Twitter 101 for Teachers: Steps for Getting Started on Twitter

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Before I began teaching, I was a professional writer, working freelance in a variety of print and web venues. As a writer, I participate actively in doing what is called “building platform” — this means using a variety of social media forums to connect with audience or peers around the country or around the world.

As a teacher and as a writer, I have been astounded at the depth of information and personal connection available through social media, including teaching blogs, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Twitter Rules

Of all the social media venues, even writing friends are often surprised that Twitter is one of my favorites.

Twitter is the venue that can feel most cryptic to new users, because of its 140-character format. When you log onto Twitter, you view a feed of current posts by anyone you follow — which means a long stream of unrelated, abbreviated posts. As new tweets post, older ones are pushed down and eventually out of sight.

For those new to Twitter, the stream seems fragmented. They can’t imagine anything meaningful could be communicated in 140 characters.

But I promise you, Twitter is the one social media forum I return to most reliably. Over time, it has been one of my richest sources of news and information.

As a history teacher interested in current events, I frequently learn of breaking news through tweets from frontline reporters hours before televised news catches up. As a teacher interested in sources for dynamic teaching approaches, I find great articles from educational organizations and top speakers in the field.

Biggest surprise of all: tweeting can be surprisingly intimate. Think of it as a universal water cooler where you have the ability to bump elbows with people you could not walk up to in the physical world: I’ve had friendly exchanges with some of my students’ favorite writers, with publishers of textbooks, with reporters on scene and with educators around the country and around the globe.

This post will break down the key steps to cracking Twitter and making it work for you.

Before we start, I welcome you to connect with me on Twitter with questions or to share resources — find me here.

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Step One to Getting Started: Create Your Profile

If you are not on Twitter at all, start by opening an account (access Twitter here; opening an account is free). You will create a user name and password, then personalize the display by adding a picture and short description of yourself.

Creating a user name and deciding which email address to use can stump some teachers. Best social media practices suggest that you use your real, professional name, as this is how people search for you — however, it is not uncommon for teachers to establish a “brand” name for their professional identity online. Many teachers use a nickname or the name of their blog as their user name. This helps to make clear that you are posting in a professional capacity, and not a personal social media forum.  I use “Mrs. T’s Middle Grades” for teaching, and my maiden name for fiction writing, both of which are separate from my private, personal accounts. I also use a separate email address for social media, rather than my email account at school. Don’t worry if you’re stumped about your user name: you can change it if you change your mind later.

Don’t skip the picture or profile. Twitter includes an “egg” icon for new users, and you’ll want to substitute a headshot or other picture to show your professionalism.

For your profile, you’ll write 140 characters of information to describe yourself. Some people are funny, but really it’s best to use words that genuinely reflect your interests. Examples could be: “Teacher, Father, author of articles in Parenting,” or “Teacher, recent college grad, in masters program at UF.” Make sure to include a link to your website if you are trying to drive traffic.

Step Two: Follow Key Players

A successful start on Twitter begins with finding meaningful people and organizations to follow. Since not everyone uses Twitter well, you are looking for people whose information or ideas you respect, and who are active on the site. This often rules out some experts while highlighting ordinary educators who actively forward great information.

4 ways to find good tweeters to follow:

  1. Steal a list: In my second post in this series I will share my list of some of the best people and organizations I follow on Twitter. (Here is link to Best Tweeters & Hashtags for Educators – click it now or find it at the end of this article)
  2. Search out your heroes. Hero is an exaggerated term, but the standard approach for finding people to follow is to search for names you respect. Reading a great book on differentiation? Search the author’s name. Belong to a teaching organization? Search for that group. Have peers you want to connect with? Look for people you teach with, went to school with, or have connected with in other venues, such as at professional workshops, on Pinterest, on blogs or Teachers Pay Teachers.
  3. Mine their leads: while on the profile for a tweeter you respect, click their “followers” list to see whom they follow. Sir Ken Robinson, of TED fame, does not follow a lot of educational experts — more Hollywood sorts. On the other hand, Rick Wormeli, my favorite resource for differentiation and middle grades, follows several great educational resources and actively tweeting teachers. Scrolling through his list, you might spot other educators or resources you’d like to follow.
  4. Use hashtags or participate in chats. More about hashtags and chats in step 4… but they are a good way to find tweeters who post actively on a topic that interests you.

How to do you follow someone? While logged in, click their user name until you reach their profile, then click the “follow” button. When getting started, consider following at least 40-50 people so that you are seeing enough material in your feed to find what you are looking for. If you later change your mind, prune your list by clicking the same button, which will now have turned to “unfollow.”  Tip: you can group the people you follow into categories by creating lists from your profile page. For example, here are a few of my lists: my Teaching list , my YA & MG lit list, and list of journalists & news I follow.

Step Three: Interact

Connection is key to finding meaningful benefit from social media. Twitter is frustrating to new users until they begin connecting with others. Practicing effective Twitter habits will draw others to follow you so that your posts are being “heard.” Heads up: meaningful connection begins to kick in about the time you have 40-50 followers… so get started, but have patience.

