that (we should take advantage of lots of underused offline opportunities too). But if an informal, unregulated, community-integrated collection of media can blow the top off of my learning and make me a better person, what could it do for kids? I can’t help ending up here: if our students’ paths were strewn with resources and reliably thought-provoking feedback, I wonder if we would need schools at all.

  3. June 14, 2011 2:49 pm

    I believe i’m exactly where you were one year ago…i’ve spent two years reading and digesting without putting myself into the ring and joining in with my own ideas/accomplishments/failures/questions/struggles…

    Just yesterday I started brainstorming ideas for what to include in an upcoming blog and even thinking of titles…and today I come across this post to encourage me along! Thank you.

    Twitter: @lkn4snow

    • June 14, 2011 6:32 pm

      This is awesome. Do let me know when you start your blog, and you’ll instantly have one RSS subscriber! Also, if you haven’t already discovered it, I’ll point you in the direction of a fellow biology blogger, A year with Henrietta, which chronicles how this awesome teacher has used the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a major part of her honors biology curriculum.

      • June 14, 2011 9:50 pm

        Haha, thanks for offering to be the first subscriber! …and thanks for the biology blog leads, too. I look forward to this.

        • June 23, 2011 5:22 pm

          The blog is up…finally.

          twitter: @GraphPaperShirt


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