Here are the basic ways to connect using Twitter:

  • Share a link: If you read an article you think others would like, then tweet a short description and link to the article. You should also do this to share your own blog posts. Hint: use Google url shortener or other tools to shorten links. Be sure to include enough description or comment to help followers decide if it’s worth clicking the link. For example, I might share link to my reading list post by tweeting, “What are you reading this summer? Teacher’s Summer Reading http://wp.me/p3B1JY-l” Tip: Notice I used a question to engage, rather than just sell. In truth, answer to that question would be interesting interaction.
  • Other ways to share: Use “share on Twitter” buttons throughout the internet to share blog articles you like or items you post on Pinterest (which will include a picture of the pin).
  • Practice concise writing skills to share your stories: it’s possible to share a great experience in 140 characters or less! “Awesome lab w Red Bull and milk helped kids visualize chemical change” or “MG writers wrote amazing narrative essays to bring Rev War to life” are great mini stories of how your day went. Even if no one responds, these mini stories help other Twitter users get to know you.
  • Reply to interesting posts. Answer questions tweeted by others or respond as you would to an overheard conversation in public. If a person dropped a bag of groceries on the sidewalk in the real world, you’d stop to commiserate and help pick them up. It’s the same in the twitterverse: it’s human to reply “so sorry to hear it” if someone posts sad news, or well-wishing if they post good news.
  • Share the love by retweeting. Retweeting supports the initial poster as it improves their rankings, and benefits you by sharing with your followers the kind of information you found useful. (Side benefit: it serves to bookmark the article by saving the link in your feed.) Tips for mastering retweeting: While logged directly into Twitter, when you hit the “retweet” key it will simply repeat the original tweet in your feed with the original tweeter’s icon next to it. A better practice for building platform (creating connection with others) is for you to create a new tweet that quotes the original. Using an app like Tweetdeck or an app from your iphone makes this simple, as a second button is available that automatically quotes the retweet.  Otherwise you have to do it manually (copy/paste the original post into your new tweet, including the original poster’s id). Example of a retweet: “Get your questions ready: RT @GuardianBooks: Webchat 6/14 w Neil Gaiman http://t.co/gPSyv2FeoS  Notice that I added my own comment (“Get your questions ready”) and the letters RT, which stand for retweet; the original tweeter is identified (@GuardianBooks) and then their original tweet is included. If I had edited their original tweet to make it fit, I would have used the letters “MT” instead of “RT” to show that it is a “modified” tweet.
  • Thank people — post a thank you tweet including the user’s name any time someone follows you or “favorites” or retweets one of your posts.
  • Participate in Twitter chats. Huh… what? People have actual conversations? Read about hashtags in step 4 to understand this better.

It is important to know: manners really, really matter on Twitter and other social media. Try searching “twitter manners” or “twitter etiquette” for tips on how to behave. It’s generally as obvious as the golden rule — treat others as you would like to be treated. Be personable and friendly in interacting with others, but keep it professional. If you want to promote your blog or other work, do so sparingly and mixed in with other genuine conversation.

Step Four: Use Hashtags

Hashtags are those shortie expressions preceded by the # symbol. They are just plain ugly — but they work.

The key to finding and connecting conversation threads on Twitter is similar to how crab grass grows: ideas don’t follow that linear news feed, they have to branch sideways to connect to people outside your established flow. Hashtags attach your own posts to a conversation, pulling your tweet to where it will be seen by more than those following you — specifically by those interested in the topic you are posting about. And they help you find tweets and tweeters active in ideas you are interested in.

Even more awesome: hashtags pull people together to participate in Twitter chats. These are organized conversations that take place at set times throughout the week, on dozens of subjects. I participate in weekly chats with groups of writing and teaching professionals, and have jumped into a variety of chats on technology or conversations with favorite authors. Every chat has an assigned hashtag. You may discover them by reading your new feed of people you’re following or else I’ll share a few in the next post (link here, or find it at the end of this article).

Two major rules for hashtags:

  • Rule 1: whenever possible, attach one hashtag to the end of your post to connect it to the main topic it is about. “#MGlit” is a great one to add if I’m sharing a link about favorite middle grade authors. “#edtech” is a great one to add to a post asking for recommendations for ipad apps for learning state capitals.
  • Rule 2: unless you have a really, really good reason, never use more than 2-3 hashtags per post. It’s a bad ad strategy, like spam email. In that last example, I might add “#MGss” to specify middle grade social studies, but not more than that.

Okay, now is a good time: to find hashtags for topics or chats you are interested in, check out my second post: Twitter for Teachers: Tweeters & Hashtags to Follow.

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What About You?

Are you a teacher who has tried out Twitter or other social media forums? What questions do you have, or what advice would you share? 

Feel free to share your Twitter name in the comments so we can look you up as well. If you followed the steps here to get started, keep us posted on what works or hurdles you find.

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